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Reimagining New York City



Why are Green Cities Important?

According to the UN Population Fund, in 2008 humans shifted from living in mostly rural to mostly urban environments, making us the first urban species.  Although currently only slightly over 50% of humans live in cities, it is projected that by 2050 that number will increase to about 70%. This is said to be the fastest rate of urbanization in human history and will lead to a major stress on land and resources. Although 96% of this urban growth will occur in developing countries, it is important to set an example of feasibility for these countries, as well as defining the economic, environmental, and social benefits of creating green cities.

A vision for a greener New York told through a personal narrative:

I awaken to the first glints of sunlight that escape the curtain shining on my face. Opening one eye, I peer at the clock, which reads 9:04am. Rising out of bed, I open the curtains covering the south-facing, wall-length windows that enable me to use electric lights sparingly and gaze out from my 18th floor apartment at the rooftops, blanketed with green into the vast distance. These green roofs and vertical farms have been in place for the past several years, beginning when the mayor’s environmental council proposed mandating that each building have a method of food production and must contribute at least 50% of the yields to the city food supply.  NYCEC, the New York City Environmental Council, was founded 27 years ago. Leadership positions in this organization are held by delegates from each borough. They consult with the mayor and make major decisions in implementing large-scale sustainability initiatives and adapting to the extreme weather and sea level rise instigated by climate change. All this is easier to do now that the city has reorganized its budget to make sustainability its first priority.

In implementing the new urban agriculture program, the city government appointed farm managers for each block. These individuals supervise the cultivation and maintenance of these lush pockets, install the necessary materials on the roofs and faces of the buildings, and distributed plans for the design and crop production of the small farms. Each roof is equipped with a rainwater catchment system, reducing wasted water. In the summer, the roofs are densely packed with deep beds of greens, as well of speckles of other colors: crisp lettuces, bright berries, ripening tomatoes, and so on. In the fall, the sight of squash begins to take over, and after the winter blanketing of snow, spring onions and other bold stalks and tendrils poke their way up, bringing everything back to life once again. It is not only a beautiful way to watch the seasons change and regain touch with the slow progression of each year, but also perfumes the air with fresh scents formerly nonexistent outside of Central Park. Each building community cooperates to create a dynamic in which everyone shares the work, reaps the benefits,and creates closer connections to one another.

On scheduled days of the week, designated trucks stop at each building to collect the produce reserved for the city. The produce is transported directly to CityFarm markets throughout the city. These markets carry only products that have come from these urban farms—the apartment/office building farms, as well as larger urban agriculture operations within each borough. Accessible and affordable, these markets make up the majority of the grocery stores in the city. Farmers’ markets are also quite popular, and have increased in size and number in recent years. Several times a week, in a variety of locations, the relatively new garden plazas that have replaced typical streets for cars are filled with sights and sounds of celebration: local farmers, friendly interactions, folks carrying farm-fresh produce and walking dogs, children laughing at the unique taste of kohlrabi. Through supportive government programs and local initiatives, these farmers markets have expanded to places of the city that were once had no fresh and healthy food; gone are the days where farmers markets’ target audience was a small percentage of the population. Yes, a few chain supermarkets are still in existence, but they are in a downward spiral. The highly processed, greenhouse gas-producing foods they carry became very expensive after the government began to take into account what were once externalized costs and priced products as such. Foods that were grown as a part of monocultures and transported thousands of miles have lost consumers.

After gazing out at the rooftops, I check my community gardening schedule and see that it is my turn to tend to the garden with two of my neighbors. I make a mental note to visit the rooftop and vertical farms later in the afternoon. I get ready to leave for brunch with a friend across the park. I eat a quick snack of an apple that was picked yesterday by a farmer in the Hudson Valley, grab my bike from my building’s bike storage area in the basement, and head outside. Biking used to be intimidating, but now it is easy, safe, and quite enjoyable. Around 25 years ago, many of the streets were restructured and renovated to create a more pedestrian and biker-friendly city. A congestion fee was also introduced to reduce traffic, mandating that if cars wished to enter the city they had to pay a $25 fee. Cars can be left outside the heart of the city and people can ride environmentally friendly public transportation. Many minor streets were transformed from those that allowed vehicles to public garden plazas with bike paths, while only a few major streets remain car-accessible. These garden plazas house community gardens, trees, and expanses of grass, adding a natural feel to an otherwise concrete world. All of the streets have had bike lanes installed with a design that ensures safety so that the car lanes are bordered by parking spots, next to a strip of raised gardens that separate the cars from the bike lanes. Cars can still access much of the city when necessary and in emergencies, but the streets have evolved to be calmer, and people choose to walk and bike now more than they ever have. No longer is the screeching of cars a constant background noise.

As I bike along the Columbus Avenue bike lane, I wave to my neighbor who rides past me. I smell the fresh scent of post-rain air and think of where yesterday’s rain has traveled. Thirty years ago, New York still used combined sewer systems that were designed to collect rainwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater in the same pipe in order to transport all of it to a sewage treatment plant. These pipes were designed, however, to overflow in the case of heavy rain, releasing large amounts of untreated sewage into the Hudson River. After a great deal of absorbent greenery was added to the city, overflow became less of a problem. Using the money saved from implementing renewable energy, employing the congestion fee, producing much of its own food, and more, the NYCEC undertook the immense project of separating the rainwater and wastewater pipes. It was a long and tiresome process, but resulted in a much cleaner Hudson River. As a result of the cleaner water, many have decided to take up kayaking and swimming in the river!

I finally arrive at the restaurant for brunch, where we feast upon locally grown foods in a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified building. Several years ago, the city passed the Green Re-zoning Policy, which required all new buildings to include LEED standards and revised the building bylaws to include new green building requirements. I carry the leftovers home in my reusable bag, as disposable plastic bags have been banned for many years along with most disposable things. After realizing the expense and space issues surrounding burying trash, the city forbade most single-use items designed to end up in landfills. The waste management system was given a complete overhaul. Years ago, New York used to bury 1.2 million tons of food waste in landfills each year at a cost of $80 million per ton, and diverted a mere 15% of its waste to recycling. Now, however, in implementing “pay as you throw” systems, in which people and businesses pay for trash collection in terms of the amount of trash they produce, trash pickups have been reduced, and affordable compost collection is taking its place. The compost acts as part of a closed-loop system: The compost is collected and processed on the urban farms, on land north of the city, and at the once abandoned North and South Brother Islands, two very small islands in the East River right off of the Bronx that have been transformed into composting facilities. The processed compost is then distributed to the urban farms, as well as local farms upstate, that grow the majority of the food that feeds the city.

When I return home in the early afternoon, I remember to help with the rooftop farm. The solar panels that are positioned on rooftops alongside the farms throughout each neighborhood provide some of the energy for the city. I proceed to spend the afternoon harvesting the last of summer’s tomatoes, weeding the lettuce beds, and digging up potatoes. All the while I converse with two of my neighbors who work alongside me. I learn that we all share a love for biking, and we arrange to go for a bike ride together in central park. When we finish, the sun begins to set, casting bits of sunlight across the concrete buildings and verdant vegetation. I look out across the way and wave to neighbors having a picnic atop their roof. I look into the distance, the final piece of sun sinking, feeling tingles of reverence for this adaptable, durable, deeply beautiful, green city.

-Lucy K.

(photos taken from and were created by Terreform Center for Advanced Urban Research)