Origins of Green: New York City’s pioneering role in scaling sustainable building design and practice

by Laurie Kerr and Roger Platt

Today New York City is a leader in sustainable building and practice, but the decades-old history of its pioneering role in green design often goes untold.

Roof detail of HOK’s St. George Ferry Terminal, completed in 2005. Photo: Adrian Wilson.

Today we take for granted that dense urban living is less resource-intensive and therefore greener than its rural and suburban counterparts. Indeed, the average New Yorker is responsible for roughly one-third of the carbon emissions of the average American, according to the 2015 Inventory of New York City Greenhouse Gas Emissions. This is due largely to pervasive public transportation and small apartments with shared walls that insulate one another. Moreover, cities are beginning to supersede state and national governments as the creative cauldrons of effective, large-scale environmental policies. The innate greenness of cities is now so broadly accepted that it’s hard to remember that not too long ago, everyone believed the exact opposite. Cities were decadent, polluted, and artificial, and the countryside was wholesome, clean, and natural, as exemplified in two comments by Frank Lloyd Wright: “To look at the cross-section of any plan of a big city is to look at something like the section of a fibrous tumor” and “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”

This is the little-known story of how New York City architects and their enlightened clients, eventually supported by city and state officials, inverted that paradigm, brought the environment into the city, and scaled sustainability over the course of three decades.

Back in the 1970s, New York City was moving toward a crisis point that overtly exposed its highly toxic environment. Along with its economic and social woes, the city was an environmental catastrophe. Its air was filthy due to coal- and oil-burning furnaces, waste-burning incinerators, and vehicles without emissions controls, and its great harbor was fouled by the dumping of raw sewage nearby at sea. At that point, it would have been hard to imagine that cities—particularly traditional dense cities—had environmental benefits.

Back in the 1970s, New York City was moving toward a crisis point that overtly exposed its highly toxic environment.

Many New Yorkers embraced the countercultural movements of the late ’60s and ’70s and looked outside urban areas for a greener alternative. In America’s great transcendentalist tradition, they renounced city life, joined back-to-the-land communes, and cultivated rural self-reliance. Out of this individualistic, off-the-grid strain of the counterculture came many of the first experiments in green buildings, typically small passive solar houses, often based on vernacular models and constructed of natural materials. The era’s bible, The Whole Earth Catalog, featured low-energy houses made of rammed earth and straw bales—technologies that would have been decidedly out of place in a dense urban environment like, say, Times Square. Tinged with a rural utopianism, these early experiments seemed inapplicable and therefore irrelevant to the vast building stock of the nation’s struggling cities.

Paradoxically, perhaps, the early 1960s also saw social activism that would help later generations rediscover the great strengths of cities. Jane Jacobs, the famous writer/activist, stood her ground when mainstream planners were plotting to demolish huge swaths of dense traditional neighborhoods and replace them with hygienic “towers in the park.” Her successful battles to save Lower Manhattan’s neighborhoods, including stopping Robert Moses’s plan for a four-lane highway through Washington Square Park, are rightly recognized as the turning point when people started to appreciate dense, disorderly cities again—at least enough to stop tearing them down. In line with this more progressive strain of urbanism came three small but revolutionary New York City architectural projects in the late ’80s and early ’90s demonstrating that cities, too, were part of the environment and green buildings could actually be a positive element for that environment.

BKSK Architects’s Queens Botanical Garden, completed in 2007. Photo: Jeff Goldberg.

Article exerpt from Summer 2018 issue of Oculus magazine, AIA New York’s quarterly print publication. Read the full article here.


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