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Mapping Movements in Sustainable Living

The City Atlas Project in NYC Harnesses Our Most Important Resource: Creative, Willing, and Forward-Thinking People

From a human perspective, Planet Earth is rapidly becoming a world of cities. Two thirds of global population growth will occur in cities in the next three decades. In many ways, improving life in cities will be key to successfully managing our economic and demographic growth through the 21st century.

There is a profoundly important connection between strong cities and our collective resilience in the face of shifting, unpredictable environmental conditions. And today we have better, more accessible media and technology tools at our disposal to engage with more people – to truly mobilize them as participants in lived experiments that can help to improve city life in every dimension.

  White Out Global Warming aims to paint NYC rooftops white as a simple and cost effective way to reduce energy consumption.
The project is a collaboration between Parsons The New School for Design art student, Lena Huang, and City Atlas.

Ranging from online platforms that allow citizens to report on street conditions that need fixing, to tools that allows us to track the path of waste and trash, to crowdsourced maps of happiness, people have new opportunities to understand their individual relationship – and responsibilities – to the city and its impact on the aggregated whole. Collectively, these experiences have the potential to contribute to new versions of the lived city.

And we believe that the positive work people are already doing with regard to sustainability, must be made more visible, tangible and accessible. This belief has been the inspiration for City Atlas: A User’s Guide to a Sustainable NYC. The project, which comes out of a partnership between the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities and the creative arts nonprofit, Artist As Citizen, seeks to amplify the work being done on a local level, by both experts and amateurs, to positively shape the city’s future. Launched last September, the project’s ultimate goal is to link bigger sustainability issues to everyday lifestyle decisions not just in New York, but also in cities across the world.

Ranging from the latest developments to the urban, aquatic ecosystem of Jamaica Bay – which sits within the only national park you can reach by subway – to resources for free energy audits for small businesses, to tips on where to get a last minute local turkey for Thanksgiving, City Atlas works to bring sustainability resources, decisions, and realities to New Yorkers in one convenient, engaging package. Critical to the project is a bottom-up framing that highlights the work and progress already underway and how people can directly engage with it. By featuring existing initiatives and ideas, we seek to strengthen their potential, building new audiences that ideally became active agents.

Market research – and observed anecdotal experience – illustrates that people accept cues from each other, when it comes to lifestyle choices, both big and small. And ultimately this phenomenon is more powerful than the notion of the individual rational actor – a convenient truth if we allow it to be so.

The Atlas attempts to stay true to this idea of bottom-up planning and co-creation. This is not to say that there is a complete void of important top-down policies. There are plenty; and they are a critical piece to solving the sustainability puzzle. Many cities, including New York, are dealing with carbon dioxide reductions, climate change mitigation and adaptation at a much faster rate than the federal government. But to truly engage people who are interested but lack formal training, who do not go to their job everyday and think about these particular challenges, highlighting the work that their neighbors are doing is a potentially viral and persuasive strategy. By engaging every neighborhood, every citizen as a potential contributor and a well of knowledge, the better the pool of solutions we end up with.

Photo providedThe Plus Pool project involves setting up floating pools with walls that act as water filtration devices.

Speaking of pools, the Plus Pool idea, which is featured on the Atlas, is a particularly interesting example of how one urban idea, matched with collaboration, social media excitement, and science has helped pave the way for something incredible.

Plus Pool is a project to install floating pools in New York City rivers – which are cleaner than they used to be, but still not swum in by most New Yorkers. Dong-Ping Wong of F A M I L Y Architects, and Archie Lee Coates IV and Jeffrey Franklin of PlayLab came up with Plus Pool one hot summer. The idea is to build a pool, in a local river, with walls that double as filtration devices for the water, converting it to pristine pool water. Wang and Franklin launched a Kickstarter campaign which very quickly got 50,000 people very interested and garnered a response from global engineering firm ARUP. Today, they are closer to their goal than they ever thought they would be. While their sales pitch may not include the buzzwords “radical environmentalism,” or “urban sustainability,” or even “innovation,” their concept certainly includes all of the above.

Plus Pool, and ideas like it, gets people excited about the future of the city because it shows a vision of something that could feasibly work; of something that adds tremendous value to a city, and sets a precedent of a transparent and collaborative process to achieve it. (Other innovative ideas showcased on the Atlas include a micro-textile lab and White Out Global Warming.)

This type of collaboration is not new. Cities have always thrived on the density and immensity of ideas that are generated within them. Some would argue that this co-creation and collaborative spirit has and always will be a defining cultural characteristic of cities, more important than competition, even here in New York.

So good news for us then; that at its root, sustainability is a cultural issue and needs to be addressed as such. It cannot remain solely a question of politics or science. Those of us who so greatly want to see change – and have felt hopelessly deterred at times – need to keep doing what we do best: innovate, collaborate and build from the bottom up.

We may not have the capital to out-lobby vested interests, or even the desire to do so. But what we do have is limitless, powerful creativity, which, when channeled correctly, can build the cities of tomorrow and naturally replace the systems of today.

Carina Molnar is Applied Programs Manager at the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities, New York

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SOOO Amazing! There are two capital cities I know that could use this as a tool, and need to start this dialogue soon! Moscow - which is growing into its hinterland. Another, but extremely different context is New Delhi - where there are many sporadic efforts that I know of but need a more participatory + collaborative effort. Looking at India, Russia - I wonder about engaging Brazil and China to make this a very global network ?

By Shriya Malhotra on Sat, January 14, 2012 at 11:30 am

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