Greening the Big Apple

The Manhattan skyline is unmistakable. And it's a fan favorite—search Google "best skylines" and it will consistently be ranked in the top favorites. It has become a symbol of the city itself—sold on coffee mugs, in snow globes, on t-shirts. But what if the straight edges of the buildings and roofs were softened? If the roofs didn't pierce the sky but melded urban and natural a bit more easily? Imagine a skyline that could shift seasonally, and not simply as a result of new construction. It would be a subtler change that might confer a more real sense of the vitality of the cityscape. The icing on the cake? It would be good for us too.

Our recent discussion about infrastructure is definitely very much on my mind—particularly as my commute has now become longer and more congested as a result of shortsighted planning. The fire at the switching station on the LIRR has been a reminder of the vulnerabilities that lurk below the surface of our constructions. And provocations, stress on the system, can come from anywhere, including nature—something that New York City already knows: A thunderstorm on August 8, 2007 caused 7,000 kilograms (about 15,000 pounds) of dirt and debris to flood the subway system during the morning rush hour forcing New Yorkers and city officials to acknowledge that our subway drainage system is ill equipped to handle suddenly water surges. But this should not have come as news to anyone—we've been through this at least once before in recent memory: Lower Manhattan was flooded in December 1992 as a result of a storm.

Nature seems to be our biggest threat at the moment, and it's time we started planning and building with this in mind. A article from Scientific American earlier this year, reports the ways poor infrastructure can compound the effects of climate change. For example, a rise in temperature means it will get hotter underground as well. New Yorkers, you think it's hot in the subway during the summer months now? A 2 - 4 degree increase (predicted by 2100) may not sound like much, but you'll likely feel differently as the sweat pools at the base of your spine. One solution would be more vents to help push the hot air out of the subway, but more vents means that more water can get it—so we're back to dealing with flooding.

But it's not just planning below ground. What we choose to do with our open space is also an issue. We construct buildings. Fine. We all need places to live and work—I'm definitely not going to be the one to say we need to live in mud huts or caves or gather around an open campfire. But many of our buildings are capped off by black tar roofs. In the summer, they become infernos and add to the sweltering effect felt in the city.

One idea that is slowly gaining popularity is the suggestion that we can reclaim these spaces, these miniature hells, as National Geographic writer Verlyn Klinkenborg referred to them last August, saying that the urban roof is "a lifeless place of bituminous surfaces, violent temperature contrasts, bitter winds, and an antipathy to water." This doesn't need to be the case. But it will require changing the way we think about our landscapes—and our skylines. Green roofs reintroduce plants, supported by shale and clay to allow for drainage, and as an added bonus, they attract birds and insects, who may have been displaced by urban development. They can a more natural feeling to the concrete jungle.

A local, public green rooftop space on Water Street in Downtown Manhattan.

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