Author Archives: George Theodore Phillips

O Christmas tree

Photo: The Hip Girls

It’s officially the time of year when we can walk up Broadway and not smell that mystery subway smoke or car exhaust, when we can breathe deeply and smell one thing… Christmas trees! Each year major city sidewalks are lined with largely impromptu tree stands, each perfuming the surrounding space. There’s a lot of time, effort and energy that goes into bringing all of those trees into the city each winter, and it is interesting to explore the unique role that these trees play in New York.

The tree at Rockefeller Center. Photo:

For starters, the city has dozens of Christmas tree stands, and they tend to be concentrated in Manhattan. Each year, Gothamist puts out a Christmas Tree Vendor Map, and while it is far from being a complete list of vendors, it is interesting to see the lack of stands in large stretches of the outer boroughs.

It begs the question: “How do people get their trees from Manhattan to their homes/apartments?” As Gothamist notes, there is no official MTA policy against carrying your tree on the subway, although proper etiquette might dictate that you get the tree properly bound, try not to litter the floor with pine needles, and at least make an attempt not to move your tree through the tubes during rush hour. Obviously one could move a tree by car, but for most of the city’s residents who don’t own a car, that just simply isn’t an option. One solution would be to have your tree delivered. While this does take away from the experience of shopping and picking your own tree, it certainly would save you plenty of time, and if many trees are delivered at once, it could be more efficient than you think.

Christmas trees for sale on the street in Manhattan. Photo:

This time of year is always important to New York, and Christmas trees play a major role. Whether it’s Rockefeller Center or your own apartment, that woody source of the sights and smells of Christmas is as much a part of New York as you are. Who knows, maybe the German tradition of Christmas trees actually caught on as an American holiday tradition some time many years ago when someone saw someone else dragging a thick Douglas Fir down Broadway!


Click here for some tips on how to select a tree, protect your home from Christmas tree fires, and properly dispose of your tree after the holiday season.

Eds, meds, and environmental friendliness

The Jerome L. Greene Science Center at Columbia University’s planned Manhattanville campus in West Harlem with the 1 Train (IRT) viaduct in the forefront – Photo: NY Observer

New York is a diverse city fueled by a wide array of industries, but when it comes to size and community impact, medicine and education are probably the largest, most influential projects after the city’s own infrastructure, real estate, and large-scale industry. These sectors, often called “Eds” and “Meds,” bring tremendous change to particular areas of the city, often dominating their neighborhoods. While hospitals and universities do not directly add to the city’s tax base because they have tax-exempt status, they indirectly serve to increase surrounding real estate values and other taxable transactions that are stimulated by growth in eds and meds. The ultimate advantage that eds play in a city’s growth, however, is their ability to reinforce the city’s attractiveness for high-wage workers.

In the coming decades, New York will see the development of two new major college campuses: Columbia University’s new Manhattanville Campus and Cornell University’s NYC Tech Campus on Roosevelt Island. Those two major projects, along with New York University’s continuing amoeba-like expansion downtown, underscore the importance that education, as an industry, plays in the character and productive capacity of New York City.

While all of these plans are primarily focused on new construction as opposed to the renovation of old structures (except for three buildings, including the old Studebaker building, in the Manhattanville plan), it is important not only to ensure that new structures pass environmental muster, but also that the plans as a whole are committed to making the city a greener place, as well as a more intelligent one.

For instance, Columbia’s Manhattanville in West Harlem campus will host a new brain sciences center building, new centers for the Business School and School of International and Public Affairs, a high school focused on math and science, and other academic and laboratory features. However, it also includes the development of park space along the Hudson River between 129th and 133rd Streets. In addition, Columbia intends to extend its growing “Green Roofs” program to the Manhattanville campus. The plan has even obtained LEED status as a neighborhood design plan. The Manhattanville Campus seems to have an environmentally friendly focus from the outset, and the first aspect of the project that is being constructed is the Hudson River park space, which is currently in development.

Site plan for the Manhattanville campus – Photo: Columbia University

Turning to Cornell’s NYC Tech campus, the architectural beauty of the plan has captivated writers and critics since Cornell defeated Stanford for the Tech campus bid and the plan was released in 2011. In particular, the five-story academic center designed by Thom Mayne has drawn tremendous praise for its design. While the plan can certainly be lauded from an architectural standpoint, it is also designed to be a “net zero” structure, meaning it produces as much energy as it consumes. While it is not clear whether “net zero” guidelines will be applied to all buildings on campus or just the Mayne structure, the concept is interesting. Through solar power in particular, along with plans for geothermal wells and even modern-day waterwheels in the East River to harvest hydro-electric power from its current, Cornell has high hopes indeed for a green campus on Roosevelt Island.

Cornell’s planned NYC Tech campus on Roosevelt Island – Photo: Cornell University

While the city’s new college campuses, and even their extant ones, have  strong environmental policies (and are striving to further green-up their campuses), it is important that city policymakers ensure that environmental friendliness in these plans extends beyond green rhetoric. The promises that planners have made need to be converted into strategies that are actually implemented by the time that these campuses are finally finished.

As for the medical side of the “eds” and “meds” dynamic, Hurricane Sandy actually offers an opportunity for the city’s damaged hospitals to (a) further diversity their sources of power and (b) redesign their structures in environmentally friendly manners with the goal of (c) building a larger environmental consciousness within the city’s hospital community. There are currently a wide array of bids up for hospital repair and construction in New York County in the wake of the storm, and hospital administrators must recognize that this gives them an opportunity to renovate and replace with an eye to environmental friendliness rather than simply replacing or repairing older, environmentally-stubborn structures. In particular, Bellevue Hospital, through its new coordinated effort with NYU’s Langone Medical Center, has a tremendous opportunity to build on the University’s environmental efforts and apply them not only to the older aspects of the physical plant at Bellevue, but also to new construction through NYU and necessary renovations post-Sandy.

That’s not to say that only storm-damaged hospitals could increase their green focus; clearly, there should be strong environmentally friendly policies at all city hospitals. Furthermore, Mayor Bloomberg has proposed $500 million in emergency hospital and school repair funds, and it is important that an environmentally friendly focus be applied to that spending.

Medical professionals evacuate patients in the wake of Hurricane Sandy – Photo: Stan Honda

Whether it is new construction such as Cornell in NYC or Manhattanville, or renovating damaged older structures like Bellevue Hospital, it is important that “eds” and “meds,” two driving forces behind the city’s growth and innovation in the global city era, actually act on their green rhetoric. The city’s environmental future is far too important to for it to be ruined by unfulfilled promises. Ultimately, policymaking pressures and anti-oversight measures should be employed to ensure that “eds” and “meds” do not just speak the rhetoric of environmental friendliness, but that they actually act on their promises and produce environmentally friendly structures.

“Greening up” public housing

The General Grant Houses in Manhattanville- Photo Credit: Flickriver

With most of New York City’s public housing projects built before the 1970’s moratorium on high-rise projects, what efforts have been made to make these government buildings more environmentally friendly?  President Carter did not include public housing projects in his environmental standards for government-run buildings in the late 70’s, and today their lack of green technology makes them economically and environmentally inefficient. Back in 2009, the Obama Administration promised $4 Billion to update the technology through retrofitting many of the structures.  While there may be little desire by policymakers to update the projects by more invasive means, there are cost-effective and environmentally friendly means that we can “green up” older public housing.

Some say the Administration’s plan, which involved switching to lower-energy lightbulbs and improving insulation and windows, is comprised of fairly rudimentary improvements.  To be certain, it is extremely difficult to retrofit any pre-1970’s-era building and make it LEED certified, much less the massive brick and concrete towers constructed throughout the five boroughs and in cities nationwide.  Other newer technologies, like solar blinds and paneling might suffer from inadequate maintenance as budgets vary over time. That’s not to say we can’t move to “green up” public housing in other ways.

One of the easiest and most useful policies could be the creation of green roofs on the top of the towers.  These roofs, in simplest form platforms for lightweight sedum, reduce the amount of sunlight that hits the building infrastructure, thereby cutting down on the amount of energy required to cool the buildings in the summer.  While creeping plants like ivy have been known to damage building infrastructure over time, constructing a lattice on the exterior of buildings on their sunny sides could similarly reduce cooling costs by shielding the sides of buildings.  The first of these two options would be extremely cost-efficient and highly practical, considering efforts to “green up” the projects is basically a retrofitting process.  While the second may involve compromising the building’s structural integrity if not carefully implemented, it could similarly serve as an effective strategy.

Example of a Green Roof- Photo Credit: Environmental Protection Agency

The green roof concept can similarly be applied to the sun-facing sides of buildings- Photo Credit: Conservation Magazine

Other measures, like the collection of rainwater in particular, might be equally effective, but the infrastructure required might prevent their feasibility in an era where few officials want to spend any money on older forms of public housing, instead diverting their attention and funding towards programs like Section 8.

While the future of public housing should clearly involve newer, greener structures — a notable example being the Via Verde development in the Bronx — we can start seeing improvement on older structures today with the simple and cost-effective solutions of green roofs and siding.

A new cost-benefit analysis for storm protection

Flooding at the 86th St. Station on the IRT line. Photo Credit- US DOT Blog

Over the past 20 years, it has become plainly clear that storm strength has been increasing. Whether you blame global warming, climate change, natural variation in global temperatures over time, or just think it’s a coincidence, larger, more powerful storms have become the norm. And the value of development in the path of those storms has increased, as well. In New York City alone, damage from Hurricane Sandy is expected to exceed $18 billion, and damage to Long Island and New Jersey figure to increase the damage to over $50 billion. On the heels of Hurricane Irene in the summer of 2011, which cost the New York Metropolitan Area (New Jersey in particular) around $15 billion, and Hurricane Katrina which caused a still largely-unpaid $125 billion in damages, it is apparent that a new storm protection system is necessary.

In the wake of Hurricane Irene, Columbia University published a study stating that if the storm surge had been only one foot larger, it would have “paralyzed lower Manhattan.” Hurricane Sandy was one foot higher, and guess what? It definitely paralyzed lower Manhattan. The natural barriers to flooding and storm surges like marshes, swamps, large sand dunes, and unoccupied barrier islands have been attenuated by human and commercial development, and while it would be interesting to bring some of those natural protection systems back, it is probably more feasible to develop a storm surge system in the New York Harbor or Atlantic Coast. While it would undoubtedly be expensive to create such a system, the cost of such infrastructure must now be squared against the ever-increasing potential costs of future storms. The idea of a storm protection system for the New York Metropolitan area is nothing new, and in the wake of the storm there have been proposals with cost estimates less than the estimated combined damage of Hurricanes Irene and Sandy. At some point, New York must accept the same realities that its former Dutch owners have incorporated into their infrastructural urban reality.

The innovative Rotterdam flood protection system. Photo Credit- Coast Learn

Since we have destroyed our own first nature flood protection systems, we must recognize the importance of new second nature storm protection systems within or around the Harbor. After all, the cost of the damages from each succeeding storm could have gone towards the cost of preventing future damages. Ultimately, if increasingly strong storms have become the norm, it is the duty of policy makers to design increasingly innovative and equally strong systems of protection to prevent the kind of damages we all saw this past week.

For a continuation of the discussion about potentially building sea gates in NYC, check out the NYTimes‘ “Room for Debate” page, including a contribution from our adviser, the director of the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities, Bill Solecki. And check out another interesting piece from the Observer on why NYC should follow the Dutch and build a sea gate.

A rare bastion for a true “first nature” park in the Bronx

Natural water and the “old growth” forest make the New York Botanical Garden one of the city’s last untouched places of natural beauty. (Photo Credit: DNAinfo)

A few weeks back, we published a piece on first and second nature elements within the city, focusing on parks as unnatural, but green elements within the urban framework. The central thesis was that parks, although they embody the qualities of nature, are the products of human design and ingenuity, and were deliberately placed within the city, as opposed to being remnants of the city’s untouched natural state. To reiterate some of the key terms from that article, “first nature” refers to the original natural elements of a space, and “second nature” refers to both human insertions into, and manipulations of said natural space. Continuing on the that theme is this piece, a spotlight on the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) in the Bronx.

In addition to holding some of the world’s top research facilities for botanists and what is basically an extensive museum of plants, the NYBG is also home to something truly unique in New York, or really any city. 50 of the garden’s 250 acres of land are comprised of “old-growth” forestation. This means that 20% of the NYBG’s space is full of trees, greenery and potentially wildlife that have been left untouched by deforestation and urban development. These trees, arguably the thickest in the five boroughs, were here when Henry Hudson first explored what would become New Amsterdam. Last year, the NYBG staff completed an exhaustive survey of plant and wildlife diversity in the forest, and the area was formally dedicated as the Thain Family Forest.

The Botanical Garden’s greenhouse and laboratory facility (Photo Credit:

While the secondhand effects of urbanization—acid rain, air pollution, etc.—have certainly impacted the forest, and it also faces problems with invasive species of plant life, it remains one of the city’s few extant first nature elements. Obviously, the forest cannot take care of itself, and the Botanical Garden requires yearly manicuring to maintain the original forest. The Gardens are staffed with some of the world’s foremost botanical experts, and protecting this segment of the garden is certainly a priority for the NYBG.

The NYBG itself is on the U.S. Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark, but draws only 800,000 visitors annually, compared to 900,000 at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and a whopping 35 million for Central Park in its entirety. While both the BBG and Central Park are certainly products of human-altered “second nature,” the “first nature” elements within the NYBG and the untouched natural beauty of the old growth forest make it a one-of-a-kind natural space.

Even the old growth forest, however, has suffered from a combination of age and the aforementioned second-hand environmental effects of urbanization. All in all, though, the forest’s thick leafy trees have survived urbanization, environmental pollution, extreme weather patterns, invasive species, and phytopathological disease within the NYBG. The old growth shows what the city used to be, and its natural beauty acts as a window to the Bronx’s past. It is important to note however, that the city’s oldest plants and wildlife, this original forestation, are provided for and protected by the NYBG.

While the trees themselves might be a part of “first nature”, their very presence, preservation, and threats to said presence are thanks to “second nature” human developments. There are very few places left in the five boroughs that are as untouched, organic, and natural as the old-growth forest in the Bronx, but it is important to remember that the future preservation of “first nature” elements goes beyond taking a hands-off approach to natural beauty. The polluting effects and second-hand damage produced by cities place an imperative on environmentalists to actively protect and preserve those remaining “first nature” elements in New York and other cities worldwide.

Parks get greener

An new, energy efficient LED light is installed into a lamp in Central Park

It’s clear that New Yorkers love their parks in all forms. High above the urban framework, separated by greenery, or integrated within the complex fabric of our global city, these verdant spaces captivate our thoughts like no other aspect of the city. We commonly view parks as environmentally friendly and green, but for a long period of time, our city’s largest parks were incredibly energy inefficient and regularly taxed our water supplies. That’s not to say parks were not or are not less energy inefficient than the buildings that might otherwise occupy their space within the urban fabric, but just because a park is a park does not mean it gets an automatic clean bill of environmental health.

Over the past decade, the parks service and the city have taken incredible steps to improve energy efficiency, especially in park lighting and water use. How we as a city can and have transformed our green parks into environmentally green urban spaces is an important development for the city’s carbon footprint and overall environmental impact.

For a long time, New Yorkers enjoyed nightlife in parks at considerable monetary and environmental cost. Early on, urbanites and The New York Times argued that the city should not light the parks, but their argument was more moralistic than it was environmental. When the city did decide to light major parks, especially Central Park, it used gas lamps. These lamps, which the Times described as “a row of invalid glow-worms” in 1866, were not very bright. This early attempt at urban lighting was replaced with electric lamps in the 1880s, and the lamps made their way to Central Park soon after its completion.

To the city’s credit, it has taken steps to improve lighting efficiency in urban parks. Rather than resting on the laurels of the park system’s natural beauty, policymakers have strived to ensure utmost energy efficiency. Until recently, the park used electric lighting, and had relied on 175-watt metal halide bulbs since the early 1980’s. Recently, though, the parks undertook a switch to 40- and 90-watt LED lamps that last longer and use as much as 62% less electricity and will eventually monetary savings as well. The LED lighting program was started by the Department of Transportation as a means of changing roadway lights, but has spread to the parks service over the past year through the Mayor’s sustainability initiative, PlaNYC.

Turning to water use, you might be surprised at how little water Central Park uses on a daily basis. The park requires 20,000 kiloliters of water each year, or the equivalent water use of just over 13,200 Americans. While the sheer magnitude and unit of measurement required to discuss the park’s water use might seem outlandish, the park’s water use is a fraction of what it was in 1999. Improved irrigation systems are chiefly to credit for this improvement, and with each passing year the park’s thick green grass wastes less and less municipal water. Improved drainage systems, bioswales and the capture and use of storm water has increased the park system’s environmental friendliness and decreased the amount of municipal water needed to keep the grass thick and green.

The parks service has taken strides to make the greenest parts of our cities environmentally friendly through its “Sustainable Parks” movement. Its most recent report, published early this year, shows that the trends of progress established in its inaugural report and 2011 plan are continuing to produce more efficient parks. The parks service’s renovation of brownfields and other decayed aspects of the urban framework like the famed High Bridge and High bridge Park further improves New York’s overall environmental footprint.

We should not automatically view parks as being environmentally friendly by their nature. Our parks, though, have become greener in a literal and an environmental sense through human ingenuity and the city’s push for greater environmental sustainability in spite of increased park use.

Photo Credit: Davis Enterprise

Is it “natural”?

Manhattan- then and now.  Photo Credit- The Welikia Project (

As cities grow greener and the urban framework works to maximize its environmental gifts like waterways and parks, certain questions must be asked. Cities in their beginnings were founded in naturally advantageous places such as near waterways, harbors, and fertile valleys among others. Today however, the most naturally gifted cities have fallen behind those places where human ingenuity has fostered a desire to constantly reinvent the urban fabric such that the once powerful connection between the city and nature has been broken. Modern consumers in urban areas choose largely to ignore where their produce, meats, construction materials, and other non-urban items come from. Furthermore, we also largely choose to ignore the fact that what we perceive as “natural,” or from nature, is quite often the product of human beings.

The terms “first nature” and “second nature” were first coined by William Cronon in his seminal work on Chicago, Nature’s Metropolis. Cronon uses “first nature” to define the purely natural aspects of cities, especially those god-given advantages that give some cities a leg up on others. A prime example of this is New York’s deep, one-of-a-kind harbor. “Second nature,” however, is used to describe those advantages that humans have created within the urban framework. Public transportation, street systems, and, most importantly, parks, are all “second nature” advantages in cities.

Take a moment to think about this. Many things that we consider most natural about our cities and our country (the greenbelts, the park systems, the green grass of the suburbs) would not exist in the true sense of “first nature.” In fact, the original grid plan for New York included one large park that was laid out so that the city would not totally override the natural state of Manhattan Island. That park, which was then military parade ground, would ultimately become Tompkins Square Park (and its current iteration is far from “first nature”). As the city grew outward towards uptown, it took “second nature” human efforts by city officials and urban landscape architects Fredrick Law Olmstead and Carl Vaux to create, rather than necessarily preserve, greenery in the form of Central and Prospect Parks.

While these parks impart a system of “natural beauty,” it is important to remember that they are as much the product of human ingenuity as they are products of nature. The tall leafy trees were carefully planted, the grass properly maintained at considerable cost, the manmade lakes (yes, they are not all natural) and countless other landscaping features were all designed to give New York and its residents yet another advantage, another way of solidifying the city’s place at the top of the urban hierarchy. Even the suburbs, which represent a compromise between rural and urban, were carefully laid out and landscaped. Certainly New York City, and Manhattan in particular, has changed greatly since its true “first nature” heyday in the early 17th century at the beginning of the Dutch settlement era. Because of this, we cannot truly consider today’s pockets of urban greenery as being the same “first nature” as the original Manhattan Island.

What’s “natural” about urban parks? This photo shows the construction of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Photo Credit- Olmstead and America’s Urban Parks (

It’s a radical way of rethinking nature and the environment within cities. Is anything in the urban framework still truly “first nature”? Obviously there are some pockets where mother nature shines through in her true form across all five boroughs, but the overall lack of true “first nature” features in cities forces us to reconsider what we think of as natural within the urban landscape. In fact, some of the only places left largely untouched directly by man are in danger of pollution from the secondhand effects of urbanization. We must recognize that the things that we consider little oases of greenery are not natural. Rather, they are human products of an era in which small islands of nature could be actively placed within cities to make the urban habitat more livable. Furthermore, this realization forces us to rethink how we explore “nature” in an urban context.

The next time you go to a park, consider the human input required to maintain it, the careful planning of its undulating pathways and changes in elevation, the presence of thick green grass. This acknowledgement of the human element in “second nature” greenery does not necessarily have to decrease your enjoyment of such spaces. Instead, we must be cognizant of the fact that when we canoe down the Bronx River, our ability to do so is not necessarily a “first nature” ability, but rather the product of tremendous human ingenuity to restore, protect and maintain a quasi- “first nature” state. When we revel in the long bike path and the breeze biking down Riverside Park, we must remember that it took tremendous human effort for that possibility even to occur.

While we cannot and should not forget Mother Nature, it would be a disservice to urban environmentalists past, present, and future to assume that these natural elements were simply the products of “first nature”.  To ignore the human element would be to forget how far we’ve come in making our cities organic and more connected to nature, and similarly to forget our tremendous ability to continue this trend towards a brighter, greener urban future.

Here is a photo of the construction of the “natural” beauty of Central Park in Manhattan. Photo Credit- The Bowery Boys (

Interesting links on the topic of NYC’s first and second nature states:

To see what New York City’s parks looked like before they became the islands of green that we know them as today, peruse the “Before They Were Parks” website provided by the Department of Parks and Recreation.

If you would like to explore Manhattan Island in its original “first nature” state at the time of the initial Dutch settlement, check out The Welikia Project, or pick up a copy of Welikia Director Dr. Eric C. Sanderson’s book Manhatta: A Natural History of New York City.

Enjoy Dr. Sanderson’s interview with City Atlas as well!