NYC’s Buildings and Streets Fail to Meet the Challenges of Climate Change

ByIda G. Payne

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“The city is still tinkering with designs that started to seem old more than a decade ago. We’re moving too slowly (while our cars still go too fast).”

Jeanmarie Evelly

The Manhattan skyline from Queens.

A new “NYC Climate Dashboard” online confirms that New York City is not doing enough to meet its climate goals. What’s worse, the goals aren’t enough for the challenges we face.

A growing consensus among scientists says the world has only until the end of this decade to avert catastrophic climate change. Here in New York, our biggest contributions to greenhouse gasses come from our buildings and our driving. As an architect and urban designer, I know we’re missing some easy but significant changes we can make.

We’re staring into the abyss, but building and driving like it’s 1999. For the sake of future generations, we have to do better.

We’re building energy-wasting towers

New York City and New York State work with the richest developers, promoting and subsidizing with tax credits, upzonings, and public-private partnerships the construction of glass supertalls that are triple-threats to the environment. First, the towers have high-tech glass that uses chemicals to decrease heat gain from the sun. Manufacturing the glass walls wastes a lot of energy.

Second, despite the high-tech glass, a properly-insulated masonry wall conserves far more energy than all but the very best glass walls. No glass wall can be raised to the level of insulation of the best solid wall with “punched” windows.

Raise the glass wall up in the air, exposed to summer sun and winter winds on all sides of the building, and the situation is even worse. You can see this in the Energy Star ratings New York City gives buildings new and old.

The Energy Star scale goes from 1 to 100, with 100 being the best. A famous new luxury tower in Tribeca frequently called “the Jenga building” scored a 3. My 116-year-old apartment building got an 85. Many people I talked to thought every building got at least a 30 just for existing, similar to the SAT scores.

A better-known rating system is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program which began in 1993, run by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). LEED measures more than energy use, with a point system based on 10 categories. A building with a failing score in the Energy Star System can be a LEED-certified building with enough total points from different elements like superior indoor air quality and bicycle racks.

LEED does not penalize the third big problem with the glass towers still rising in New York: that no one knows how long the chemicals in the high-tech glass will last, because their design and composition are regularly updated. We won’t know how long the new composites work until they start failing. But at some point, their performance will decline so significantly that building owners will have to throw away the curtain wall and all that embodied energy with it.

“The greenest building is an old building,” is an increasingly common phrase. They use less energy (check their city ratings), and they contain embodied energy we throw in the trash. When it comes to building, New York City needs new priorities. There is no reason why we have to build these destructive glass towers.

Stop building supertalls and glass towers

When we look at the facts, stopping the construction of glass towers and supertalls is low-hanging fruit. It might seem radical, but look at what Mayor Bill de Blasio said three years ago: “We are going to introduce legislation to ban the classic glass and steel skyscrapers that have contributed so much to global warming,” our former mayor declared on Earth Day 2019. “They have no place in our city or our Earth.”

Unfortunately, that was the last time we heard an elected official publicly say that. One can’t help but wonder if de Blasio got a call from his Big Real Estate donors. Big Real Estate around the world likes the glass walls, because they’re simple to design (the architect usually picks them out of a catalog), cheap to manufacture, and come in a semi-fabricated form that’s easy to install.

Supertalls in New York are either “Class A” office towers—office buildings with very large floors too big to be naturally lit or ventilated—or super-luxury apartment buildings. Only the most expensive apartments can cover the high cost of constructing very tall towers. And supertalls drive up land prices, making the land too expensive for any housing except luxury housing.

No one needs the supertalls. In 2022, post-Covid, office buildings in New York have a 20 percent vacancy rate, and the future is a mystery. Some large corporations like Chase plan to cut their office space by at least 30 percent.

Supertall residential buildings in Manhattan were once super-profitable, but they were overbuilt, producing a glut in the market that resulted in unsold units, even after steep discounts. The two most profitable buildings in the history of New York are two super-luxury apartment buildings that are neither supertall nor sheathed in glass: 15 Central Park West and 220 Central Park South.

Both buildings are clad in limestone rather than glass. The architects of both buildings, Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA), will no longer design glass apartment buildings in New York. They can do that because their designs for 15 CPW and 220 Central Park South were so successful. RAMSA has 15 apartment buildings in New York that are built or under construction.

We drive too much

The average New York City household doesn’t own a car. In Manhattan, more than three-quarters of households don’t own a car. Yet we have a New York City Department of Transportation that’s primarily a Department of Traffic. Like every other DOT in the country, the NYC DOT does more to induce traffic than reduce it, prioritizing moving cars into, out of, and through the city.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a congestion zone for Manhattan in 2007, with tolls to reduce driving and increase revenue for mass transit. The NYS Legislature killed the proposal. Fifteen years later, it’s hard to say precisely who’s still holding it up. Gov. Kathy Hochul could probably work with others to push it through, but she and the MTA recently announced that we should study the situation for another 16 months. We don’t need studies, we need major changes to the status quo.

Eight years ago, Mayor de Blasio committed the city to the Vision Zero program, with a pledge to reduce traffic deaths in New York City to zero by 2024. That was quietly changed to 2030, but the truth is that the streets we build now will never get us to zero deaths. In 2022, traffic and traffic deaths in New York City are the worst they’ve been since Vision Zero began.

The NYC DOT was the most radical in the country when it made changes like taking road space at the intersection of Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and 23rd Street away from cars and bringing in tables and chairs. The evolution of the revolution has been slow since then.

The improvements are obvious. We have CitiBike and lots of protected bike lanes. Post-Covid, we have Open Streets, Open Restaurants, and parklets. Mayor Eric Adams has pledged nearly a billion dollars toward better bike lanes, sidewalks, and curbside uses. But the city is still tinkering with designs that started to seem old more than a decade ago. We’re moving too slowly (while our cars still go too fast).

Chuck Marohn, an engineer who’s the founder of the popular nationwide movement known as “Strong Towns,” proposes in his book “Confessions of a Recovering Traffic Engineer” that we take the design of streets away from traffic engineers.

“The underlying values of the transportation system are not the American public’s values,” Marohn wrote in his book. “They are not even human values. They are values unique to a profession that has been empowered with reshaping an entire continent around a new, experimental idea of how to build a human habitat.” His state Board of Engineering Licensure is suing him.

New York’s first “people-first” street (one short block of Broadway between 24th and 25th streets) is a non-place where drivers are more comfortable than people walking or cycling. The same is true of another one-block example, on University Place south of 14th Street. The NYC DOT is dominated by 5,000 traffic engineers. By all appearances, designing streets for city living is not in their DNA. The best new street designs in New York City have been designed by architects or urban designers for Business Improvement Districts.

Streets for living

“The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” the great Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman once said. “To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

He’s talking about the traffic lights, traffic signs, crosswalks, turn arrows, white and yellow elastomeric paint, red lanes, “Fresh Kermit” (green) lanes, and all the other detritus of traffic engineers that makes drivers comfortable going faster.

European cities are quickly removing a lot of that. Most cities in the Netherlands and Denmark are decades ahead of American cities in reducing traffic and making safer streets for all, including cyclists and pedestrians. But after Covid began, every major European city responded to the pandemic by making more livable streets. American cities produce five to six times as much carbon gas as European cities, and the performance gap is widening.

London has Low Traffic Neighborhoods and a commitment to becoming the most walkable city in Europe. Paris is moving towards “the 15-minute City,” where all daily needs will be within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. Brussels and Milan are changing just as quickly. Helsinki and Oslo have cut pedestrian deaths to zero. Worth noting: most European “streets for people” are not designed by traffic engineers.

A New York non-profit called OpenPlans that funds groups like Streetsblog and StreetopiaUWS has proposed a New York City Office of Public Space Management that would work with the NYC DOT to manage public space, of which streets make up 70 percent in the city.

Why stop there? European streets are safer and better for city life because they don’t put traffic engineers in charge. DOTs are powerful in America because they control enormous budgets. But the Biden administration is sending billions of dollars to cities and states for infrastructure projects. New York has Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is strong on transportation issues. He has said he would like to see New York be more like Amsterdam, and our senator secured what he called “an effing lot of money” for street work.

People who do the urban design work I do frequently hear, “We’re not Amsterdam.” Well, New York was once called “Nieuw Amsterdam,” and the streets in Lower Manhattan were laid out in the 17th century by Dutch people. I worked on a planning team for the Financial District Neighborhood Association to “Amsterdamize” many of the streets below City Hall.

Now is the time for change, and no other city in America is less reliant on cars. If we reduce the number of cars on our streets, almost every residential neighborhood in Manhattan could have a network of streets where people come first. The Financial District and Greenwich Village are easy places for Slow Streets. Once people saw what could be done, neighborhoods in Brooklyn and The Bronx would soon be calling for their own Slow Street plans.

Why stop there? All our old cities with good public transportation are natural places for a transformation away from a life based on driving. Philadelphia, Boston, New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle are examples of cities with many easily walkable neighborhoods where significant numbers of residents already live car-free. And there are countless American cities and towns that have at least one or two walkable neighborhoods.

Time to change

In 1969, Norman Mailer ran for Mayor. He wanted communities to control development, with housing in particular rebuilt rather than razed (that would be useful if we stopped building glass supertalls that no one but Big Real Estate wants).

Part of Mailer’s platform called for the end of private cars in Manhattan. Free transit and free bicycle sharing would have connected to garages outside Manhattan. Mailer said it would reduce pollution on the island by sixty percent.

Half a century later, the world has passed the tipping point for turning climate change around. We are stumbling into irreparable damage to life on earth. We need to reduce automobile use for the health of the planet and people, but we continue with the status quo. With the best mass transit and the most walkable neighborhoods in North America, we should be a model for moving forward.

New York City has some of the best policies and programs in America. But unless we rapidly change the way we use our streets and the way we build, we are punishing future generations. The good news is that the changes that will make the future better for all will make New York City better now, for us.

John Massengale is an architect and urban designer in New York City

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this opinion piece was previously published by  CommonEdge.


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