11 of 17: Making the case for Sustainable Zoning in New York. Could Cape Town follow?

Making cities more sustainable is vital if COP17′s goal of tackling climate change is to be achieved. In our 11th article in a series of 17 Sustainable Ideas for COP17 , Claudia Huerta looks at how the zoning of cities can be used to promote more sustainable environments, as well as exploring potential drawbacks. 

 In September, the New York City Bar Association Committee on Land Use, Planning, and Zoning published a paper about the future of zoning titled “Further Utilizing the Zoning Resolution to Create a More Sustainable New York City, Better Prepared to Adapt to Climate Change.” The paper was based on ideas presented at recent forums held at City College that brought together planning minds from throughout New York City to discuss how the 50 year-old Zoning Resolution can be used to reduce carbon emissions, improve sustainability and help the city address climate change realities.

At its core, zoning designates and defines residential, commercial, and manufacturing districts throughout a city. In New York City it also regulates the use of land, the size, height and even shape of buildings, grants bonuses for amenities and social equity provisions like affordable housing, and outlines the approval processes for special permits and variances. The NYC Bar Association Committee advocated that through amendments, the current Zoning Resolution could make the city more sustainable.

The call for sustainable zoning amendments is long overdue. Since the release of PlaNYC in 2007, the city’s overarching sustainability document, “green” stipulations have been added to the Resolution. These include encouraging transit oriented development (TOD), requiring bicycle parking in new buildings and garages, and calling for stricter permeable surface regulations. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn have also put together a Green Codes Task Force to update the Building Codes to include new green sustainable standards and rules.

One particular strategy that seems reasonable as an incentive to help produce more sustainable development is the “Sustainable Building Program.” The program would provide additional incentives for developers to exceed required energy and emissions standards by providing similar incentives like the current affordable housing provision bonuses like additional FAR (floor area ratio) bonuses, permitted obstructions (like solar panels), or waivers of certain height and setback requirements. While these policies sound like no-brainers, setting sustainability standards for developers to meet can be difficult.  As more “green” policies take effect and newer more sustainable technologies hit the marketplace, choosing the most effective “sustainability” amendment for a long-term zoning code is becoming increasingly difficult.

With such high growth in green technology markets, sustainable products are becoming more economically competitive with their non-green counterparts.  As the playing field levels, setting sustainability performance system goals also becomes more complicated than simply demanding a higher energy performance matrix of today’s mainstream systems. If goals are set too low they will have to be updated more regularly in order for the sustainability code benefits to outperform what the market is otherwise producing without government intervention. Moreover, policy and regulation change in the public sector tends to be time-intensive, thus choosing optimum sustainability performance goals becomes even more paramount for policy makers.

Last year in 2010 the New York City Solar America City Partnership selected several neighborhoods that are susceptible to brownouts and blackouts but could support large-scale solar energy production as Solar Empowerment Zones. However, current height and setback provisions and yard regulations prohibit solar panels on rooftops or in yards because solar panels or wind turbines are not part of the permitted obstructions that can exceed maximum building heights. This means that if building owners want to make their buildings greener and install solar panels or wind turbines, they face an uphill battle of zoning disincentives that make going green onerous.

While this might seem perverse, it is understandable why some policy makers are weary of permitting solar panels and wind turbines installations on top of New York City roofs. Enormous solar panels or wind turbines could forever transform the New York City skyline in an aesthetically negative way. Solar panels and wind turbines have already faced staunch opposition from politicians, preservationists, developers and community members. If they are to take off in cities less environmentally progressive than Portland, Oregon, they might need to be even smaller than the current small wind turbines and solar panels made for urban renewable energy farms.

Today, 50 years after New York City’s second official Zoning Resolution in 1961, the question many planning professionals, professors and policy makers are asking is: “What is the future of zoning for New York City?” The New York City Bar Association takes a stab at delineating a current issue that zoning has so far not adequately addressed: sustainability. New York City has changed drastically since 1961, and as it continues to change amidst growing concerns for climate change, the Zoning Resolution should change with it. This means deciding what amendments should be added to help promote and create a greener, more sustainable environment and mitigate climate change impacts in New York City.

17 Sustainable Ideas for COP17 is a collaboration between This Big City and Future Cape Town running alongside the United Nations Climate Change Conference from November 28th to December 9th.

Image courtesy of onesevenone and Salim Virji on flickr