Save NYC's Abandoned Buildings, Save the Planet

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vacant-building-nyc-homeless-environment By Alex Davies, Communications Coordinator

In a January 2012 report, grassroots advocacy group Picture the Homeless surveyed vacant buildings and properties in New York City, finding enough space to house nearly 200,000 people — four times the homeless population of the city.

As the Center expands its work on environmental issues, I've been thinking about how the expression, "the greenest brick is the one already in the wall" applies to the report. It's the unofficial mantra of the design section of TreeHugger, an environmental blog I contribute to. Here's a simpler way to put it: It's a waste (of time, money, energy, and resources) to build an entirely new structure when there's one already there. 

The Picture the Homeless report focuses on the social and economic costs of vacant properties, charging: "NYC's laissez-faire free-market strategy for dealing with empty buildings and lots harms communities and helps big real estate." In its view, owners of vacant properties refuse to undertake renovation until the neighborhood gentrifies, at which point they sell to developers, who demolish the old buildings and construct new ones.

READ MORE: Students and the Homeless Share a Classroom to Advocate for Change

Build Resilient

Sidestepping the political and economic issues here, I want to address the environmental question Picture the Homeless didn't bring up. For those who don't spend their time reading and writing for environmental blogs, "resilience" has replaced "sustainability" as the new buzzword.

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Resilient buildings don't need LEED certification; they don't rely on fancy technology to reduce energy use. Rather, they are simple, durable, and stand the test of time. Ever been to the Louvre or the Coliseum? They were built centuries ago and are still in use, serving 21st century functions. The palace becomes a museum, the gladiatorial arena becomes a tourist attraction. That's resilience.

Winning the Battle for Earth, in NYC

21st century environmentalism is not about national parks, it's about cities. In urban centers, people share resources: buildings, transportation, space, and energy. Resilient buildings play a vital role in that. A study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation found reuse of buildings almost always has less of an impact on the environment than new construction.

READ MORE: As the Rivers Rise, 3 Ways Harlem Needs to Prepare for a Wet Future

The vacant buildings cataloged by Picture the Homeless may be abandoned, but they're still standing. That's not to say they're all fit for habitation; many may be beyond the reach of rehabilitation, and should be demolished. But I doubt that's the case of more than a small minority.

New York is one of the world's biggest cities, and among its most imitated. So the title of this post is not as hyperbolic as it might seem: If we can save these buildings, use them to house the homeless and hold off devastating climate change, other cities will take notice and follow suit. — Alex Davies

Alex is the communications coordinator at the Colin Powell Center. Find out more about him and other contributing writers.