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Cooling Down on the Grass, 20 Stories Up

Sketch of American Banknote Building, pilot project of the South Bronx Green Roofs Demonstration Project
Credit: Kathleen Bakwell, HM White Site Architects

Residents of the South Bronx will no longer have to trek north to stroll through a meadow. A new roof design for the historic American Banknote Building in the largely industrial Hunt's Point section of the Bronx will feature green building technology that includes a roof-top garden.

Plans for the redesign were unveiled at the Green Roofs, Cool City conference, held on March 3 at the New York Botanical Garden. Researchers from Columbia joined city officials, architects, urban planners, building managers and members of the local community to discuss urban pollution and ways to mitigate its effects.

Bolstered by recent studies showing that urban pollution causes myriad social and health problems -- even for fetuses in utero -- architects and urban planners are increasing the use of green-building technology (the use of materials such as recyclables to create sustainable urban development) with their designs. Green Roofs, Cool City brought together an interdisciplinary group of community organizations and design professionals to discuss ways to combat urban pollution, particularly the phenomenon known as urban heat island effect.

Caused by an abundance of dark surfaces, materials that absorb heat from the sun and a lack of vegetation, urban heat islands raise the temperature from 2 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than surrounding rural areas. This increases the use of air conditioning and electricity and raises pollution levels.

The conference highlighted research and projects initiated by the Cool City Project, launched at Columbia with funding from the Institute of Social and Economic Research and Policy (ISERP) and support from the Earth Institute. Cool City -- led by Elliott Sclar, a professor in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP); Patrick Kinney, associate professor of environmental health science; and Joyce Rosenthal, a graduate student in the urban planning program at GSAPP -- assesses the impact of the urban heat island effect in New York and analyzes potential benefits of heat island mitigation.

Of particular interest to Cool City is the study of cooling technologies that conserve peak-load electricity generation and improve air quality. The conversion of rooftops from absorptive surfaces to materials that take in less heat and reflect more of it reduces heat stress and pollution and saves money. Another method harnesses the power and efficacy of photosynthesis. Increasing the amount of vegetation lowers temperatures and improves air quality. Vegetation also soaks up rainwater. Without vegetation to retain it, rainwater can build up, flooding storm drains and causing transit problems.

At the conference, Majora Carter, executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, a community organization dedicated to environmental justice, introduced the South Bronx Green Roofs Demonstration Project (GDP). The American Banknote Building's new roof is a prototype and control site for future research efforts by GDP. The roof-top meadow, scheduled to be completed in May, was designed in collaboration with the New York Climate and Health Project at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and HM White Site Architects, a renowned New York City-based landscape architecture firm.

Co-investigators of the project are now completing research for the New York Climate and Health Project, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-funded interdisciplinary study of the potential impacts on air quality and human health from changing climate and land use in the New York metropolitan area during the next 80 years. The results of this research will provide better tools for assessing the regional and local impacts of climate change on air quality and public health in cities across the nation.

Published: May 03, 2005
Last modified: May 03, 2005

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