Considering New York City, New York (NYC) contains 5.2 billion ft2 of built space parceled out among a million buildings, and that the building sector emits 79% of the city’s greenhouse gases, the importance of sustainability in its built environment is paramount. The Bloomberg administration’s 2007 PlaNYC effort, a comprehensive plan for the City’s largest issues to 2030, is arguably the most environmentally progressive city plan of recent years. While NYC has worked hard to establish itself as a “green” leader, it is unfortunately not immune to the issues that beleaguer sustainability efforts elsewhere. Some of the biggest contemporary barriers to sustainable development in NYC may include:
- Social and psychological misconceptions about the benefits of green building. The obstacles faced by the green building movement are no longer technological and economic – green technologies are abundant, and their prices are falling all the time. A bigger problem is people’s common inability to calculate future paybacks on present investments. Also, many people see economic competitiveness and environmental consideration as mutually exclusive, which is often a false dichotomy;
- An attitude in American private development that favors short-term profit over long-term planning. In short, capitalism and neoliberalism dominate;
- A lack of coordination between NYC’s multiple levels of governance. While NYC is committed to making sustainable changes, they are bound by the laws and funding of the state and federal governments. For example, New York State did not approve the City’s controversial proposal to introduce congestion pricing in Manhattan, which the Mayor claimed was a keystone of PlaNYC;
- The City’s inability to mandate high-efficiency materials and products. It’s illegal because it violates interstate commerce law and risks inducing monopolies by companies that make particular products over others;
- The exclusivity of LEED certification. Obtaining LEED standards for a building is costly, which creates problems of access and equity. Architects and engineers experienced in green building understand that LEED is only really meant for the top 10-20% of the building market.
What other barriers to sustainability might be holding New York City and other communities back? And more importantly, what can be done to overcome them?
(All images and research linked to source, except the last two bullet points – these are from an interview by the author with Chris Garvin, co-founder of Terrapin Bright Green.)