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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : July/Aug 2002 : Frontlines


A New York State of Mind
The Earth Pledge Foundation brings sustainable development to Gotham.

By Penny S. Bonda, FASID

Its building has one and staff members think every building should have one. Okay, maybe not the Chrysler Building, but certainly the multitudes of brownstones that line Manhattan’s streets. “It” is the Earth Pledge Foundation (EPF), and the object of this affection is the green or vegetated roof. While admitting that its goal of planting the rooftops of 20 to 40 percent of New York City’s buildings is ambitious, executive director Leslie Hoffman sees her organization’s Green Roof Initiative solving many problems.

“We really are going to try and build a coalition here in the city to green the rooftops of New York to ameliorate storm water runoff programs and the urban heat island effect. Also, there aren’t many opportunities to develop outdoor space in Manhattan, so our rooftops are a great answer.”

Green roofs are a natural, almost predictable direction for the EPF, an organization started by Theodore Kheel in 1991 to stimulate interest in and support of the upcoming 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Motivated by the findings of the summit, Kheel adopted the promotion of sustainable development as EPF’s primary goal and received early backing from his friend, renowned artist Robert Rauschenberg. To promote the summit, Rauschenberg created its official artwork, “Last Turn, Your Turn,” produced additional pieces and has remained an important EPF supporter and fundraiser.

An auspicious beginning and a few assets, mostly in art, were all that Kheel had to offer Hoffman when he hired her as executive director in 1994. The foundation, at the time, was not much more than a legal entity on a shelf in Kheel’s law firm with no programs and no staff.

“The activity of having supported the Earth Summit had pretty much come to an end,” Hoffman remembers. “When Ted met me he was interested in acquiring my energy, my somewhat diverse passions for gardening and food, and my experience in design and construction. While different, both agriculture and architecture are methods by which people can significantly participate in moving to a more sustainable future through the choices that they make.”

With a staff hovering around 15, Earth Pledge today reflects both its initial sustainable development mission and Hoffman’s influence. For example, it was one of the first non-profits on the Web because of Hoffman’s early pioneering in the Internet and has since developed and produced many Web-based programs. It has a full-time programmer and graphic designer for interactive media and has delivered sustainable messages to a diverse constituency.

Farm to Table, one such outreach, is a Web-based program to connect people to local farming and all the reasons to support it—profiles of farmers, what’s in season, recipes from chefs and restaurants that support local farms and from the farmers themselves, and up-to-the-minute food and environmental news. Hoffman has a passion for the subject of agriculture.

“I understand it as one of the principal underpinnings of a sustainable lifestyle. Food systems are about as basic as it gets,” she says. “In 1999, we published our Sustainable Cuisine White Papers, a collection of essays from chefs, farmers, food producers, restaurateurs, academics and other experts, all exploring the link between food quality, environmental issues and culinary traditions.” According to its Web site (, EPF offers lucky New Yorkers a quick and easy way to identify, locate and connect to the best local and sustainable food and wine available. For the rest of us, EPF is talking about taking Farm to Table nationwide.

An anaerobic digestion project is also in development right now. As Hoffman explains, “It’s a closed system that takes, in this case, food waste—but it could be anything from manure to any organic matter—and turns it first into methane gas and then, ultimately, electricity. It’s a way to take restaurant food waste and close the loop on sustainable cuisine.

“Food waste makes up between 11 percent and 25 percent of New York City’s waste stream, and currently over a million tons of food waste per year is exported to landfills. This translates into truck traffic, pollution, transportation costs, landfill problems, and it goes on and on. While most people think of food waste as compostable, it really isn’t unless the trash is separated. Here in New York, it’s mixed in with everything else, so you’re trucking it off to the same landfills that all the rest of the garbage is going. The other thing that people don’t think about is that composting releases a lot of methane, which happens to be a particularly detrimental greenhouse gas. Really what we’re doing is speeding up the process and then capturing the methane to generate clean energy.”

Earth Pledge has also issued white papers on sustainable cities and sustainable architecture. Upcoming publishing efforts include a series on sustainable development as well as sustainable tourism. There’s also Our World in Focus, a collection of photographs and essays that highlight global issues, to be released during the Johannesburg World Summit. The book will reflect various aspects of human life: people, nature, food, shelter, community, pleasure, tragedy and economy in order to highlight what man has done to the Earth, what nature has to offer and some solutions through the photographs and essays about the progressive efforts that are being made all around the world. Done in collaboration with Magnum Photographers, the preface is written by Nitin Desai, secretary general of the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development, and contributors include the Dalai Lama, Queen Nour of Jordan, John Elkington and Alice Waters. “It will be a very beautiful, accessible book,” Hoffman promises.

EPF has also just moved its offices into a 1902 building that was Abraham Lincoln’s granddaughter’s residence. Designed by the same architect, Ralph Townsend, as the carriage house it has occupied for the last few years, the building has been renovated to give the organization better office space.

“It was in a little bit rough shape, but it was basically intact,” Hoffman remembers. “We decided to do a showcase of environmental and communication technology, because we do so much work on the Web, and we have a very digitally savvy group. We began by researching who were the manufacturers of the systems, products, finishes, furnishings and equipment that would meet the highest standards of environmental friendliness. We made a big effort to ensure that the style of what we did is a sophisticated overlay between design-savvy and a historically correct building. The one thing we didn’t want was a nutty-crunchy, granola kind of look.”

The EPF tried to preserve the best of a nice old building and impose on it environmentally friendly products and technologies, but there were some compromises, Hoffman admits. For example, the lighting is very contemporary and energy efficient. Designed by JoAnne Lindsley, the lighting designer who helped the federal government come up with its energy efficient lighting standards, the building is lit by fluorescent, LED and fiber optic lighting and, where needed, some halogens for color and historical correctness. Although not environmentally perfect, the combination seems appropriate for this charming townhouse with its storied past and, of course, its green roof.

Which brings us back to Earth Pledge’s Green Roof Initiative. “This is a big project that we’d like to integrate with our sustainable cuisine programs,” Hoffman says, “and maybe eventually do some urban agriculture. In our own garden upstairs, we’re growing herbs and vegetables—we’ve got tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, squash—all kinds of other things. It’s fun, but also immensely important in a city like New York that has combined storm water and sewage systems.” By absorbing the water that falls on them, green roofs help to minimize water pollution. They also help lower the heat island effect that cities experience during the summer, sometimes as much as six to eight degrees. Buildings with green roofs will also see lower energy bills.

New York is famous, at least through the movies, for its rooftop gardens, but Hoffman doesn’t count them as green roofs. “They’re pots on a terrace,” she says. “I’ll tell you what I think is going to happen. A number of high profile projects are starting to get a fair amount of publicity for greening their roofs—Twenty River Terrace, the new green residential building down in Battery Park City and the Staten Island Ferry Terminal—and people are becoming intrigued. We already held a symposium that was a tremendous success. I think our next step is to develop a resource manual for doing green roofs in New York.

“My real interest,” Hoffman concludes, “is to twiddle the imagination of people so that they start to see that life can actually be enhanced by struggling for sustainability. It’s not about giving things up, it’s about having an enhanced intellectual engagement with what it takes to really sustain life on this planet.”

For more information about Earth Pledge initiatives, call 212-725-6611 or visit:

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