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Early Efforts
Photo Credit: NYCEDC
Early Efforts

Transforming the Paradigm of Environmentalism
Two decades ago, sustainability was a relatively unknown concept, and its precursor, "environmentalism," was not generally associated with cities or buildings. Environmentalism was about clean air and water, recycling, and saving endangered species or ecosystems; the environment was associated with agrarian values or pristine wilderness-anywhere but cities. If buildings were involved at all, they tended to be passive solar houses in rural settings.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, two groundbreaking New York City projects, designed by the Croxton Collaborative, started to transform this paradigm. Both projects—the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) offices and the headquarters for the Audubon Society—were renovations of older buildings in Manhattan. They demonstrated that urban environments could be designed sustainably with green buildings, and that the concept of the "environment" needed to incorporate populated landscapes, including the places of densest occupation and most massive impact: cities.

New York City's Leadership in Green Building
In the late 1990s, three entities launched parallel efforts that together made New York City a leader in the sustainable design of large, new buildings. In 1995, the Durst Organization, working with FXFOWLE Architects, LLP (formerly known as Fox & Fowle Architects) and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), began designing the world's first green skyscraper at 4 Times Square, completed in January 2000. That same month, the Battery Park Authority released its Residential Environmental Guidelines, which were used in building the Solaire, the country's first green residential high-rise, completed in 2003. And in 1999, the New York City Department of Design and Construction (DDC) issued its High Performance Building Guidelines (in PDF), which provided best practices for sustainable building, influencing green buildings worldwide and launching New York City government's first experiments in green building.

Emergence of Green Buildings and Energy Efficiency Policy
Following the development of its Building Guidelines, DDC explored green building strategies through a series of high-profile pilot projects, which ranged from libraries and day care centers to correctional facilities. An important example was the Queens Botanical Garden building, which achieved a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) Platinum rating. Successes like these increased familiarity with green building strategies, proving their viability and setting the stage for broader adoption. In 2005, New York City passed its first green building ordinance, Local Law 86 (LL86), which required most new City government building projects and renovations to achieve LEED® certification.

PlaNYC: A Greener, Greater New York

The passage of LL86 and changing paradigms about the environmental benefits of dense cities set the stage for the development of PlaNYC (in PDF) in 2007, which took sustainability from the building scale to the city scale. PlaNYC addressed how New York City could absorb almost a million more residents by 2030 without overtaxing its infrastructure and resources, while maintaining quality of life. Doing more with less was a key strategy, and therefore greening the city's buildings and improving energy efficiency emerged as important initiatives.

Reducing citywide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 30 percent by 2030 was PlaNYC's culminating goal. In the development stages, it was first necessary to analyze from where the city's emissions came, and a surprising result emerged: in 2007, roughly 75 percent of New York City's GHG emissions came from emissions attributable to the energy used in buildings, almost twice the national average, proportionally. This was, and still is, because most New Yorkers walk or use public transportation instead of driving, resulting in relatively little emissions from cars. The city's industrial sector is also modestly sized. What remained were the buildings, and the need to make them more efficient. Moreover, since New York City is an older city, PlaNYC projected that more than 85 percent of its 2030 building stock would be buildings that already exist today.

PlaNYC was updated in 2011 to include energy efficiency policies that had emerged since 2007. Interwoven in the 10 PlaNYC goals were numerous cross-cutting initiatives that include elements of green building, highlighting the important role of buildings in making New York City sustainable. A list of these initiatives and detailed information is available in the Green Building section in the PlaNYC 2011 Update (in PDF).

One major green building initiative was to strengthen the Construction Codes (a family of codes including Building, Energy, Fire, Plumbing and Mechanical Codes) of New York City. The construction codes are the DNA of buildings, controlling how new buildings are built and how renovations are done. Improving the codes has been shown to be the most cost-effective way to broadly improve building performance, because the costs incurred are incremental add-ons to work already being done. The codes also have the broadest reach since they impact every renovation and new construction project. Visit Greening the City's Codes and Regulations for more information.