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Workshop Explores Career Development in Context of Sustainable Development

Speakers from the field of sustainable building visited Wagner on March 28 to participate in a workshop discussion entitled “Green Building, LEED and Planning.”

The event, co-sponsored by Wagner’s Urban Planning Student Association and the American Planning Association (APA) Student Chapter,  drew students from the urban planning and nonprofit management programs at Wagner to engage with speakers Chris Mahase, Sustainability Director of the NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD); Brian Wennersten, Associate Director of Turner & Townsend Ferzan Robbins; and Meagan Rossi, Student Regional Chair of the NYC Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

The second in a series, the workshop mixed career development advice and discussion about the direction of future sustainable buildings. Increasing education on the importance and benefits of sustainability, and concerns about energy prices and large carbon footprints, have driven the demand for professionals who have a deep understanding of sustainable buildings and communities. Certifications such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), Accredited Professionals (AP) and Green Associate (GA), have become an important standard for planners, architects, and professionals interested in sustainable buildings, housing, neighborhood design, and energy efficiency.

The decision to seek some sort of sustainable building certification may seem natural to some, but for many others in the housing, development and planning fields, the benefits of gaining a deep understanding of sustainability standards are realized over time. Mahase’s work on the development and preservation of affordable housing stock in New York City with NYC Housing Preservation & Development led to projects strongly shaped by the City’s sustainability initiatives, and requiring expertise on more technical aspects of building envelopes. While Mahase recognizes that there are challenges to building green communities and energy efficient housing stock while at the same time reducing costs and making housing affordable, he points out that green buildings are the standard of the future. It is crucial for planners and professionals working in the fields of housing and neighborhood development to understand technical elements of green buildings to become better decision makers and facilitators in their work, he said.

Mahase shared an exciting green building development in New York City, where changes in the public understanding of the importance of sustainability have led to groundbreaking discussions over external installations of building insulation. External insulation encroaches upon existing sidewalk space since most buildings in the city are currently built out to the lot line; however, increasing recognition of the energy and cost savings of insulation, along with greenhouse gas reduction impacts, has allowed a change in public discourse over the built structures shaping the city. The city’s allowance of building beyond established lot lines for the sake of greening the building stock is indicative of the weight and importance granted to green buildings today.

The breadth and depth of the sustainable building and community field are continuing to evolve. Wennersten and Rossi shared information on the LEED certification preparation and exam process, as well as opportunities within the NYC area for connecting with the sustainable building community. Students interested in green buildings and communities have a rich array of resources at their disposal; NYU’s Sustainability Task Force is highly active in developing sustainability policies and practices throughout the university. Urban Green Council, the NYC chapter of the USGBC, hosts a large number of events and educational seminars for seasoned and emerging professionals interested in sustainability in urban buildings. NYU Wagner is also an excellent place to start student chapters of the USGBC, or study groups for the LEED accreditation exam. To learn more about LEED certified projects and the LEED accreditation process, visit the USGBC LEED site here.

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As glaciers melt, adapting means more than cold, hard science

SCIENCE IS SO ELEGANTLY straightforward. Greenhouse gas emissions go up, the earth warms, glaciers melt, and some places get wetter while other places get drier.

Mark Carey, environmental historian at Washington & Lee University, certainly didn’t question climate feedbacks, and showed iconic photographic evidence of slowly retreating glaciers in the Peruvian Andes. What Carey did question during his lecture November 17 at NYU Wagner — the latest in the “Climate Change and Water” series sponsored by the school — was how climate science is used, and whether the equations really take all of the relevant variables needed for effective adaptation efforts into account.

Using the Cordillera Blanca range in the Peruvian Andes, Carey made a case for climate adaptation work in glacial areas to go beyond hard science into the muddy realm of historical trends, culture, and governance in the region. Why? Because glacial regions are naturally hazardous and unpredictable – glaciers are lax in staying put, and when they move around, the resulting earthquakes, avalanches and flash floods can wipe out villages and kill untold thousands in the valleys below. A warmer world exacerbates these incubating risks, and governments and international donors stand ready to prepare hazard mitigation projects designed by teams of engineers and other technicians.

Questions of adequate funding aside, things can get a little prickly. The science of engineers, glaciologists and climatologists isn’t so great at predicting human behavior – and its biases can result in conflicting situations and thus hamper efforts to reduce risks for vulnerable populations. Carey offered he hydro power sector as an example, showing first the historical influence of macroeconomic policy in promoting hydro development, and how the now-privatized sector continues to develop and compete with other users (e.g. farmers) for dwindling water supplies. 

Competition for water use resulted in the forcible takeover of a Duke Energy dam by local farmers, following accusations that the company was taking an unfair share of the supply and leaving them with too little for their crops. In a question of who has the ultimate right to a common-pool resource; the lack of legal and institutional clarity has resulted in an impasse that has lasted well over a year. Similarly, Carey reported on situations where glacier scientists, company representatives and government workers have become entangled in conflicts and occasional stone throwing, largely due to inattention to local attitudes and governance structures in studies and project work.

The main take-away of the presentation was that adaptation measures need not neglect history or fail to integrate the technical and social sciences — and can effectively mitigate conflicts in helping regions adapt to disappearing glaciers. Carey proposes a framework that gives some weight to sociocultural and governance issues, along with the technical questions Perhaps a next challenge is figuring out how to operationally integrate hard and soft sciences —  before the glaciers melt.