Building Resiliency Task Force, Food, Resiliency

Roundtable Recap
Floodproofing Strategies in NYC: Backup Plans and a Whole-Block Approach

No Comments Posted on 18 July 2013 by Cecil Scheib

On July 18, Urban Green Council hosted a Building Resiliency Task Force technical roundtable, Build Your Own Bathtub, featuring two Task Force members who were deeply involved in that process. They shared their experiences about specific NYC projects they’re working on as well as the more general challenges that buildings face as they prepare to protect themselves against flooding. Spirited discussion covered some of the crucial details needed to take a good idea – floodproofing with storm barriers to protect buildings in flood zones – into a reality that will keep structures safe during the next big storm.

Phillip White (Kohn Pedersen Fox) discussed how various floodproofing strategies are being used depending on site conditions and the desires of the owner. The building code is undergoing an update and the city issued emergency rules after Superstorm Sandy, so some things that were allowed if building permits were granted before the storm may no longer be – if you’re working on a project, check the code carefully before making any decisions. Phillip said one of his goals is to keep streets vibrant and attractive while strengthening walls or adding barriers; if this isn’t done, areas in flood zones are at risk of acquiring a “bunker-ish” look (my word, not his!). For example, perhaps specially designed glass in the building façade can be used, fish tank style, as part of the flood barrier. However, these new approaches sometimes need customized architectural solutions to hide supports and stanchions, so new designs can often incorporate resiliency improvements more elegantly than can retrofits.

Aine Brazil (Thornton Tomasetti) pointed out that in flood zones in Manhattan and elsewhere, many existing buildings are built right up to the property line. This can make adding external barriers a technical and permitting challenge. Even if these issues are resolved, there are still egress issues to consider; once removable barriers have been installed, provisions must be made for getting over them in case of emergency. This is a concern in all cases but especially if the wall is more than two or three feet high, as it can significantly add to the distance that temporary ramps would have to project into the street. One way or another, New York will have to address this problem in order to improve the resiliency of existing buildings in the city. Aine also brought up an easy-to- overlook but important point: when removable barriers are the chosen design solution, there is a unique operations and maintenance issue of stacking and storing the large panels (potentially hundreds of them) in between events. And they must be stored carefully – if just one panel is missing, the whole flood barrier system will be compromised.

Many audience members and the speakers acknowledged the unfortunate fact that even the best barriers can fail, so buildings should be prepared with secondary or backup strategies. This can include barriers for doorways (behind removable sidewalk flood barriers), sump pumps to deal with leakage from barriers, and good emergency planning that takes the worst-case scenario into account.

For me, one of the most interesting challenges posed is when a building is not freestanding and therefore can’t surround itself with barriers. In this case, water can enter the building through the party walls shared with neighbors, if those adjacent buildings are not protected themselves. This is the case in most of the city – and if you’re trying to protect just your own building, good luck trying to plug all the holes in those party walls on the block! One solution is to protect the block in its entirety, where all buildings could share in the cost and maintenance of removable barriers. This is a more resilient solution but adds an organizational challenge onto the already formidable architectural and engineering ones. However, if a workable way to share these barriers can be developed for whole blocks, many more buildings in our city will likely be protected, so it’s a task worth undertaking.

Finance, Food, Planning

The City as an Ecosystem

No Comments Posted on 30 April 2012 by Tom Jost

Given the stark reality that we are now in a time of deficit spending of the earth’s capital, it is imperative that we regard our economic systems as inextricably bound to ecosystems. The two words, ecology and economy— in fact, are derived from the same Greek root: eco, which means house.  Food systems are a primary example of the interaction of the two disciplines, and a closer look at food through the dual lenses of ecology and economy reveals many startling inefficiencies and even absurdities in how we currently grow, produce, distribute, consume and dispose of food.

Studying the lessons of wild ecosystems provides some valuable direction for redesigning efficient and non-depleting methods and practices for feeding humans.  As clever as we are, we have not yet developed technological processes that are better than nature for renewability.  All human-designed products and processes require a draw-down of the earth’s capital stock.  Wild ecosystems, in contrast, build organic material and resist stresses, performing this work on contemporary sunlight (as opposed to that embodied in fossil fuels) indefinitely and for free.

We have millennia of wisdom – embodied in wild ecosystems and human thought and experimentation – from which to learn.  To cite just one example, the practice of milpa agriculture in Mesoamerica has evolved over hundreds of generations into a mutually beneficial network whereby farmers temporally and spatially shift the growth of maize to feed local populations while sequentially regenerating small forest areas.

In our rapidly urbanizing world, can we design cities that more closely emulate dynamic and productive ecosystems like the milpa?  Perhaps agriculture, reinvented as a form of urban infrastructure, could offer such promise, particularly if combined with the multiple synergies of food production, biomass creation, CO2 reduction and sequestration, nutrient recycling, resource renewal and purification, economic revitalization and social vitality.

Author Carolyn Steel will kick-off a day of discussions about these issues at Transforming Cities: How Food Systems Shape Cities on May 2 by explaining her concept of Sitopia (food-place), an integrated design tool with which to address the complex challenges of present and future dwelling. We hope you will join us.


National Geographic Takes Green into the Cafeteria

No Comments Posted on 07 February 2011 by Yetsuh Frank

Check out this podcast and transcript of an interview with the Executive Chef at the National Geographic HQ in DC.  It speaks to the commitment of a progressive organization, but also talks frankly about the challenges of greening a food service for up to 1,000 people a day.  From Executive Chef Brian Horne:

Last year . . . we were actually able to generate a below-budgeted food cost, which was really, to me, a metric that showed it can be done.  It took a lot of work just to track down and find sources, and all of those things, but, at the end of the year, we actually were better in our food costs than when we were not as sustainable the year before.”


Michael Pollan on the Food Movement

No Comments Posted on 24 May 2010 by Yetsuh Frank

The farmers’ market at Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn

Michael Pollan has a fantastic survey of the rapidly growing food movement in the current New York Review of Books. As always, Pollan manages to illuminate a subject with many moving parts in a very small space.

He delivers a succinct history of the movement and describes the many facets of food activism, from environmental to public health issues to more esoteric but no less important subjects like community and democracy.  He points out that this breadth makes it an attractive focus for people on both the left and right of the political divide- one of the many reasons it is a subject with the capacity to really transform the political landscape.  Perhaps most importantly, he points out that locavore tendencies are often rooted in a desire to reformulate traditional consumer culture.  His finish is pretty good as well . . .

. . . food is invisible no longer and, in light of the mounting costs we’ve incurred by ignoring it, it is likely to demand much more of our attention in the future, as eaters, parents, and citizens. It is only a matter of time before politicians seize on the power of the food issue, which besides being increasingly urgent is also almost primal, indeed is in some deep sense proto- political. For where do all politics begin if not in the high chair?—at that fateful moment when mother, or father, raises a spoonful of food to the lips of the baby who clamps shut her mouth, shakes her head no, and for the very first time in life awakens to and asserts her sovereign power.

Local and sustainable food is a subject fairly well outside our focus here at Urban Green, where our eyes are typically trained on green buildings.  But of course most folks in both camps are pulling in the same direction.  We all want to reduce our impact on the environment and support systems that enable healthy (in every sense of the word) communities.  In recognition of this synergy, and cognizant that our shared missions are rarely discussed or acted upon, last year we developed a really remarkable event called Hungry New York.  We gathered 100 folks from both the local/sustainable food and green building communities for a local meal.  The audience included architects, farmers, bakers, engineers and everyone in between.  Hosted by City Bakery, our master of ceremony was English architect and author Carolyn Steel, whose book Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives was the inspiration for both the title and content of our event.  With a short talk from Carolyn as catalyst the dinner spurred myriad discussions and I am happy to report that a number of partnerships were formed that evening- resulting in quite a few unexpected collaborations.  It was a huge success and we are hoping to hold the second such event this October- and with any luck we’ll have Carolyn to lead the way once again.  Look out for more details in this space.

Climate Change, Food, Transportation


No Comments Posted on 23 February 2010 by Yetsuh Frank

This piece in the New York Times about Maersk slowing it’s sea going vessels to save fuel costs and reduce CO2 emissions caught our eye here at Urban Green not because it’s about buildings but because it relates to so many other subjects adjacent to sustainability: from slow food to organic urban development. It’s a great example of an organization examining their current practices and finding inefficiencies that exist solely due to inertia. Slowing their boats saves them money and doesn’t lose them any customers. How many more examples like this are out there?

Envisioning Low-Carbon Cities, Food

if you have to ask . . .

No Comments Posted on 08 December 2009 by Yetsuh Frank

Der Spiegel considers the feasibility of some of the stranger schemes to introduce urban farm skyscrapers.

Food, Landscape, Planning

Carolyn Steel at TED

No Comments Posted on 04 November 2009 by Yetsuh Frank

Carolyn SteelIf you missed Carolyn Steel’s presentation at our Master Class in May this year, or if you couldn’t make it to our incredible Hungry New York event that same week you can now get a snapshot of the subject, if not the events themselves: Carolyn Steel’s talk at the superfabulous TED conference in July is now available on their site, here.

Carolyn’s remarkable book, Hungry City, explores the way in which food networks shape the development of cities and asks how a better understanding of this relationship can positively effect the way we inhabit urban places in the future.

She acted as the principal facilitator of Hungry New York (named, obviously, in honor of her book), where we gathered more than 100 people from the green building and sustainable food communities for a sustainable meal at City Bakery.  Many of the purveyors whose foodstuffs we enjoyed spoke that evening about the differences between their local products and the items you might find at a supermarket chain, and about the challenges they face in what might best be described as the battle to provide local, sustainable food to our fair city.  Carolyn’s work brilliantly distills this complicated issue into something, err, digestible.  Take 15 minutes to watch this talk.  You won’t be disappointed.

© 2009 Urban Green Blog.