How can developers be enticed to do the right thing and build more sustainably? Jersey City has tackled this conundrum and come up with some interesting measures, as part of its overall resilience efforts.

The Challenges

The need for resilience was brought into focus by Hurricane Sandy, which in 2012 blew through 24 states on the north east coast of the United States, an area that isn’t usually hit by such storms. It caused $70 billion in damages, making it the second costliest US hurricane at the time (albeit twice surpassed since then).

The Federal Government, backed by the Rockefeller Foundation, decided to “jump-start measures”, says Alexander D’Hooghe, senior partner at Brussels/New York-based urban design and architecture company, ORG, which was commissioned to work on the resultant Jersey project.

MIT undertook a risk analysis for the whole area, using 34 metrics for vulnerability. With insufficient funds to protect everywhere, the study was used to prioritise where the money should be spent. “A number of areas jumped out,” says D’Hooghe.

Jersey City, in north-east New Jersey, was just outside the priority list, despite the fact that 40 per cent of its land was flooded in 2012 and 60 per cent is flood plain. As a result, it decided that it needed to come up with its own resilience plan. The higher ground in the middle of the city was felt to be fine but the lower areas, including to the east, facing the Hudson River, were broken down into more or less safe zones.

A number of areas were identified where specific actions were needed. Those actions would effectively create a cordon around the City to mitigate storm surge from the Hudson and Hackensack rivers and New York and Newark bays. Measures include earthen berm levees, boardwalk levees, strategic land raising, street levees, and storm surge gates. Nevertheless, it was also decided that some parts could not be defended and will be given up and handed back to the ocean, says D’Hoogue. Within the planning, it was important to remember that the most common form of flooding is from rain so that defences must not create a “bath tub” effect, which could flood in on itself, so a double strategy was needed, he says.

Rebuilding secondary education for refugees

Source: Jersey City

Private Developers

One aspect for consideration was the dominance of private developers in Jersey City. It is highly densely developed and such is the value of real estate that areas are redeveloped again and again, with existing buildings demolished and new ones put up. As of March 2017, when the latest figures were published, there were more than 9000 developments under way and another 37,000 at different stages of planning.

Risa Goldstein, partner at Goldstein Partnership Architects and Planners, says: “Jersey City depends hugely on the private sector for real estate but none are green buildings.” All public buildings must be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certified but this requirement doesn’t extend to the private sector. “There is a fear that, if it was required, they would flee and build elsewhere.

As a result, it was decided that the best way forward was to try to entice the developers to do the right thing by providing incentives. Developers are profit-driven, points out Goldstein, and time is money but the planning approval process can be time-consuming and unpredictable. This was deemed to be an opportunity.

A large number of actions were proposed and a number have now been adopted:

Roof decks are very desirable on properties and increase the value but, under the previous rules, only 30 per cent of a roof was permitted as decking. Now, if the roof is green, up to 50 per cent can be decking.

Parking is usually required for every unit but this can cost up to $60,000 per space. Developers typically try to reduce the requirement. Now, they can reduce the number of spaces for a development by up to 20 per cent if they provide spaces that are reserved exclusively for electric vehicles, with charging points, or car sharing

Rebuilding secondary education for refugees

Stad Mechelen Grote Markt ©aikonproducties

If the private developers adopt LEED Silver standards, then the processing of their building permits is prioritised, which saves a lot of time and effort. Only affordable housing applications are given a higher priority. Moreover, if developers gain the LEED accreditation then they can get back up to 25 per cent of their building permit fee.

More generally, there is now the policy of “solar everywhere”, says Goldstein.

She is unsure whether other proposals will be adopted – adoption into government ordinances is slow – but it is an interesting approach that could be replicated elsewhere. In the absence of the ability to enforce more sustainable building, perhaps the carrot rather than the stick can be used instead.

Main image credit: ORG