Because Green Goes With Everything

- NY Times - Debriefing - 2/3/2013

Ron Shiffman, an Israeli-born, Bronx-raised urban planner and a Park Sloper long before the Slope was chic, has spent half a century trying to make New York a more livable city. The journalist Jack Newfield once wrote that Mr. Shiffman ďhas saved more New York neighborhoods than Robert Moses has destroyed.Ē

Many of Mr. Shiffmanís fellow New Yorkers would agree. He is a former member of the New York CityPlanning Commission and the recipient of the 2012 Jane Jacobs Medal for Lifetime Leadership. A burly, voluble bear of a man, Mr. Shiffman is at 74 also deeply engaged in of-the-moment issues. His efforts to make New Yorkís residential neighborhoods more environmentally healthy have resonated throughout the city.

Q Is green real estate a fad?

A On the contrary, itís a necessity. With our mass transit, density and good bones, New York has the framework for being a more sustainable place. But if we donít take advantage of these benefits, weíll suffer. And as we learned from Hurricane Sandy, we have to develop good plans. We have to adapt to rising sea levels and to more severe storms, which will determine how and where we build. We have to create buildings that are both resilient and sustainable.

Q What are the benefits of making New York a greener city?

A Making New York greener will make it more pleasant. It will lead to a vastly improved environment, one thatís more beautiful and has more open spaces where people can gather. There will be more trees and plants to absorb water, reduce heat from sidewalks, provide more shade and have a cooling effect on hot days.

Q Some people think that a greener New York is simply a matter of sealing up windows so heat doesnít escape. Whatís your answer to them?

A Thereís a lot of misinformation out there. Avoiding heat loss certainly results in a healthier environment and makes buildings cheaper to operate. But the larger issues involve reducing and recycling waste and reducing our need for natural resources. And of course less waste means less pollution.

Q Given its excellent mass transit, is New York greener than other cities?

A In terms of consumption of fossil fuels, New York compares very well to other cities around the world. It doesnít rank as high as many cities in Europe or Asia, but it ranks better than nearly every city in America. Houston is far more auto-dependent than New York. Another benefit for New York is its density, thanks largely to its mass transit system. The new bike routes also make a big difference. But thereís an optimal level of density. You donít want to overburden the transit system or to build where a transit system doesnít exist, as happened with some of the new development along the Brooklyn waterfront.

Q Is New York going green fast enough?

A No place is going green fast enough. But the danger is that because people feel that they canít do enough, they throw up their hands and do nothing.

Q In terms of being a green building, whatís better ó a tower or low-rise?

A Itís not an issue. You can have low-rise buildings that are environmentally sound ó look at Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, with its interior courtyards. But although density is important, the solution isnít just to create more density. Parts of New York are too dense. There has to be optimal density, and that depends on a proper infrastructure.

Q What can average New Yorkers do to make their buildings greener?

A A lot. They can buy nontoxic cleaners and water-based paint, and get rid of all the toxic hazardous materials like turpentine under their sinks. One reason the Rockaways were so polluted after Sandy is that peopleís basements were filled with hazardous materials. They can make their hot-water systems more efficient. They can paint a black roof white so it reflects heat and keeps their house cooler.

Q If you had one message for New Yorkers who want to make the city greener, what would it be?

A Iím not good at sound bites. But Iíd tell them that going green is not something to fear but something to embrace, something that will protect their children and grandchildren.

Q Whatís your answer to New Yorkers who donít believe that climate change is a problem?

A Iíd reframe the argument. Iíd ask them: Do you want to pay less for energy? Do you want to live in a building with more light and fresher air? Do you want a cleaner city, one with less soot? Do you want to have to depend on a car to get around, especially as you get older, the way you do in places like New Rochelle? Set aside the issue of climate change. Think about what will make your living conditions better.

Q Are there places in the city where environmental changes are working well?

A The area around Hunts Point and the Bronx River is a good example. Theyíve cleaned up the river. Theyíve rerouted trucks. There are planted medians that make the area healthier, and tree pits that capture water. And because this is a working-class neighborhood, working-class New Yorkers are benefiting.

Another success story is the former West Side Highway area, with its parks, its bikers, its runners. The area smells better, it looks better, and the traffic moves well.

The best thing you can do for the environment is maintain and retrofit existing buildings, as people have been doing in Brooklyn neighborhoods. And very modest efforts can make a difference too. At my house we bought rain barrels, which cost less than $20 or $30 apiece, to store rainwater. Instead of the rainwater going into the city sewer system, it goes into the rain barrels and we run hoses to the backyard to water our plants.

Q Whatís the price tag for a greener city?

A Studies show that with a green building, you can save 20 to 70 percent in operating costs for items like fuel, electricity and repairs. With more greenery, you lower heating and air-conditioning costs, a big issue now that we have more 100-plus-degree days a year.

Q What are some other of the cityís environmental bright spots?

A In 1995, the city had one working farm. Today there are two dozen community-run farms, and half a dozen high-end restaurants grow organic food on their rooftops. There are lots of good buildings coming up, like Via Verde in the Bronx. At the Brooklyn Navy Yard, small manufacturers are creating new green products like furniture made from recycled wood.

Q How do we reconcile becoming a greener city with being a growing city ó notably all those luxury apartment towers going up in Manhattan?

A We need to talk not just about growth but about creating a more livable environment. The issue isnít buildings but urban streets, and that involves not only transportation but a combination of planning, urban design, architecture and landscape architecture.

Q You seem to have retained much of the idealism of your youth ó the belief that New York can be a better city. Why has that idealism stayed with you?

A Iíve had a unique opportunity. As a teacher, Iíve always worked with young people, and Iíve always worked with real people ó not just bureaucrats or academics ó to solve real problems. Iíve been moved by their needs and their creativity to find new solutions.