A Big Greener Apple?


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Green Rooftop has not only environmental benefits, but social benefits, for example, supply fresh affordable food to highly condensed cities, or improving mental health for seniors. But high cost is the primary concern for green rooftop to be wide spread.


A Big Greener Apple?

By Teng CHEN

On a recent Saturday morning a chilly wind blew over brand new high rises, century old buildings and the dust of demolition in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. A group of 20 people lined up early in front of Metro Baptist Church, waiting for the monthly food pantry.

“They have fresh vegetables here. They give you decent food,” said Rosa Rossy. When asked if she knew the vegetables were from the rooftop, she raised her eyes to top of the building, and looked amazed.

“Vegetables from our rooftop farm are extremely important for our food pantry,” said Joseph Perdue, Food Justice Coordinator in the Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project (HKFP). “Around 900 emergency feeding programs in NYC, most of them can’t get fresh produce. People can go everywhere to get canned vegetables or a one-dollar slice of pizza, but most of them struggle to have nutritious food and vegetables. And we like to fill in that gap.”

Roy Harris comes to the pantry because he finds it difficult to find fresh affordable food. “I go to get my vegetables in supermarket right around the corner, I pick it up, look at the price and I put it down. It costs too much,” said Harris.

Facing the major challenge in the community such as hunger, diabetes, obesity, HKFP came up with its own solution five years ago: urban farming on its rooftop. “We realized we have used every inch of the building to provide the social service, except the roof. So the desire to make good use of space and hunger needs of this community formed the idea of farming on rooftop,” said Perdue.

The awareness of making use of the under-utilized space in condensed cities has sparked the trend of green rooftop in recent years. The North America green roof industry has experienced a double-digit growth rates over the past decade, according to Green Roofs for Healthy Cities (GRHC), the only organization which gathers and disseminates data about green roofs in North America.

Last year, New York City installed 360,000 square feet of green rooftop, ranking the 5th in the North America after Washington D.C, Toronto, Philadelphia and Chicago.

But given the size of New York City, the number of green roofs is much too small, advocates charge. GRHC is calling the city to build 25 million square feet of green rooftop by 2022, which will contribute 25 percent to the target for the whole North America. GRHC challenged the city to this goal during the 13th annual green roof & wall conference held at the beginning of October in New York.

“Green rooftop has passed the pilot stage that people try to figure out if it works or if it’s a good thing to do,” Robert Crauderueff, founder of Crauderueff & Associates, a company which designs, finances, builds, and maintains green systems. “There are lots of data and information about it [now]. And people have good experience with that. It’s not surprising that people want to build more.”

Green roofs are not only aesthetically pleasing, a surprise pop of green in the city’s vertical landscape, they also  have environmental benefits, such as managing stormwater, improving air quality, and increasing biodiversity. But it is the social benefits — fresh produce or improving mental health, that are now getting attention.

“For us, the social benefits of such a green rooftop meet and exceed its environmental benefits,” said Catherine M. Brady, Director of Property Management of Fordham-Bedford Housing Corporation (FBHC), which manages Serviam Gardens, an affordable housing project for seniors in the Bronx that has a rooftop garden. “It’s true that it can help save energy costs, reduce storm water run off and improve air quality, more importantly it’s a big plus for seniors. They can easily have access to fresh air and social interaction with their peers. Everyone has a spot there – some garden and others relax in a stress free environment and take in the view. It’s very important for our  community.”

FBHC is a non-profit organization which provides affordable housing to low-moderate income families in the Bronx. It was established in the 1980s to address the problem of housing deterioration and abandonment in the Northwest Bronx neighborhood. Now it owns or manages 110 buildings and 3500 apartments all located in the Bronx.

“Private property owners, non-profit building owners and affordable housing owners are interested in green roofs,” explained Crauderueff, who has been working closely with affordable housing community. ”They want to serve the community and green roof provides environmental and social benefits. It provides green spaces. They can improve the community by building the green roof. That’s what the affordable housing community wants to do.”

Despite the benefits green rooftop costs a lot. The market price for a rooftop installation is $10-20/sq. ft, and maintenance 5 cents-$1/sq. ft a year.

“Green rooftop is a luxury on affordable housing,” said Brady of Serviam Gardens. “Once you have decided to have a rooftop, you now have to fund it, not only for installation, but also for maintenance.”

FBHC now has four green rooftops among all its buildings. Serviam Gardens spent $200,000 to install its 8,000 sq, ft. roof garden. The annual maintenance fee can cost up to $4,000.

But for a typical old building like Serviam Gardens, the cost to redesign the roof so that it can bear the weight of a green rooftop can exceed even the cost for installation. Sevian Gardens received an award to cover all design costs as part of a pilot project of designNYC.

But not every building can be as lucky as Serviam Gardens, and government funds has been limited.

New York City now has a tax abatement policy to provide $5.23 a sq. ft. But because government support is crucial in green rooftop development, progress has been happening at different speeds across the country.

In Washington DC, a much smaller city than New York City, the green roof rebate program provides base funding of $7-15 per square foot in targeted water-shed. In 2014, DC installed over 1.2 million sq. ft of green roofs, 3.3 times more than New York City.

“The tax incentive program in New York City is not working,” said Steve Peck, the founder of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities. “It’s not sufficiently high enough to justify all the work it takes to fill out the forms, and get it. It’s not significant.”

Crauderueff, who was working closely with the city council  and state legislature to advance the tax abatement policy in the New York City, agreed. “It’s a matter of what’s priority. New York City so far has really focused on public space with a lot of investments. But they are not putting investment into the privately owned properties in the same way.”

Since 2013, Crauderuef has shifted his focus from pushing forward the policy to helping community and housing organization use a grant program which fully funds the green rooftop. The Grant Program for Private Property Owners started in 2011 and is given to a limited number of 6-15 winners every year.

But government policy is not the only factor slowing development of green rooftops in New York City. “The engineers and architects learn how to manage stormwater by systems and huge water pipes. So when some face green roof, they say, ‘oh no, we are not going to do green roofs’. It’s a matter of slow change, convincing and bringing about new ideas,” argues Matthew Barmore, Product Manager from Firestone Building Products, which offers green rooftop system installation. “But now there are more and more major universities teaching green roofs.”

In the middle of cold, glassy high rises in Manhattan, the lively greenness of Hell’s Kitchen Rooftop farm offers a breath of fresh air. The small space of 1,000 sq. ft not only gives fresh produce to its community, it also serves as a space for kids to learn about green rooftop, nature and for residents to learn about religion.

“People are excited about the things we do. We run with farm mostly with donations and volunteer gardening work, also with government grant,” said Perdue. “Everything we grow in the city helps the air quality in a small way. Buying local food eliminates quite a bit of carbon dioxide and fuels necessarily shipped to us. That helps the environment too.”

Back at the food pantry, Harris counted all the products in his cart and smiled, “I never have a rotten tomato here.”