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The Big Idea

Making New York City more energy efficient

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More than half the population of New York City rides public transportation to work. No other metropolis in this country even approaches that percentage or the MTA's total number of riders. For that reason, New York likely ranks as the most energy-efficient city in the nation.

"Adjusting a single variable can have a profound effect on the environmental performance of cities," says Michael Sorkin, an urbanist and an architect for 40-ish years. He runs a graduate program on urban design and has written a whole bunch of books. He also founded Terreform an advocacy group seeking to answer one enormous question: "Would it be possible for New York City to become completely self-sufficient within its political boundaries?"

Renderings coat the walls of Sorkin's office illustrate Terreform's neighborhoods of the future where inhabitants walk to work, school, recreation, cultural and commercial activities, and the vertical farms allowing them to grow everything they eat. That imagined New York requires very little of the transportation infrastructure that currently makes our New York so energy-efficient.

"In order to make this go, in terms of power, we would need to build the equivalent of 25 nuclear power plants on Staten Island," he says.

Sorkin sees reality and not never-never land when he looks out over this landscape. The good people of Staten Island don't want an army of nuclear reactors in their backyards. But even a scheme where New York City becomes, say, 30 percent self-sufficient would reduce this city's current ecological footprint by a giant un-estimate able amount.

"Every day we actually improve on our buildings and systems," says Michael Gubbins, the senior vice president of residential management for the Albanese Organization. He oversees one of just two Platinum LEED-certified buildings in the city.

The Solaire recycles 30,000 gallons of waste water every day. Its green roofs collect storm water and help to insulate the building, keeping it cooler or warmer depending on the season. Fruit and vegetable gardens supply residents with plenty of ammunition for their salads. Factor in central heating and twice-filtered air, and the Solaire's more than 700 residents use 55 percent less water and pay 40 percent less on their energy bills than those in your average residential high-rise.

And yet even a whole city of Solaires likely fails to meet Terreform's 30-percent scheme.

"The technology is not rocket science," Sorkin says.

One finds no magic in solar paneling or hydroponic agriculture. The challenge lies in creating an entire city that functions synergistically, integrating all its systems to work on demand as those in the Solaire try to.

"Our clean-energy solution needs to be a conglomerate of the all the technologies we have," says Darius Salgo, an urban green energy mechanical engineer who installed the wind turbines atop 388 Bridge Street. The energy they produce powers the lights encircling the summit of the tallest building in Brooklyn.

A couple of turbines won't leave Sorkin satisfied, but perhaps represent progress, no matter how slow.

"The question is: How far are you willing to go and how dire is the actual emergency?" he says. Pretty dire, he says.

"If everybody on the globe were to consume at the rates that Americans and Europeans and Canadians do, we would require the surface area of three more planets to supply everybody in the world right now, so obviously something needs to be done," he says. "It's an emergency."

And one to which Sorkin believes we already possess the remedy.

"There are obviously cost factors and there are big integration factors and, I think most importantly, there is the factor of politics and will," he says.

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