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Opening my Eyes, Ears, and Lungs: Architecture Walk 2019

We all know that every step we take can be important – but what about what we step on? What about what we step near? 

A few weeks ago, I learned that everything matters. Really – from whether the concrete that I’m standing on is sustainable, to the air quality on the street. I learned to think differently. I learned that and more from Hazon’s JOFEE Fellowship Director Yoshi Silverstein and the Hazon Summer interns during Hazon’s annual Landscape Architecture Walking Tour of Lower Manhattan.

That morning, I woke up early and put on my sneakers for one of the most exciting days of my summer. I love to exercise and was excited to spend my day walking and talking about NYC – but I was truly blown away by what I learned about sustainable architecture. Little did I know that some buildings and structures that I pass all the time are super sustainable (or not), and that builders can choose to incorporate sustainable designs and help our entire world! Below are some highlights that I learned from the walk:

Architecture Walk

Yoshi Silverstein teaches the Hazon interns about Sustainable Architecture

I learned the most about landscape architecture from the 9/11 memorial, which was the topic that I presented about. The 9/11 memorial is one of the most sustainable plazas ever constructed. An international design competition for the memorial began in 2003, and 63 countries and 5,201 designs later, Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s “Reflecting Absence” won the competition. These designers created a beautiful and symbolic structure, representing both loss and a renewal of life, and is naturally also regenerative and sustainable. When you first visit the memorial, you see trees all over the place. In addition to the trees, you see two large voids where the twin towers once stood, which are meant to be visible reminders of absence. Around the towers are the names of those who were part of both the 9/11 and February 1993 attacks. The open voids are filled with water, which flows into an abyss, and shows us that we cannot see the full scope or enormity of the destruction. The trees, however, and all of the other aspects of nature juxtaposing the buildings, are meant to console the visitors. They are a powerful reminder of resilience, of the ebbs and flows of the cycle of living and dying. As stated on the 9/11 memorial website, “the trees, like memory itself, demand the care and nurturing of those who visit and tend them. They remember life with living forms, and serve as living representations of the destruction and renewal of life in their own annual cycles. The result is a memorial that expresses both the incalculable loss of life and its consoling regeneration.” 

The multitude of trees, which capture CO2 and help clean our air, isn’t why this is the most sustainable plaza ever made. The plaza itself serves as a green roof for the indoor memorial – the concrete outside is actually built over soil, which is what allows those trees to flourish. But unlike most NYC streets that are paved over compacted soil, the soil underneath the plaza is loose and uncompacted. This allows trees to get their nutrients and allows water to get to the roots, helping the trees to become healthier. Swamp white oaks were purposefully chosen because they change leaf colors and grow at different heights, reminding the visitors that each tree is unique and requires care. 

9/11 Memorial

Photo from the 9/11 Memorial Website

The plaza was also built so that rainwater can be collected below the plaza. This may not seem like a big deal, but I learned that green roofs like this one capturing excess rain is a huge deal. In fact, when we have too much rain and water build up, which is happening more and more due to climate change and heavier rainstorms, the excess water can become a major problem. Without a green roof or soil to land on, rain will hit concrete, collect all the dirt on the ground with it – including pesticides, oil, grease, and biological contaminants – and then end up in the nearest body of water. That body of water then becomes contaminated with the aforementioned toxins, which can hurt us as humans, infect our drinking water, and harm any fish or wildlife living in those waters (See more here). Merav Cohen, Manager of the Hazon Seal of Sustainability, explained that in NYC for example, where rainwater drainage is combined with the sewer system, excess stormwater can clog up sewers. In this case, the system is designed to allow the stormwater (combined with the sewage) to overflow directly into the Hudson (see more on this from the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation) (…and that’s why you don’t go into the Hudson waters after rainy days!). Yoshi invited us to imagine the collective impact on stormwater management and green infrastructure if every building in NYC had a green roof. At the 9/11 memorial, the storm water collected feeds their trees and meets much of their irrigation requirements. In addition, the 9/11 memorial has an irrigation and pest management system that saves energy and other valuable resources.

The 9/11 memorial also has a seedling program. After the 9/11 attacks, there was a tree found at Ground Zero that was very damaged and needed to be recovered. That tree, called the “Survivor Tree”, stands at the memorial today as a reminder of strength and rebirth. Now, workers at the memorial give seedlings from that tree to three communities each year that endured some type of tragedy. This way, they spread the idea of survival and resilience, while also helping to fix our environment. 

Architecture Walk 2

In addition to learning about the importance of green roofs and uncompacted soil, I also learned about the importance of cycling and walking in cities, and how to encourage people to drive less and take other forms of travel more. Of course, one way to accomplish this is by building more sidewalks and bike paths. However, a way to make these paths more beautiful, inviting, and safer for pedestrians and cyclists is to add a buffer of vegetation between the cars and this path. This not only adds a physical barrier of protection from stray vehicles, but the vegetation absorbs most of the airborne particulate matter given off by car exhausts. When you exercise, you take in a lot of oxygen – and it’s important that the air containing it is healthy and clean. Plants are amazing not only for sucking in toxins, but also because they release clean air and allow us to breathe better. You have to make sure to add robust and resilient plants that won’t be damaged by these fumes. I never realized that landscapers have so much to consider when creating streets!

We learned too much for one blog post, and visited so many places including the Holocaust Museum, the Battery park Urban Farm, the Seaglass carousel at the park, the Irish Hunger memorial, and a park that was designed with the intention of having kids learn how to climb and interact with nature in order to slide! Here are some of the intern thoughts about the sites they presented about:

“The Garden of Stones at the Museum of Jewish Heritage is a living memorial. The idea of having survivors plant these trees symbolizes that their memories will live on long after them, contributing to an understanding of living history. Trees, like memories, are very strong. However, they do need maintenance and dedication. Future generations will need to nurture the trees of the garden as well as the memories of their ancestors. Even with the increasingly drastic changes in climate, we continue to establish permanence as we always have.” – Leora Nevins

“The Battery Park Urban Farm was created in 2011 when a group of students from nearby millennium high school asked the conservatory for a place to grow food. Today they see over 5,000 children from 100 different schools on their one acre garden. The food goes to nearby schools and food pantries. Schools can also have their own plots in the garden and the food that they grow can go directly to them. Connected to the urban farm is their forest farm. This farm has native plants and allows students to imagine what the area looked like before it became a city.” – Rebecca Silver

I’m so grateful that I was able to learn this information in a fun and memorable way. Personally, I love to get involved in community efforts and just so happened to meet with the Sustainability Director of my city the week following this walk. Because of this experience, I was able to suggest adding vegetation next to streets in my city and explored the idea of green roof gardens. But perhaps my favorite take-away from the architecture walk was being able to explore new places – places where I could physically feel the air being purified by the trees around me. There are so many beautiful parks in NYC, and it’s refreshing to take a break from the car pollutants and cigarette smoke which unfortunately fill up a lot of the NYC air, and instead breathe in fresh air by the water and nature surrounding certain areas. Nature is so regenerative, and personally makes me feel at my best. Thank you Hazon, summer interns, and landscape architect walk leader, Yoshi, for opening up my eyes, lungs, and ears – I will always bring with me this knowledge of healthy, easy, and important ways that architecture can help combat climate change. 

(Source for 9/11 Architecture: To learn more about the 9/11 architecture, please visit their website here).