Harlem Needs More Green Roofs
New York City has 40,000 rooftop acres — that’s 1 billion square feet of roofscape — and yet the mere 730 green roofs in NYC account for only 50 of those acres. Green roofs are rooftop installations of vegetation and soil; they help offset many negative environmental consequences of urban life by absorbing excess stormwater runoff, countering heat island effect, and combatting habitat loss for plants and animals. If all of NYC’s rooftops were green, they could lower the city’s temperature by 2 degrees Fahrenheit!! Those roofs could also absorb more than 10 billion gallons of stormwater each year that might otherwise go into the rivers, carrying sewage, garbage, chemicals, and pathogens into the waterways.
The City knows this. There were even two local laws put into place in 2019 that require the installation of green roofs or solar panels on all newly constructed buildings, as well as those undergoing major roof renovations. But the laws contain broad loopholes, and the reality is that most of the buildings in NYC are not new construction. There are incentives in place such as tax abatements to encourage owners of existing buildings to install green roofs. However, there are several issues with this. Green roofs are heavy, for one thing, and many of the buildings in the city are too old or not strong enough to accommodate the additional weight.
They’re also expensive. Green roofs can cost anywhere from $26–100 per square foot, and if you want to install one on an existing building, you need a professional engineer or registered architect to ensure that the building can handle the substantial weight. Cost creates a disincentive among property owners to install them, despite all the benefits green roofs add to the city as a whole. The tax abatement program typically only gives $5.23 per square foot for new green roof installations, or $15 per square foot for certain priority areas, with a cap of $1 million per year for the entire program.
As a result, there are not many green roofs in the city compared to how much roof acreage exists, and many of the green roofs are small ones being installed by wealthy residents in high-income neighborhoods. Many of the districts with few or no green roofs are also districts where communities are most susceptible to heat-related illness and death, like Harlem. We need more green roofs equitably distributed throughout the city, and larger ones on public or private institutional facilities that will have a bigger impact.
- The City should do a formal study to estimate the extent of the opportunity for green roofs, and to measure any negative impacts that might displace New Yorkers, to serve as a foundation for policy going forward.
- The tax abatement program should have higher reimbursement rates, and a larger overall city budget.
- We should consider grants or tax incentives specifically for property owners in communities where there are not many green roofs
- As larger installations can have a bigger impact, the City should focus on installing green roofs on public property, like city-owned recreational centers, schools, and public housing, with emphasis on neighborhoods that need them.
As a City Council member, I will push for expanding green roofs in communities like Harlem as a part of my bold agenda for environmental justice.
Kristin Richardson Jordan (KRJ), Candidate for New York City Council District 9 Kristin is a poet, local activist, speaker, teacher, DSA member, Black queer woman, and third-generation Harlemite on a mission to disrupt District 9 (Central Harlem) with radical love. Started almost a year and a half before the murder of George Floyd, her Kristin for H.A.R.L.E.M. political platform includes advocacy for police accountability, abolition, affordable housing, redistribution of resources, senior care, gun control, education, and environmental justice. She is interested in making change both through her grassroots campaign and through a community-based participatory democracy once elected and has drafted policy on each of her HARLEM platform points. Find out more and get involved at KristinForHarlem.com.