The Earth Institute’s Panel on “Greening the Urban Economy”

On March 5th, 2009, at the top of the International Affairs Building at Columbia University gathered a diverse group of experts as part of the Earth Institute’s Seminars on Sustainable Development. Though their specialties ranged from Civil Engineering to environmental non-profit organizations, they spoke on a panel together on “Greening the Urban Economy.”

“What does this mean?” and “how can we make it happen?” were the questions buzzing around in the minds of audience members as they entered the room and enjoyed some of the refreshments and cookies in the back.

The audio equipment was tested and the projector flashed bits of presentations. People trickled in, curiously looking around the room while waiting for the guest speakers to make their appearance. Late afternoon light streamed in from both sides of the room. Finally, the equipment was all ready, the guest speakers arrived and the audience settled to quietly in their seats, but the anticipation still ran high.

With the economy in its current state, this topic is hotter than ever. During his part of the session, Jack McGourty put up this intriguing quote from Van Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy, and who was also recently named one of Rolling Stone Magazine’s 100 Agents of Change:

The twin crises of economic collapse and ecological devastation have proven that the old, pollution based economy has failed both the people and the planet the green money in the stimulus package is a down payment on a clean green economy that will serve both the people and the planet.

This suggests that a new approach or perspective is required to develop alternative ways for the economy to function. Money may be useful to solve problems, but should be strategically placed. One way is to invest in the community and local economy.

Jack McGourty, Director for the Center for Technology, Innovation and Community Engagement (CTICE) and also Associate Dean of Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University, spoke about the service learning initiatives for students that have connected technical skills to social issues in the community.

CTICE’s 120 community projects bring together about 800 Columbia University students from multiple technical and non-technical disciplines to work together on social issues. Many of the students take courses that put them on projects that have an immediate impact on the community. The main focus has been new, green technologies that create new jobs, environmentally responsible enterprises, and sustainable economic growth.

Nilda Mesa, also of Columbia University, is the Assistant Vice President of Environmental Stewardship and Adjunct Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs. Mesa works on campus-wide (such as green building standards) as well as community related issues (such as the Manhattanville campus planning). Her office works to keep Columbia University on a path towards sustainability (especially through reuse and recycling of resources and building materials). For example, Mesa mentions that there are services for carpet tiles that replace old ones in a “much more sustainable life cycle approach.” But while also nurturing the existing relationships with local communities through several programs and development (through the planning of an open Manhattanville campus that also provides services to local residents).

Joan Byron, Director of the Sustainability and Environmental Justice Initiative at the Pratt Center for Community Development. A passionate speaker, she only needed a few notes to get through her points. Her work with the Pratt Center largely involves grassroots organization of retrofitting old buildings in low-income communities in New York City. They offer resources to people who need it to lessen the burdens of economic and social polarization. They look at how the carbon footprint of NYC can be addressed at the level of individual buildings.

The reality, Joan points out, is that the majority of the buildings that will exist in 30 years are buildings that exist today so something needs to be done to transition towards a more functional urban ecosystem and local economy. They promote these “really simpleminded improvements that give huge efficiencies and huge savings for owners,” especially for small owners and small businesses.

While Columbia University has the opportunity to become a leader in pushing for a greener local economy and community involvement, Janna Olson, Executive Director, Win-Win Campaign, Envirolution, took the discussion to civic engagement. Part of their work promotes individual assessment of carbon footprints through social networking as a way to learn what can be done on an individual basis to decrease that footprint. The Win-Win Campaign aims to make small businesses more capable of executing on energy audits. Much of the issue is due to lack of access to the right information, especially because of “greenwashing” and unreliability of much of the information available. This is yet another example of how community outreach may be effective.

Robert Crauderueff from Sustainable South Bronx, broaden the scope of the discussion by emphasizing the “distribution of environmental burdens” and the importance of investing in the right types of large projects, especially in relation to city planning and development. Projects like the Greenway that runs through much of the Bronx or waterfront planning affect the daily lives of New Yorkers and creates a closer relationship between the city and nature. Crauderueff explains that waterfront usage patterns and needs have changed in NYC; there is higher demand now for access as well as for swimability of the waters.

Sustainable South Bronx spearheads projects that aim to improve and modify the built environment, as well as projects that affect local citizens such as job training, and public policy. Many of the audience members asked questions relating to how skilled workers could benefit from these types of programs and what else could be done to bring them into the “green” economy. A multi-level approach may be a good use of all the tools that are available.

In response to a question posed during the panel discussion section of the seminar, Joan Byron comments on the policy challenges. The lifecycles of buildings are important to understand and Byron suggests that this is the right time to give them “a shot of capital” to upgrade them environmentally and for sustainability.

This could be said for many of the issues brought up in this seminar. The call for proper investment in the community, local businesses, and energy efficiency seems to permeate the discussion. There is a general concern for how things will affect each of us personally, and that is a natural human tendency. Keeping a larger perspective may be a difficult thing to do, especially when we are each feeling the burn of the economic recession.

Walking out of the room, we may have thought that the pieces may not be coming together as quickly as desired and feel disappointed, but there is a lot of potential for what can be done to have a “green” impact on the future development of New York City’s urban economy.


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