New York Takes Up the Green Challenge

Architects in one of the world's largest metropolises recognise that buildings are a major source of carbon footprint – and suggest what can be done about it.

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New York City is building once again, adding many new works to its already dense network of structures and infrastructure. But can all these buildings, new and existing, actually help the city become more environmentally friendly? Many of the architects who are designing taller towers, much needed schools and public facilities, also believe that they can reduce the city’s carbon emissions and restrict the amount of waste produced by inhabitants. An emerging series of municipal laws, codes, as well as, design driven, grassroots initiatives, may help to make New York’s future greener, not greyer.  

But here are a few challenges that not only architects must face first: according to many sources, 2016 was the hottest year on record, followed closely by 2017. Though some may deny that global warming is being caused by humans, many architects in the United States believe the contrary. They are asserting that they should and must do their part to reduce carbon emissions. In fact, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) renewed its commitment to the UN Paris climate agreement,  just as the US Federal Government withdrew from it. 

In New York City, an ageing and dense urban core currently exacerbates the city’s carbon emissions, but these characteristics may ultimately become an advantage in the city’s efforts to mitigate its environmental problems.


Over the past decade many theories, such as the extensive work done by Harvard’s Graduate School of Design which was published in a second edition of Ecological Urbanism (2016), assert that denser cities, with their need to share resources and develop extensive modes of public transportation, have the ability to be far more ecological.  

The transportation sector accounts for around for 21 percent of GHG emissions in NYC.

However, New York City is not yet an environmental success story. In fact, data from a 2014 study, published in a 2016 report by mayor Bill de Blasio, show that buildings, not cars, are responsible for the majority of New York’s carbon emissions. The findings were quite shocking. The report showed that in 2014, New York City’s buildings were responsible for 73 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the city, generated through a substantial dependence on natural gas, electricity, heating oil, steam, and biofuel. The transportation sector, including automobiles, accounts for a further for 21 percent, with landfills and wastewater treatment plants making up the rest.   

As a result of these findings, and in accordance with the 2015 Paris Climate New York City has committed to reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050. This initiative has become known as ’80×50.’ In order to reach this ambitious goal, the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability calls for the acceleration of several essential actions.  

  • Make buildings significantly more energy efficient 
  • Replace many fossil fuel-based heating and hot water systems in buildings with renewable or high efficiency electric systems 
  • Transition towards a renewables-based electric grid 
  • Reduce the number of miles driven in New York City while replacing remaining vehicles to zero-emissions vehicles
  • Achieve the goal of zero waste to landfills 

Since buildings pollute New York City more than anything else, shouldn’t architects be at the forefront of efforts to identify solutions?

The American Institute of Architects New York chapter (AIANY) believes so, and has responded to the 80×50 goal, with several proactive initiatives. 

Shortly after the 80 x 50 goal was announced, a group led by the AIANY Committee on the Environment (COTE) formed a task force to anticipate what architects can do to help NYC become a leader in sustainability. The group asserted that the design and construction of new buildings must be held to high standards of sustainability. They must depend on renewable forms of energy and produce little waste, and retrofitting the many old buildings in NYC was going to make huge difference in the reduction of carbon emissions. The unglamorous jobs of replacing outdated draughty windows, sealing porous roofs and up-grading inefficient heating and cooling systems are essential to meeting 80×50 goals. 

The result is an on-going AIANY 80×50 initiative that has produced lectures, discussion panels and workshops to educate the architectural community on how to create more energy efficient buildings and to anticipate building code changes that will promote carbon reduction. A Position Statement on Sustainability and Environment, released in 2017 further outlines architect’s responsibilities in promoting ecological efforts.  

In addition to the reduction of carbon produced by buildings, architects can also help their inhabitants reduce and refine the amount of material waste sent to landfills. As landfills are not only undesirable to any surrounding community and have been pushed further away from the city, existing landfills amass toxic piles of garbage. But with the right tactics, architects can design buildings; housing, offices, restaurants, etc. – that can help people recycle more and waste less.  

In the autumn of 2017 the Center for Architecture in New York launched the  Zero Waste Design Guidelines, made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation and developed in collaboration with the AIANY Committee on the EnvironmentKiss + Cathcart, ArchitectsClosedLoops; and the Foodprint Group. The guidelines are intended to help New York City achieve the ambitious goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2030 – and to help other cities seeking to fulfill their own commitments to waste reduction. Published on the website,, the guidelines include a useful calculator to help architects determine the volume of waste that a building will produce. The calculator provides suggestions on how to decrease waste generation, increase waste diversion and use volume reduction equipment that can reduce storage requirements. 

Astonishingly, at a time when there is still a debate on the human effects on climate change, it is reassuring to see that, New York, one of the most influential and populous cities on the planet, is asserting its leadership by committing to reduce its environmental impact. As the mayor’s office and city agencies set targets to reduce carbon emissions and pollution, it is up to local communities not only to comply but to be proactive. Leadership in environmental efforts can be a great opportunity for architects and through several of the initiatives outlined, it is encouraging to see that some have already committed to contributing to a greener future. 


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