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If a NASA scientist and her colleagues have their way, Chinatown, the Lower East Side and the East Village could soon become the greenest part of New York City.

Cynthia Rosenzweig, who heads the Climate Impacts Group at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University, presented a study to leaders from those neighborhoods describing how to lower the temperature and reduce energy demand. The results ranked the effectiveness of specific strategies for certain areas, one of which was theirs – “Lower Manhattan East.”

The presentation last week to a subgroup of Community Board 3 had a broad purpose: to initiate a partnership between the scientific community and local leaders. The goal is to bring scientific tools to bear on community-based green initiatives – as a way to do green design on a neighborhood scale and to measure and monitor its effectiveness.

Green is shorthand for sustainable, which means development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. That’s the definition a United Nations commission coined in 1987, the same definition used today in Mayor Bloomberg’s future-shaping PlaNYC 2030.

“Green is a loose term that encompasses not only care and preservation of the earth’s environment, but equity and social issues as well,” says Rosenzweig. Implementing green design on a neighborhood scale has the potential to be more effective than the building-by-building approach, she says, pointing to the Lower Manhattan East case study as evidence.

The study of this area was the first time these researchers integrated their climate and energy data and models to analyze information gathered during three heat waves in the summer of 2002. The study found that planting trees, increasing the reflectivity of roads and sidewalks, and putting vegetation on roofs could lower the temperature of the study area by one degree. This is significant because New York City’s summertime temperature is an average of 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than surrounding suburban areas, and climate change is projected to increase that.

The group doing the study formed a loose coalition called New York City Urban Modeling Consortium, including stakeholders like Con Edison and the Environmental Protection Agency, along with academics from local research institutions. Con Edison’s 14th Street power station and Community Board 3’s (CB3) current commitment to environmental planning were two factors that drew the researchers to the neighborhood.

In 2002, Con Edison agreed to a $3.75 million settlement to CB3 and environmental groups to support projects that would mitigate the adverse impacts of expanding the 14th Street facility. CB3 established the Con Edison Environmental Settlement Fund Subcommittee to oversee and allocate the funds used for clean air initiatives.

In June, the Board directed some of that money toward a program called “Greening a Block,” which will employ local residents to retrofit residential units with green technologies. After the presentation, Damaris Reyes, executive director of the housing advocacy organization Good Old Lower East Side, Inc., said the study validated the need for the “Greening” project, which her organization will be managing.

Going forward, the district will have the potential to explore even more ambitious projects. “We’re trying to use these models to show what’s potentially achievable,” said Ed Linky, a senior energy advisor from the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional office and a member of the consortium.

“We can get a baseline and then we can monitor through the decades to keep it going,” said Rosenzweig. “It will be a template for lots of other places.”

Mae Lee, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, said the presentation was interesting. “But how are we going to do something?” she asked. It’s a challenge working in an immigrant community where business interests can run counter to public health. For example, “businesses want more parking,” she said. But more parking brings more cars, and more cars means more air pollution, and more air pollution is often linked to increased asthma rates.

CB3’s challenge now is to decide what projects to pursue and how to fund the research. Paul Bartlett, chair of CB3’s Con Edison Environmental Settlement Fund Subcommittee, will be collecting the suggestions that come out of the meeting and will bring these ideas to the board’s executive committee to initiate the next steps.

“The kids get it,” Lower Eastside Girls Club Director Lyn Pentecost said of climate change. She said her organization’s volunteers are ready to do something now, like help people switch from incandescent lights to “greener” compact fluorescent bulbs.

Imagining what’s possible at the public housing complex just a short hike east on Houston Street from her club on 1st Street, Pentecost said, “If we could get 10,000 light bulbs, I could change out Baruch over the summer.”

-Brigid Bergin

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