Paying Private Property Owners in NYC to "Go Green"

New York City is approximately 72% impervious. With 218 square miles of paved area—surfaces such as parking lots, building rooftops, streets, and sidewalks—water has nowhere to go when it rains but run down the streets and into gutters, collecting an array of toxic pollutants before it ends up in local waterways.
The Javits Center on Manhattan’s West Side recently installed a 6.75-acre green roof, the second largest of its kind in the U.S. The green roof has helped to reduce the building’s energy consumption by 26% while creating a wildlife sanctuary.

As hip-hop megastar Jay-Z has noted, New York City (NYC) is a “concrete jungle where dreams are made of.” But New York’s real potential may lie in replacing a large portion of that concrete with real plants and trees, an effort which could turn New York City into the largest and most dynamic stormwater market in the world.

Today, and together with our partners from New York University Stern Center for Sustainable Business, NRDC is presenting the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) with a report containing our recommendations for stimulating widespread use of green infrastructure on private property in NYC, which would help create that market. In the report, we provide a roadmap for creating a new, desperately needed, and large-scale private property grant program to help reduce stormwater runoff from existing development using green infrastructure.

This op-ed we co-authored in the New York Daily News helps outline what’s at stake when it comes to NYC’s green infrastructure decisions. More than 20 billion gallons of untreated sewage and polluted stormwater sludge flows into the waterways of NYC each year.  Like other cities with chronic stormwater and sewage overflows, NYC faces mighty—but manageable—challenges to clean up this mess and make our waterways safe and healthy.  

NYC is approximately 72% impervious. With all that paved area—surfaces such as parking lots, building rooftops, streets, and sidewalks—water has nowhere to go when it rains but run down the streets and into gutters, collecting an array of toxic pollutants before it ends up in local waterways.

To help reduce the city’s stormwater runoff problems, DEP has made commitments to “green” 8,000 acres of impervious area by 2030. This method of capturing rain water where it falls is commonly referred to as “green infrastructure,” which includes rain gardens, green roofs, and roadside plantings, to name a few examples.

DEP aims to “go green” primarily by managing some of the stormwater from city-controlled land such as streets and sidewalks. NYC has built over 4,000 green infrastructure installations along sidewalks for this purpose to help keep some of the stormwater out of storm drains and local waterways.  But more than 50 percent of the land DEP has targeted for green infrastructure is privately owned, and DEP has recognized that it cannot reach its mandated green infrastructure goals by focusing only on the public right-of-way.

DEP needs private property owners to go green, too. That’s why the agency approached our team at NRDC for help in designing the most effective program possible that would get the greened acres it needs at the lowest cost and with maximum social benefit.

We make recommendations based on more than 250 expert interviews, stakeholder meetings, and the work of an NRDC finance analyst working from DEP’s offices.  There are two essential, complementary policy strategies that create a foundation for greening private land in cities around the country but are missing in New York:  

·         Strengthening green building standards for stormwater management in new construction projects.

·         Restructuring water rates to shift costs to properties that generate relatively large amounts of runoff, and away from those that generate a relatively little.

In addition, we make the recommendations detailed below:                                              

·         Commit decisively to make green infrastructure on private property a core component of the City’s green infrastructure and sustainability efforts.

·         Create a new grant program to help motivate private property owners to retrofit existing properties with green infrastructure:

o   Make the new program as transparent, simple, and easy to use as possible.

o   Engage a third party to administer the new program.

o   Bring Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) into the program as critical partners and help achieve the Mayor’s OneNYC goals for a more resilient, equitable, and sustainable city.

o   Look to affordable housing as an opportunity for green infrastructure to support both clean water goals and broader OneNYC goals.

·         DEP cannot do this alone.  The City should integrate green stormwater infrastructure throughout all relevant city agencies, programs, and policies.

There is more to meets the eye when it comes to the City’s green infrastructure commitments. We are proud that a wide-ranging group of stakeholders—from CBOs to local and national environmental advocacy groups to community development corporations—is urging DEP to take our recommendations seriously. These groups realize that impervious area not only drives pollution in our waterways, but also brings a slate of additional negative impacts. These surfaces also contribute to the urban heat island effect, raising costs to keep buildings cool, while making the City less resilient to climate change impacts such as localized flooding during rainstorms. Supporters of green infrastructure also see that large-scale and citywide green infrastructure investments can create jobs, transform neighborhoods, and improve livelihoods—and that green infrastructure can serve as a critical, yet under-utilized, catalyst to improving historically underserved communities and meeting the goals of the OneNYC sustainability plan. 

Creating a program that can green thousands of acres of land on private property is necessary, and allows the City to achieve its greening at a lower cost than trying to accomplish it all on publicly owned land. However, as we suggest in our recommendations, much needs to be done to position a new grant program for success. New York City has an existing yet very small-scale Green Infrastructure Grant Program, which has only completed 34 projects in the six years since program inception.

NYC has a lot to learn from green infrastructure grant programs and stormwater policies in other cities—Philadelphia in particular. Ultimately, NYC will need a program that is tailored to the City’s unique needs and caters to the City’s unique strengths—particularly its dynamic, hardworking, and entrepreneurial residents. We have seen the City surpass expectations when it comes to meeting ambitious carbon emissions reduction goals, which also focus on private property owners as key change agents. The City now needs to bring similarly ambitious goals—working across City agencies including DEP—to take advantage of low-cost opportunities to reduce stormwater runoff from private land, and help lift up our communities in the process.