By Kevin E. Foley
Earth Day has evolved from a one-day awareness event to an almost daily contemplation of the planet’s challenges and vulnerabilities. Still during this period (Earth Day was Monday, April 22) local and national groups of various kinds use the moment for an extra push for new consciousness and new policies to foster harmony between humankind and the rest of the natural world.
Last Thursday, April 18, the Garrison Institute, together with its local food partner Fresh Company, hosted an evening of earth awareness combining fine, informal dining with a thought-provoking presentation. Held in the institute’s hallowed dining hall with its monk’s retreat walls and long communal tables, an audience of over 100 enjoyed food derived from as many local Hudson Valley and regional sources as Fresh Company co-owner and executive chef Shelley Boris could summon.
Offerings included Reuben sandwiches and spicy falafel as appetizers with roasted local chicken and radiator pasta mixed with an assortment of vegetables as the entrees. “I was inspired to make a menu that was European, slightly Jewish with a few things from New York City,” she said, singling out eggs from Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn and beer from a brewery in the Bronx as examples.
The main course of the evening however, was a presentation by the institute’s co-founder, real estate developer Jonathan Rose, who specializes in buildings that emphasize sustainable living. “The institute was once occupied by Capuchin monks, and when they lived here they lived entirely, sustainably off the land. They grew their own food. When we came here we saw a whole section where they canned strawberries and raspberries, fruit for the winter. It comes from a much older ethos in which humans and nature were much more intertwined,” he said, setting the theme for his talk.
Although speaking in an exurban redoubt, Rose’s principal concern was the integration of nature with growing urban populations (in this case New York City) amidst vast global shifts in both environmental and economic conditions. “We need to figure out how do we build extraordinarily dense cities,” because he said over 70 percent of the world’s growing population will be in cities in the near future, as both the young seek work and friendship and the old (who have money) look to be near family and culture.
He described a world awash in threat from an array of factors, including increasing weather, financial market and public health volatility, making the future a more uncertain proposition despite our access to greater modes of information. He starkly predicted dramatic population shifts that would include climate refugees fleeing regions with insufficient resources to sustain life. Drought, soil erosion and overuse of water resources were among his eco-observations, statistically underlined by the assertion that 10 times as many people are likely to die from heat waves and droughts than flood, despite the threat of rising oceans.
“The world is more complex because it is more tied together, more global, outcomes are therefore more ambiguous,” said Rose.
Growing inequality between the rich and the poor around the world presents yet another threat Rose said would challenge the foundation of societies if not addressed in some productive way. You need connectivity and dis-connectivity, the need to function separately.
Diversity, leadership and planning
For cities to be healthy enough to support larger populations, certain attributes will be required, diversity chief among them, according to Rose — diversity in population including age, income, ethnic mix, diversity in businesses to meet the population’s needs and diversity in biological systems to support life.
Rose said cities will need to be both connected to the larger power grids and also have the capacity to disconnect (using solar and other alternative energy sources) to be able to ride out disruptions caused by storms, economic turmoil or terrorist acts.
“And you need strong leadership in cities (he gave a hat tip to NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg) but we also need to recognize dictatorships fail, so at the same time you need democracy and (citizen) participation,” said Rose. “And you need planning. The plans can’t be static. The world is changing rapidly.” He said urban planning requires “dynamic flexibility,” citing how long developing a relatively simple zoning code for the Town of Philipstown took and the length of time between revisions as handy local examples of the inability to respond effectively to more rapidly changing factors.
As he focused on the NYC metropolitan area, he referenced a large shift in a relatively short period of time that illuminates his thesis on the move toward greater urban living. From 1990 to 2000 only 10 percent of the region’s building permits were filed in NYC rather than the surrounding areas. But by 2008, 70 percent of the region’s permits were within the five boroughs.
Zeroing in on a project he is developing in the Bronx, Rose first displayed a picture slide that showed a 1996 South Bronx with abundant brown, empty land. “The South Bronx burnt to the ground in the previous decades; 321,000 housing units were lost,” he said. But Rose noted the city had infrastructure investments such as subways and water and sewer lines that could still yield additional returns. Today the same area is filled in with developments.
Rose’s concept — designing with nature — goes further than the average new South Bronx housing project. His building is angled to allow for a terraced downward slope from the rooftop to better capture the southern light. Anticipating warmer seasons, the design utilizes greater open space and large windows and doors together with ceiling fans to allow for greater cooling airflow and ventilation. Large shades will deflect the sun in summer but allow for its warming influence in winter. Gardens on every level bring the earth to the building with all its natural potential. At the top the garden area allows for meditation and reflection amidst the flowers. On other levels vegetables and fruit are grown for sustainable and communal sustenance. Solar panels are deployed to provide an alternative source of energy, especially for elevators and lighting in an emergency. Children’s play areas and a performance space will encourage cultural and social engagement right on the site.
“It’s a model of how you can rebuild a city in a way that is in alignment with nature and actually brings nature back into the building. It uses the forces of nature, the sun and the wind to reduce its environmental impact.”
In conclusion Rose summoned his audience to a greater awareness of and commitment to the need to create urban environments with more social justice and social equity. “That really, I think, is the challenge that we who live in the Hudson River Valley have to face. We live in an incredibly bountiful area. In many ways our issues are much simpler here than they are in the South Bronx.”
Photos by Bhavya Reddy/Garrison Institute