When perusing the internet, I stumbled upon the Ecovillage Ithaca a while ago. As a planner and as a New Yorker who has yet to suffer through another putrid summer in the city, I was mesmerized. Of course I could see myself sitting on the porch of my high-energy efficiency house, after a long day’s work tending to my organically growing kale in my back yard, gazing into the nearby woods feeling in harmony with myself and the planet.
Then I thought, wait a minute, what the hell would I do in Ithaca, and planning rationality slowly set in. As nice as the whole eco village seems it looks like it has been popped right in the middle of nowhere, displacing whatever was there before and far away from anything, which probably means that you need a car like every other suburbanite. And even if your car is a Prius, having a car is environmentally worse than not having one: David Owen in his book “The Green Metropolis” made it quite clear that there actually is a tremendous ecological value in living in a dense urban environment, not owning a car and relying on public transportation; this might be a disgusting on a muggy day, but at least you can feel morally superior.
Then something rare and beautiful happened – I started thinking. What if there was an eco village right in the middle of the city? What would it look like and how could it be done? I started looking at my neighborhood, Jackson Heights, imagining all the things that would have to happen to make it not only a nice place to live (what it already is) but an Urban Green District. I didn’t pick that neighborhood because I think it has anything special – I rather believe to think that it is quite typical for other medium-density New York City neighborhoods, which means that the Urban Green District could be replicated in many other places; choosing my ‘hood was just a matter of convenience, and for a planner, it actually pays to have been to the place you’re planning for.
Before we take the journey to this as of yet imaginary wonderful green oasis in the middle of Queens (of all places) – what does the neighborhood look like today?
The area I chose to look at – once again, simple as a matter of convenience – is roughly bounded by Northern Boulevard to the north, 82nd Street to the east, 37th Avenue to the south and 76th Street to the west (see figure 1). Most of the area is in the Jackson Heights historic District, and the majority of the focus area consists of pre-war apartment buildings, ranging in height between four and six stories. Very few buildings have private parking and many of them have private landscaped court yards. These private gardens provide somewhat of relief for the lack of public open space. The only larger park in Jackson Heights, Travers Park in the northwest corner of the area, is serving not just the focus area itself but many more residents beyond. Much of Travers Park consists of asphalted ball fields, a smaller playground area; 78th Street, between Northern Boulevard and 34th Avenue, has been permanently closed and turned into a Playstreet. Recently, a parcel east of the Playstreet, an asphalted ball field that formerly belonged to the Garden School, was added to Travers Park.
Northern Boulevard, the northern boundary of the area, is a heavily travelled multilane arterial road, and land uses there consist of car dealerships and strip mall like businesses; the southern border of the area, 37th Avenue, is the neighborhood’s commercial strip with small-scale retail, supermarkets and restaurants. In the focus area, the commercial strip is lined mostly by one and two-story commercial structures, while further east, it is mixed-use with ground floor neighborhood retail and apartments above. The study area is dotted with a few community facilities, mainly churches and schools, most of them in the northern section and along 37th Avenue. As can be suspected the area is fairly densely populated. According to Department of City Planning land use data the area features 4,667 apartments, which translates into a population of an estimated 14-15,000, in an area of about 18 city blocks.
The area has excellent transit access (see figure 2). While there is no subway stop in the area itself, the 82nd Street 7 subway train station and the 74th Street – Roosevelt Avenue station, a major subway hub served by the E, F, M, R and 7 trains, and terminal to many bus lines, including the express bus to LaGuardia airport, are only a few blocks to the south, on Roosevelt Avenue. The Q32 and Q33 buses traverse the area at its eastern border, along 81st and 82nd Streets, and the Q49 bus travels east-west along 35th Avenue. The Q66 bus runs along Northern Boulevard. With the exception of the latter, all these buses provide access to either the Roosevelt Avenue or 82nd Street subway stations or both.
With the exception of Northern Boulevard, all streets in the area are neighborhood streets – the north-south streets are generally one-way streets, the east west avenues generally two-way. 34th Avenue has a narrow, landscaped median, and also features and painted bike lane. All neighborhood streets allow for on-street parking; on 37th Avenue, the commercial strip, parking is metered.
What, now, can be done to transform this fairly typical medium density New York City neighborhood into and Urban Green District?
Land Use and Buildings
As mentioned, the focus area is already built-up. The proposed land use changes (see figure 3) are comparatively minor, but would be most dramatic along Northern Boulevard. Currently, the zoning there prohibits residential uses, or allows only for low-density mixed-used development. The zoning would be changed to allow for medium density mixed-use development along Northern Boulevard.
To redevelop the one- and two-story commercial structures along 37th Avenue in south of the focus area, no zoning changes are necessary. If the parcels along Northern Boulevard and along 37th Avenue were to be redeveloped with mixed-use commercial-residential buildings similar in bulk to the apartment buildings already existing in the area, an additional 550-600 units could be developed, an increase in the housing supply by about 12 percent. These new buildings, of course, would feature permanently affordable housing units under New York City’s inclusionary housing program and would be developed under strict environmental standards such as the LEED or Enterprise Green Communities guidelines.
The existing buildings, most of them pre-war, would be updated with better insulation, especially the roofs, energy efficient windows and other high efficiency building systems.
One block front along Northern Boulevard would be reserved for the area’s “Ian McHarg Green District Center”, a multipurpose building that would house several critical functions for the Green District, for example for energy production, waste management, transportation, etc., as described below.
Another more dramatic land use change would be the expansion and the redesign of Travers Park (see figure 4).
Currently consisting mainly of two asphalt ball fields on either side of the 78th Street Playstreet, Travers would be expanded to include the school yard of IS 145, and parts of 77th, 79th and 80th streets, in addition to the 78th St. Playstreet. The park would also be totally remodeled – ball fields would be spread throughout the new park, separated by planted areas that can absorb stormwater. A rainwater pond would serve as a rainwater retention feature at the lowest part of the area – roughly located in the northwest corner – and serve as a stormwater control feature for the whole area. A market square with amenities would serve as a gathering place for the community and an area for the Green Market which already serves the neighborhood yearlong on Sundays. The facilities would be designed in a way that parts of the ball fields are accessible to students only during school hours, but to the community as a whole during off hours and weekends.
A new playground would also be added along 37th Avenue, next to a school, incorporating a closed segment of 77th Street, providing an important amenity and increasing traffic safety.
Streets & Transportation
One of the most dramatic changes would affect the area streets (see figure 5). All the north south streets would be closed for car traffic, only allowing for access for deliveries and emergency services. Movable bollards would regulate access. Streets would be narrowed to about 20-25 feet in width and used generally only by bikers and pedestrians. All on street parking would be removed. Sidewalks and parking lanes – 15 to 20 feet on either side – would be redesigned as planted areas that would also feature as bioswales for managing the District’s stormwater.
East-west Streets – 34th and 37th avenues, would be narrowed to one lane with no on-street parking. The only traffic allowed there would be buses, deliveries and emergency services on a shared roadway with bikers and pedestrians. The extra roadspace would be used for green areas and bioswales, as on the side streets.
Since 34th and 35th avenues would become one way streets in the District, the Q49 bus, which currently runs exclusively along 35th Avenue – would run eastbound on 35th Avenue and westbound on 34th Avenue.
The District would feature a bike share system, similar to Citibike in other parts of New York City, with stations distributed throughout the District. In addition, bike share stations would be provided at the subway stations on 82nd Street and 74th Street/Roosevelt Avenue, and the Green District Center. As some residents might need access to cars for means of transport, the Green District Center will also feature a car-share garage with electric vehicles available for District and neighborhood residents, and a few parking spaces for private users.
By transforming the areas open space and large parts of the street network into permeable green space and bioswales, as well as providing a rain water collect pond, a large part of the District’s stormwater would be diverted from the city’s combined sewer system reducing the likelihood of combined sewer overflows.
Instead of biweekly trash and recycling pick-up for every individual building, trash and recyclables would be carted with electric vehicles to the Green District Center. There it would be pre-sorted and compressed and picked up only once a week by the Department of Sanitation. Organic waste would be processed on-site in the District Center through digesters and composted, to be used locally in the open space.
Through the building improvements mentioned above, energy consumption would be reduced. In addition, as buildings get gradually updated, PV panels would be installed on the roofs; assuming that about half the roof area would be used for solar panels (some areas might not be usable because of fire department regulations or might be shaded, etc.), roughly 120 apartments could meet their total energy demand with solar energy, assuming average household consumption rates and solar energy yields for New York State.
The remainder of the District’s hot water, heating and electricity needs would be supplied by a natural gas-powered cogeneration plant in the Green District Center which would replace oil-fired burners for individual buildings, and cover the energy demand not supplied by the PV system.
By systematically discouraging vehicular transportation by removing on-street parking and providing alternatives through bike share and better walkability, the overall energy consumption of residents would be further reduced.
Local Food Systems and Economy
The roof of the Green District Center – about 20,000 sf – would we used for greenhouses that can supplement local food demand. Synergies between the composting facility and the co-generation facility, also located in the Green District Center, should be used, for example, by providing soil and energy to produce food year-round. The farming on the District Center and other suitable parcels in the area would create some local jobs, but also create opportunities for local food-related businesses. Other jobs would be created by the operation of the Center itself, as a hub for the District’s energy production and waste management and transportation needs.
In addition, the district Center should also provide flexible work space for start-ups and telecommuters who would be provided with a work space and supporting services such as child care. The Center’s educational programs would inform residents and non-residents about sustainable living and provide a focal point for the community.
Livability in the Green District would be greatly improved by providing safe, car free streets, more green space and drastically reducing noise pollution through traffic, and providing more services locally. Bikeshare and increased walkability would encourage healthier lifestyles. Air pollution through traffic and building systems would be dramatically reduced.
Jackson Heights – as the name suggests –is located well above flood and NYC evacuation areas thus exposing the local population to less risk from natural disasters. By reducing the storm water run-off within the District, the District would reduce the risk of combined sewer overflows for the entire sewer shed. Taking the District effectively off the grid would reduce stress on the electricity system during times of very high demand, for example during heat waves. The District’s PV system would also create a back-up system for the District’s residents should the co-generation plant and/or the larger grid fail.
Could it be done?
Obviously, transforming a neighborhood into a Green District overnight is an expensive proposition that requires significant infrastructure investments. Not everything, however, has to be done overnight. As building systems need to be updated, they can be replaced with a Green District in mind. If a building needs a new roof, a PV system, that might in the future become part of a District-wide energy system, might be considered. When sewers and other infrastructure need to be replaced, a district wide drainage plan might be developed. Of course some rules and regulations would need to be changed to redesign streets and to allow them to be closed off.
Above all, however, the residents in the Green District would have to subscribe to this vision, even if it means to get rid of on-street parking.