Sustainable City

Jeremy Lehrer

Near the entrance of the exhibition Growing and Greening New York: PlaNYC and the Future of the City, there is a series of showerheads mounted on the wall. This is not, however, a showcase of modern design at MoMA. These low-flow fixtures represent an iconographic frontline in the City's effort to create an urban environment that is in better harmony with the natural environment.

In 2007, Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced PlaNYC, an outline for ensuring that the City remains livable and environmentally sustainable as it grows by an expected 1 million new residents by the year 2030. Water was one of the six major themes addressed in the plan, which outlined 127 initiatives relating to that and the other key issues of climate change, energy, land, air and transportation. Proposals included the provision of incentives for green roofs and the reduction of energy consumption by City government. With global warming a core concern, the PlaNYC authors set a goal of reducing New York City's carbon emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The plan would make New York the exemplar of a city that balances urban development with environmental sustainability.

Growing and Greening New York, on display now through April 22 at the Museum of the City of New York, details the myriad obstacles, pleasures, complexities and potential solutions related to this goal. Using the framework of specific hours of the day, the sharply designed exhibition highlights important issues relating to urban sustainability: the day’s first theme, water (7am), is followed by themes including commuting (8am), work (11am), leisure (3pm), shopping (6pm), housing and home (8pm) and the world (2am).

The exhibition surveys the fascinating statistics and compelling possibilities of the green present and future. Six turbines in the East River are currently generating 200 kilowatts of power used by a supermarket and a parking garage on Roosevelt Island; 300 of these turbines could power up to 8,000 homes. And the cumulative waste of the City's 1 million canines may one day be the fuel for a methane-driven power plant.

In the commuting section, we learn of the enormous benefits of the City's public transportation system and of the strategies the City is implementing to reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. Since the City hopes to double the number of bike commuters by 2015, the Department of Transportation has redesigned streets throughout the five boroughs to include designated bike lanes—Ninth Avenue between 14th and 34th Streets in Manhattan is one such project shown.

As the notion of ubiquitously bike-friendly City streets might suggest, the green idyll documented in the show is enchanting enough to make you hopeful, as are the achievements presented in several case studies of green architecture, ranging from the Bank of America Tower to the renovated Lion House at the Bronx Zoo. The Queens Botanical Garden is another eco-mascot, with its storm-water collection and filtration system, photovoltaic panels, composting toilets and geothermal heating and cooling.

While LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum certification is out of reach for the average apartment dweller in New York, the exhibition details down-to-green-earth strategies that all of us can easily undertake. By avoiding bottled water and buying food from greenmarkets—like the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket—and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), we can reduce the amount of embodied energy and resources used for our foodstuffs. When we conserve water, we save both water and energy, since water-treatment plants produce 14 percent of the City's greenhouse gas pollution. By riding a bike to work once a week, we reduce the City's carbon emissions. Those redesigning or redecorating can purchase recycled and reclaimed materials from the Bronx-based nonprofit ReBuilders Source.

One of PlaNYC's initiatives is to "Green the cityscape." Through this exhibition, visitors will be better informed, and perhaps more inspired, to do just that.