Sustainable Brooklyn – The Future of Urban Environments

"The World Is Watching" -- Prospect Heights, Brooklyn

“CITIES ARE BAD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT.”

I feel like I have always known this – having grown up in rural northern Michigan and having never seen a real city for the first several years of my life, names like “Los Angeles” conjured images in my mind of dense orange clouds of stagnating pollution; millions of people living under an oppressive, immovable blanket of toxic particulate matter, suffering an endless greenhouse summer.

In a way, my young imagination was correct: pollution, massive energy consumption, immense waste, and environmental destruction are classic trademarks of urban environments. Square miles of forests clear cut, wetlands turned to landfills, and the air poisoned with concentrated chemicals contributing to childhood asthma and a myriad of other health concerns. This, at least, is the average environmentalist’s notion of an urban landscape. Where nature and man’s shortsighted dominance have become inextricably woven; where the landscape no longer resembles its original pristine state. In a sad, ironic gesture, sod is laid and trees are replanted in single isolated hectares, fenced off from the street for people to visit and relax, because the sprawling sea of concrete we’ve poured around us takes a heavy toll on our souls.

But the perception that cities and metropolitan areas are an inevitable bane of the environment is troubling. If current projections are accurate, cities will account for around 70% of the entire world’s energy demands within 20 years. As populations grow and more people migrate to urban environments, I struggle with the concept that cities can do no good for the environment. I don’t like to think that as the world community evolves and adapts to new challenges and a changing planet, our push toward greater urbanization must necessitate part of our demise. Thus, the question is, what can urban populations do to reduce their environmental impact? What initiatives can be implemented now so that they become the status quo for future generations?

When I first moved to Brooklyn from the relatively beautiful city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, I was aghast at how sordid and contaminated my new neighborhood seemed. Every evening, Knickerbocker Street, the main thoroughfare of my Brooklyn neighborhood, was littered with so much trash and detritus that it resembled the aftermath of a parade. Trash receptacles were constantly overflowing, and the gutter seemed considered as good a place as any for rubbish. I was astounded at how little regard, how little respect, my new neighbors had for their neighborhood. And here I was, after all this time – actively existing in a place that was “contributing to the problem”.

And yet. Despite the trash, the exhaust, and the poured concrete profusion suffocating the earth, certain amenities, services, and lifestyles were abundant in New York that were almost entirely lacking back in Michigan. In this city of 8 million people, for instance, slightly less than half of NYC families own cars. The vast and far-reaching subway and bus systems operate at a flat rate,

An "urban garden" in Brooklyn - a modern take on the concept of public outdoor space

allowing commuters to travel dozens of miles between distant boroughs for two dollars a ride. The affordability of the transit system ($100 for a month of unlimited rides) enables millions of people to reduce their carbon footprint by driving nowhere. What’s more – driving in New York City is an arduous and time-consuming task. Not only is taking the train a more environmentally responsible form of transit; it is simply easier.

As I gradually come to terms with the possibility that I may very well live in a large city for the rest of my life, I have begun to see the landscape less as a hopeless wasteland and more as a space rich with opportunity.

Years ago, when I first witnessed the repugnant spectacle that is Times Square, a troubling thought occurred to me: How can a child, having witnessed Times Square, be taught the importance of turning off a light bulb when leaving a room? With so much energy wasted for no other purpose than to dazzle consumers into buying things they don’t need, it is troubling that a modern society can marvel at such an atrocity. Yet, the average city-dweller is also in a position to consume potentially far fewer resources than someone living in a traditional family home. With less space per family and multiple domiciles contained within single buildings, it can be easier to waste less. Spaces being actively heated and cooled are less often vacant. A lack of large, meticulously manicured grass yards alleviates the need for excessive watering, and trips to the store are generally made on foot or by bike or train rather than by automobile. And, because the cost of energy delivery and supply is greater, consumers are generally more aware of their consumption.

Cafe Habana in Brooklyn - powered entirely by solar-generated electricity

And while there is still much to be done to make a city like Brooklyn more sustainable and environmentally aware, there is great promise for a renewable future. While space on the ground is limited, the amount of flat rooftop space being underutilized is staggering. Solar panels and micro wind turbines are the future of the modern city, because, unlike in rural areas, where wind farms take up otherwise farmable or developable space, rooftops are the optimal location for capturing solar and wind energy and utilizing micro hydropower without needing to rebuild an infrastructure from the ground up.

Likewise, rooftops can be transformed into “green spaces” where, with some minor landscaping, grass and plants can be allowed to grow freely, and families can garden and grow produce without the risk of planting in contaminated ground soil. Not only does implementing a green space on a building’s rooftop provide insulation and help a building save on heating and cooling costs; it is a simple and realistic way of providing people living in a densely populated area a private outdoor oasis away from the teeming masses – the urban equivalent of the immeasurable luxury of a backyard. And in the meantime, while communities and building owners implement such meaningful changes to increase the value of their property while lowering the demand for dirty energy, simply painting rooftops white is a great start to reducing energy needs and taking the edge off the dreaded urban heat effect.

Perhaps a main issue to overcome in our urban environments is public awareness – massive influx to urban centers is a fairly recent trend, and I suspect that many individuals whose families have been living in the city for generations simply do not have a tangible concept of how beautiful a city can be. Ultimately, with no tapering of world population growth in sight, adapting to smaller living spaces can only be beneficial. And while I’d like to see the future of urban planning and development rethinking city layouts and paying greater reverence to natural space on the ground, I see the cities of the future relying more on a hybrid concept of community collaboration and environmentally responsible self-sustenance. Our planet can accommodate the modern city if we cooperate.

This blog post was written by Josef Zook, a member of Vort Port International’s Media Team. He currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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