What it will take to make every New York City roof a green roof
New York City has long underutilized its outdoor space. This month a new policy made the outdoor dining explosion that saved many dining establishments while keeping New Yorkers safe during the pandemic a permanent fixture of the city’s street scene.
Now let’s talk about another vastly underutilized space: New York City’s rooftops and their potential to become a giant air filter for our city.
Green roofs have numerous and tremendous benefits for New York City real estate owners, residents, and visitors:
Real estate owners:
- Enhanced insulation without toxic chemicals: green roofs keep buildings warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer, lowering utility costs for owners and renters.
- Improved roof maintenance: Green roofs extend the life of a roof by two to three times by protecting roofs from damage by UV light, water, wind, and storms. In many cases, installation of a green roof may also increase the time of the roof’s warranty.
- Enhanced property value and revenue: New York is a city that loves its amenities, and there is perhaps no greater amenity for renters and apartment buyers than outdoor space. A green roof provides a private park for residents that increases desirability, marketability, and property values.
Residents and visitors:
- Reduced air temperature: Heat kills more people every year than any other weather event. Human-made city infrastructure such as buildings and roads contribute to the urban heat island effect that increases the air temperature in cities. Green roofs counter that effect, lowering the air temperature as they absorb heat and sunlight.
- Cleaner air and lower carbon emissions: Plants are natural air filters that clean the air and absorb carbon dioxide. By lowering the demand for energy to heat and cool a building, they also lower emissions from power companies.
- Stormwater management: This year alone we’ve seen massive flooding across the city. Green roofs would help to mitigate flooding, runoff, water pollution, and sewer backup by soaking up heavy rains during storms.
- Noise Reduction: The city that never sleeps is also known as the city that’s never quiet. Noise is a part of the city’s fabric, but green roofs can help mitigate that noise by deflecting and absorbing it from the city at-large and from rooftop machinery.
- More green space: Many New York residents want more green space in their living environments. While individual backyards for everyone are out of reach, shared green space is a viable possibility across the city. Green roofs increase access to green space and could also become community gardens where tenants and neighbors can lease plots for growing agriculture.
In 2018 and 2019, The Nature Conservancy worked with Green Roof Researchers Alliance and the Urban Green Council to create a report about the opportunity for green roofs in New York. At the time, only 730 buildings (0.1% of the city’s 1 million building) had green roofs that accounted for 60 acres of the 40,000 acres of rooftop space available. The New York City Parks Department maintains 200,000 square feet of green roofs across the city. In short, roofs are barely utilized as green space.
New York City tax abatement law allows building owners who install green roofs on at least 50 percent of available rooftop space to apply for a one-year property tax credit of up to $100,000. In late 2019, policy makers boosted the program and created priority areas that experience a disproportionate amount of the city’s urban heat island effect. These priority areas are eligible for a larger tax abatement.
Under Local Law 92–94, new building construction and those who perform a complete roof replacement must make the financial investment in a green roof and /or solar panel installation to cover 100% of their roofs.
The green roof stats in 2021
So how successful has the enhanced program for green roofs been? From late 2019 through April 2021, the city’s had 11 applicants. That’s not a typo. 11 applicants, not even 11 approvals! Almost no existing property owners have taken advantage of the program.
With all the benefits and a financial incentive, why has the program sputtered so spectacularly? It’s a combination of self-centered thinking, a short-term view, and financial challenges.
Alan Burchell, founder of rooftop-renovation specialist Urbanstrong, explains that retrofitting a roof with a green roof starts at $65 per square foot and often exceeds $90 per square foot. The typical tax abatement of $5.23 per square foot (an 8% discount at most) and even $15 per square foot (a 23% discount at most) in the priority areas are barely helpful.
While there are financing options like the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loan program to ease the sting of the upfront cost, existing property owners would have to take a long view to realize many of the benefits stated above. Also, many of the collective benefits like clean air and reduced flooding require many of them to participate at once for the green roofs to truly make a difference. Additionally, they would have to care at least as much about the community benefits of green roofs as they do about their own profits.
A working group consisting of 13 environmental conservation partners in New York is working to build public awareness of the benefits of green roofs, enhance the policies, and provide open-sourced data. Though their efforts are admirable and in the best interest of all New Yorkers, there is much more work to be done to make green roofs in New York ubiquitous. Here are some ideas:
- Increase the financial incentive: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if real state owners were willing to take a cut in profits for their long-term health and the health of the planet? Unfortunately, they don’t so we have to give them a short-term financial incentive to seed long-term community benefits. I wish that weren’t the case but we’re at a point where the planet can’t afford to wait for more benevolent thinking. We have to act and act fast, and a better financial incentive would help move them to the right side of history.
- Collective advocacy of tenants associations and community organizations: Tenants associations and community organizations could move the needle building-by-building if they band together and publicly advocate for green roofs from property owners.
- New policies for existing real estate owners: New York City politicians could play hardball and deny new building permits to existing real estate owners unless they deliver a plan that they must follow to convert roofs on their existing properties to green roofs or face financial penalties.
- Reduce the cost of green roof installation: Green roofs are expensive to install, as discussed above. How might we reduce that cost to make it more accessible from a financial perspective? Could tenants and neighbors volunteer time to participate in the construction and maintenance? Could adults who want to re-skill and students interested in green roof installation be employed to help with the labor cost? Are there lower cost ways of obtaining plants to populate green roofs? Can we upcycle discarded materials to install green roofs? Like prefabricated homes, could we also prefabricate green roofs in some way?
Green roofs have too many advantages in sustainable urban development to not receive the support they need to flourish. It’s going to take creativity, tenacity, and collective action to get it done. Luckily, New Yorkers have these qualities in spades. Imagine a New York covered in green roofs. Imagine air that’s clean, cool, and healthy. Imagine equitable and wide-spread access to green space close to home. It’s possible, and together we can take it from imagination to installation.