Sustainability for the Majority

Sustainability for the Majority

by Jordana Vasquez

The topic of sustainability in the built environment is not often discussed in the media as having a direct link to minorities and communities of color. In the last few years, however, there has been a noticeable shift in market trends as many actors in the built environment try to meet the demands of consumers seeking more environmentally-friendly products and policies. No longer is the perception of going green in the built environment seen as a luxury but rather as a fundamental need for human well-being (regardless of ZIP codes).

Via Verde Housing Complex, Bronx, NY - Designed by Grimshaw Architects and Dattner Architects (Photo by Jules Antonio)

We have come a long way in recognizing the importance of renewable energy, healthy materials, and other environmentally-sustainable practices that encourage a closer relationship with nature and its renewable resources. One big step toward achieving a fairer and more sustainable New York City has been the Carbon Challenge initiative launched by the City to help achieve its goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by the year 2050. The program encourages a range of actors, including anchor institutions (universities and hospitals), property owners of multi-family buildings, commercial tenants, and hotels to cut greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality, and reduce the impact of climate change.(1)

The stakes to meet these demands are high for the year 2050. However, NYC is committed to reaching the goal and thus far has signed on over 100 participants to take on the Carbon Challenge pledge. To this date, universities, commercial and residential property owners, and many businesses have committed millions of square feet of real estate to make the change.

Besides city-wide initiatives taking place in NYC, there are many other effective strategies for increasing energy efficiency that also contribute to the health and sustainability of the built environment. More importantly, these strategies are increasingly being implemented in affordable housing developments that house a majority of our low income and minority populations.

The Active Design guidelines outline some of these practical interventions, including the intentional design of outdoor courtyards and recreational spaces that encourage bicycling, walking, a closer relationship to natural light, and stronger connections to community resources.(2) Combined with several other design strategies, the approach can be linked with a decline in cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and body mass. In New York City, programs are continually being introduced to address the growing demand for housing developments that support active and healthy lifestyles.

Certification programs like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), for example, are increasingly being integrated into affordable housing design projects. Even when projects are not guaranteed incentives by financial institutions, affordable housing developers are increasingly greening their portfolios because they are interested in raising the bar, lowering energy consumption, increasing savings, and doing the right thing by the environment. Regardless of the motivation, affordable housing in New York City is becoming part of the tales of success of a healthier, affordable and greener NYC. Other programs like Enterprise Green Communities and the New Construction Programs of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), along with efforts driven by community development organizations, are redefining what it means to be green and healthy in the affordable housing world. These programs are setting a high bar for what it means to live in a safe, clean, energy efficient and connected community, regardless of the neighborhood or loan financing.

Solar panels on Via Verde housing by Dattner Architects (Photo by Jules Antonio)

During the last 10 years, the Bronx has witnessed a rise in affordable housing that has reached the highest of standards of sustainability and affordability especially in low income and minority communities. This is exemplified by the project “Via Verde”, or The Green Way, in the South Bronx. The development has defined a new set of goals for other upcoming building projects in this area that include safe, healthy and sustainable amenities in the buildings. The project began in 2006 with the New Housing New York Legacy, a competition launched by the Bloomberg Administration seeking a development proposal that could provide a blueprint for how to build a high quality and innovative green affordable housing project in the Bronx. (2)

Today, Via Verde stands tall and visible from different viewing angles in the Bronx. If you are coming or leaving and taking the 5 or 2 subway line you can’t miss the solar panels and bright colors that distinguish Via Verde’s facade. Residents of the Bronx, city architects and energy and sustainability consultants view this project as the new paradigm for affordable housing that’s aesthetically attractive, promotes environmental stewardship and meets the LEED certification standards. As part of the LEED certification goals, the building features energy star appliances, efficient building systems, rainwater capture, the use of recycled materials, a green roof, gardens, and active design features to encourage exercise among residents.(3)

Another green and affordable housing project in the heart of the Bronx is the Morrisania Homes - one of the first projects in New York City to combine affordable housing with green design. It has been over ten years since this project opened its doors to the residents of the Bronx, making history as the first affordable housing project in New York to receive LEED certification and demonstrating that sustainability and affordability can go hand in hand in a city like New York, the Bronx borough. As part of LEED standards, this building features energy efficient appliances and building systems.(4)

Currently, the Bronx is experiencing a surge in green affordable housing projects. Near Via Verde, sites like La Central are also contributing to the creation of quality affordable housing. This project is comprised of several buildings that include a YMCA, affordable units, efficient building systems, renewable solar energy, and may potentially become a LEED certified project.

It is no longer a matter of creating affordable units, it’s a matter of redefining what healthy, cost-effective, sustainable and affordable means altogether for New York City buildings. The only way we are going to be able to meet our sustainability goals in the future is by taking the approach that from now on all construction, affordable and/or market rate, must meet high green standards in NYC.

Via Verde Housing Development (Photo by Jules Antonio)

The bad news is that the effects of climate change are already being felt all over the world and the conditions have become so overwhelming that many have come to accept that the Earth as we know it has changed for the worst due to human activity. On the other hand, the good news is that citywide efforts are gaining traction in dense places like New York City. Environmental and health advocates are working alongside each other, and collective commitments like the Paris Agreement, OneNYC, and 80X50 are really holding communities accountable for their carbon footprint and pushing the agenda to include greener goals in minority communities.

Although the road ahead is a long one, our communities, especially those composed of lower-income residents, are already paving greener, healthier and safer ways of living. Someday our main energy source will come from renewables, most of our food will be locally produced, our building materials will be healthier,  initiatives such as vertical farming will continue to take advantage of empty spaces, water conservation and supply will be a priority and city resident’s health will be at the forefront of every major sustainable design challenge.


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