Green, New York Style: A Sustainability Tour of the Big Apple

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Green, New York Style: A Sustainability Tour of the Big AppleThe Big Apple has moved decisively in the direction of being the green apple in recent years. Here’s the coolest green happenings in the big city.


The city has moved aggressively to create an infrastructure that encourages cycling as a form of commuting, both to alleviate traffic and air quality issues and to facilitate public health. In 2009, the NY DOT put out an accelerated goal of doubling bicycle commuting between 2007 and 2012, and tripling it by 2017. The 2012 goal was reached in 2011, a year ahead of schedule. The DOT publishes a NYC Bike Map every year and distributes it free of charge. There’s a pretty active bicycle community there, and an upcoming Five Boro Bike Tour in May.

In addition, NYC has the largest bike share system in the country. Over 10,000 bikes and 600 stations dot the landscape and allow riders to rent bikes by the hour to get around town. What I love most about this is that it was largely funded by corporate sponsorship (thanks Citi!). Why don’t we do more funding of green/sustainable public works and services with corporate sponsorship?

The commitment to bicycles and creating bike lane infrastructure has even helped drive bike commuting into normalcy in car-crazy New Jersey, with 47% of traffic on US Route 9W being bicycular (as opposed to vehicular??) in nature. Bikes even helped the city recover after Hurricane Sandy.

NYC flood Sandy cabs

In terms of vehicular traffic, the city installed its first solar powered electric vehicle charging station in 2009. The city has committed to buying 70,000 electric vehicles by 2015 for its municipal fleet. It got hybrid police cars in 2009 for fuel efficiency purposes. However, after a contest to determine what the future NYC cabbie would be driving, it ended up choosing a not-made-in-America Nissan that scored relatively low in green points after a Federal Judge ruled the city couldn’t force all cabs to be hybrids…boo Federal Judge guy.

The Ferry system also received a tremendous upgrade with a new 1400 horsepower Hornblower Hybrid Ferry that runs on hydrogen fuel cells, solar panels, and wind power, with some small assistance from cleaner diesel engines.


While Grand Central Station is a model of energy efficiency, some local residents are taking their energy efficiency seriously by…painting roofs white? That’s right–painting a roof white has a number of advantages, most specifically that it reduces urban heat islands…that is, the amount of overall heat resonating around a specific space. When roofs are black, they absorb more heat, and therefore all the buildings in the surrounding area have to work harder to cool their occupants. The Manhattan Young Democrats and the Sierra Club launched a White Roof Project, which is helping the city reduce summer energy use 10-30%.

Green, New York Style: A Sustainability Tour of the Big Apple

In terms of energy development, last year, New York City, not exactly the blindingly bright, I-gotta-wear-shades New Mexico desert, reached 8.4 MW of installed solar capacity. It reached its 2015 goal set by the “Solar America City” program 3 years early.

Cornell University in December announced its plans to create 1.8 MW of solar, 500 geothermal wells, and fuel cell capacity that, combined, could reduce Cornell’s energy consumption on campus by 75%.

And the tidal power turbine in the East River has successfully been producing clean energy virtually for free since its installation in 2008. Floating eco-docks have been toyed with, which can help create habitat for wildlife, green space for pedestrians, and energy for NYC’s streets.

The city’s utility, Con Edison, beefed up its infrastructure with an aggressive smart grid update in 2010. Along with some legal changes to building codes put in place in the same year, building codes in NYC are increasingly going green. Part of the new codes? Vacancy sensors that allow energy infrastructure to power down when no one is using them.

Air and Water Quality

The city’s history in this arena are not its strong suit in terms of sustainability. In 2008, responding to citizen requests, the city rolled out a comprehensive air quality monitoring program. The difference with this new rollout and previous air quality monitoring? The new program took air samples at street level…you know, where people are actually breathing, as opposed to from the top of 40 story buildings, where previous samples had been taken.

The city also invested $4.6 million to clean up its stormwater system.


Local food is not as hard as you might think for NYC residents. After all the Hudson Valley is some of the best and most productive farmland in the country, and is a mere 60 or so miles from the city. But of course, with 10 million mouths to feed, the city is not stopping there. Planners have proposed 1200 acres of rooftop gardens across the city.

Brooklyn Grange Roof Garden

Integrating that kind of farmland directly into the most densely populated city in America might not feed the entire city (not even remotely close, according to this discussion in Permaculture Magazine), but it certainly cuts the footprint, the dependency, and the processed food imports for thousands of city dwellers. (Here’s a fun interview with Brooklyn Grange, the largest rooftop farm, in case you’re interested.)  City Harvest, a nongovernmental organization, collects 42 million pounds of excess food per year from across NYC and redistributes it to the city’s hungry with a fleet of trucks and bikes.

Green Business

The city is buzzing with urban revitalization, social entrepreneurship, and young, creative, intellectual do-gooders with just-crazy-enough-to-work business plans to solve societal issues and make money at the same time. As a result, there are several green business incubators in New York City that regularly accept submissions from entrepreneurs and offer startup assistance to those working in the green space.

The Green Festival, a project of Green America and Global Exchange, has even found its way to the Javits Center North in Manhattan for earth day, April 20-21. Last year, I had a booth there selling my green business books and sustainability board games, and had a blast checking out all these awesome happenings in NYC. I can’t wait to go back, as truly, I <3 NY.

For more information, check out the mayor’s sustainability indicators here.

Donald Bowers Photography /

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