Despite being one of the biggest cities in the world, New York has made great strides to also be one of the greenest. Compared to many other American cities, NYC consumes far less fossil fuels because of the access to public transit and a relatively bike and walking friendly grid layout. We have well-preserved parks, gardens and other green spaces that flourish under protection. But despite our tendencies towards being ecologically efficient, NYC produces and obscene amount of waste amongst its 8 million citizens—a population that continues to grow-- every year. Is it possible for a large, dense urban landscape to be waste-free and self-sufficient? What does a sustainable New York City look like?
We hear words like “sustainability” tossed around in the media, but does the average person know what it means and what is at stake if climate change escalates? Sustainability is maintaining the cycle of life by restoring all of the resources we sow. It’s prioritizing the delicate balance between humans, animals, plants and the earth itself because so many different ecosystems depend on each other. For every plant we chop down and harvest, we must regrow. Every fossil fuel we used must be replaced with renewable energy sources. As humans, we find ourselves taking far more than we replace, and this has wrought hazardous effects.
The discussion of climate change has been largely missing, and even dismissed, from this election season, and the incoming administration seems to have little concern for conserving the earth’s resources and slowing the toxicity of pollution. The Earth continues to make space for everyone as its population grows, but its resources get scarcer and scarcer. The vulnerability of the planet and how this is contributing to rising poverty and hunger is of pertinence. We previously talked about how much food goes to waste in New York City while many go without. The solution is to raise our own food where we live, but in a space as congested as NYC, our only option is not to grow out, but up.
Much of New York is succumbing to a destiny of condo-ization. While housing, especially shelter that is affordable to all New Yorkers, is important, land also needs to be appropriated for farming, enough so that it can sustain every citizen of this city. To reconcile the need to harvest our own food with the lack of farmable land, the development of rooftop gardens and greenhouses have been implemented. Places like the Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project took matters into their own hands by creating rooftop gardens to provide for members of their own communities. Gathering places like churches are home to these green spaces that invest in giving back by way of food pantries. Locally grown produce harvested by volunteers puts food into the hands of those who need it most as quickly as possible, and all it takes is a kiddie pool, seeds, soil and hard work. It’s a relatively low-cost alternative to a food system that is investing in making money, not feeding the hungry. Environmentalists have proposed to expand plans like this on a mass scale so that they may benefit a larger number of New Yorkers. Some have suggested green roofs for all NY buildings, some of which would include “livestock towers” for farm animals. In addition, these rooftops would be utilized to manage storm water, which would result in less flooding. These gardens and greenhouses could also provide an opportunity for education for a new generation of urban farmers.
In efforts to reduce fossil fuel usage even more, a sustainable NYC would use increased solar energy by using solar panels for electricity and to heat water in addition to building and making existing buildings green that are well insulated to hold the cool when it’s hot out and to keep the heat in when it’s cold out. Installing central air would be hugely beneficial in saving energy as opposed to the cool air that go wasted from air conditioners.
In the vein of using natural resources, wind energy could come into play by using turbines on buildings throughout the island’s waterfronts as well as tall buildings in the interior, as well as implementing free-standing turbines in commercial and manufacturing areas. It’s also important to help maintain existing wildlife at these waterfronts, as the city has set up protections to ensure its safety from industrialization and erosion.
With the creation of organizations like CitiBike and organizations focused on making bike safety an important issue in the city’s discourse, New York has come a long way towards making itself a cyclist (and pedestrian)-friendly community, but it has ways to go. Even more congested areas like midtown are making plans for expanding pedestrian-friendly streets and public spaces, and preserving landmarks and creating green spaces. While use of the subways vastly reduces greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, creating walking and biking spaces for more people will help in that regard even more.
It’s crucial to ensure that NYC is not just a sustainable city, but a resilient one. That’s why when 2012’s Hurricane Sandy hit the country’s east coast, efforts were ramped to help protect the city against flooding and other natural disasters. As the city is in the process of rebuilding its underground transportation system to better accommodate violent weather, the city also hopes to retrofit its buildings within flood zones to withstand strong winds and rain and to better protect citizens.
As the city strives to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% in 2050, its goal is lofty and there will be much work to attain it. But a safe New York is a thriving New York, one that will protect all of its citizens against the changing environment and continue to build its community.
For more information on sustainability and preservation of the environment, check out our content partner Wildlife Conservation Society, which serves to protect animals and landscapes from endangerment around the world.
Subscribe to the NYXT newsletter
Learn about upcoming events, volunteer opportunities, and new organizations looking for your help.