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Has City of Syracuse Greenwashed its Sustainability Plan?

Has City of Syracuse Greenwashed its Sustainability Plan?

Five years ago, the city of Syracuse, New York jumped on the green design bandwagon by developing a Sustainability Plan meant to reduce energy consumption while preserving and protecting the environment. According to this plan, the goal of the Syracuse government is to reduce emissions from city operations 40% by the year 2020. While there

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Five years ago, the city of Syracuse, New York jumped on the green design bandwagon by developing a Sustainability Plan meant to reduce energy consumption while preserving and protecting the environment. According to this plan, the goal of the Syracuse government is to reduce emissions from city operations 40% by the year 2020. While there have been no updates on the status of sustainability at Syracuse with regard to this document, certain focal points of the city have made significant progress on the green design front. Destiny USA, a large shopping, and entertainment complex, known even by non-locals, achieved LEED Gold certification in 2012, the same year that the Syracuse Sustainability plan was published, making it the largest LEED Gold certified shopping center in the country. A plethora of articles on Syracuse University’s sustainability page explain all of the ways in which students and staff have tried to have a positive impact on the environment; this includes collaborations between the University-run Center of Excellence and local institutions in order to improve energy efficiency and create greener communities. Clearly, parts of Syracuse are doing a great job with promoting and implementing green design. But what about the rest of the city?

One of Syracuse’s main tourist websites,, has a page dedicated to the Green Side of Syracuse. “Have You Met Syracuse’s Green Side?” it asks. Following, is an infographic presenting the many ways in which Syracuse is green, clean, and most importantly, real. “Real people. Real history,” the subtitle states.

Unfortunately, a lot of the information provided on Syracuse’s Green Side page has absolutely nothing to do with being green. Sure, it discusses how the Center of Excellence is a LEED-Platinum building and the fact that they are cleaning up the once incredibly polluted Onondaga Lake. A bit further down the page, however, this infographic about green initiatives goes on to talk about seemingly irrelevant topics such as the popularity of Dinosaur BBQ and the city’s infamous drinking culture (“Did we mention Syracuse comes in 6th on the list of the top 10 drinking towns…?”) What do these Syracuse attractions have to do with being green?

Destiny USA, a shopping center that is known throughout the reason, is both large and popular enough to inspire similar, LEED-friendly centers throughout the nation.

One of the few sections of the page that does focus on environmental sustainability talks specifically about “green business.” “Local leaders, from students to CEOs, have turned Syracuse into an incubator for green business and development, setting a standard for the rest of the country,” says Rick Fedrizzi, President, and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council. In a world where “greenwashing” is now an infamous phenomenon, one can’t help but be skeptical of the fact that the words “green” and “business” are placed side-by-side in this context.

For those who are unaware of the term, “greenwashing,” a parody of “brainwashing,” is the deceptive use of marketing and public relations strategies to falsely promote the idea that an organization is environmentally-friendly in its goals and policies. In other words, greenwashing is used by companies to convince people that they are being environmentally-friendly, even if they are not. Examples of greenwashing include Coca-Cola using green cans while still draining water supplies around the world for the production of their products, or Huggies putting out a “pure and natural” line even though over 92% of disposable diapers like theirs end up in a landfill. Since the publishing of ecologist Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, the United States has shifted into the modern green movement which allows us, as a society, to be more aware of the ways in which we can help the planet. However, some capitalist organizations may be taking this a bit too far in the name of earning extra profit.

So, why would an organization try greenwashing? The answer is money. It is always about making money, and money comes from tourists. In the case of Syracuse, the majority of tourism comes from people who visit Syracuse University. The college recently released a report stating that the University brings about $1.1 billion into Central New York every year. They also estimated that 84% of Syracuse students would not live in Central New York were it not for the school. Maybe it is a coincidence that Syracuse University, the most well-known part of Syracuse, is at the forefront of sustainable design in the city. But what starts off as a well-meaning attempt at preserving the environment can easily cross the line into a business that simply wants to promote itself and make money, and that is what we, as a city, want to avoid.

Syracuse University, one of Syracuse's most well-known landmarks, has an established U.S Green Building Council Students Group (USGBC) that collaborates with the LEED organization.

To clarify, the problem is not that Syracuse isn’t making an effort to promote sustainable design. The issue lies in the fact that only certain parts of the city are getting attention with regard to sustainable design, and that other parts are being promoted as environmentally progressive even if they are actually being neglected with regard to sustainability. Syracuse may be falling into the trap of greenwashing, and posts like the one on the Visit Syracuse page are just the beginning. This speaks to a much larger issue in which sustainability, the endurance, and preservation of biological systems and natural resources, has become a buzzword that is thrown around in the name of attracting visitors. Today, the word “sustainable” takes on a much broader definition, and is now synonymous with “clean,” “modern,” “spacious,” and even just “green.” Parts of Syracuse are doing a great job with “going green,” but the city still has a long way to go.

So what can Syracuse do in order to progress rather than just put on a green façade?

In order to become a greener city, Syracuse, New York needs to start with its architecture. Buildings are a major contributor to this nation’s carbon footprint, especially if these buildings are not properly maintained. As a community, Syracuse focuses a lot on Syracuse University, SUNY ESF, and Destiny USA since they provide the city with the largest amount of tourism, and, by extension, the largest amount of money. However, the city has a lot of abandoned buildings due to its declining population over the past few decades. As opposed to only creating and transforming new buildings in certain loci, Syracuse needs to modify its existing deteriorating architecture. Abandoned buildings can be restored or occupied, or taken down to create more parks and green space. When it comes to the sustainability crisis, architecture is Syracuse’s problem, but also its solution.

Are there examples of greenwashing in your community? Do you think that your town is making a positive contribution to the sustainability movement? What more could be done? Share your thoughts and your city’s stories in the comments area below.

Credits: Images by Sukhmann Aneja. Data linked to sources.

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Third year student at the Syracuse University School of Architecture. I am interested in exploring the sociopolitical aspects of architecture through writing and I'll be sharing insights from Bridgewater, New Jersey and Syracuse, New York.

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