Alan Bruton

Green roofs mitigate the negative environmental and infrastructural effects caused by buildings but they also provide much-needed outdoor places for people in the city, and indeed, some would say their best use is as gardens to grow food.  The setback roof of the University Center, prettily greened with sedum, could be a model for this in New York City but it is inaccessible to people. Therefore, I question the depth of the University’s ethical commitment to environmental sustainability and its potential positive impact on our community in the present.

Indeed, the roof is a pleasant green to look at (even if only longingly), and this green minimizes the flow of rainfall into our sewers and thus, the outflow of sewage into the Hudson River; it reduces heat radiated off an empty roof back into the city; it insulates the interior spaces beneath, and provides habitat for birds and insects. However, that we failed to make this feature of this signature building most beneficial in its community potential is disappointing.

There are a number of potentially accessible roof spaces on campus, and over the years, faculty and students have proposed to green them in various ways.  These proposals seem to have been dismissed out of narrowly analyzed liability concerns even though the growing number of accessible green roofs in the city and across the country demonstrates that there are many design and legal/insurance strategies that acceptably mitigate perceived and actual risk. 

Given that we promote the University Center’s sustainability features as a teaching laboratory, we have failed to model best practices for our students—to make roofs accessible to our communities would be a standard we would require of our students in the design of such features. 

If we at The New School, who claim to be in the vanguard of deeply ethical design thinking, do not provide a best example of communal outdoor rooftop space, who will? We should be innovative in reconsidering roofs as natural resources for community all over New York and beyond.  I’m not suggesting we plant a community garden to grow vegetables for local food banks (or am I?)!  But that is the sort of debate that I believe this new feature on campus should spark, bringing to bear all of the design, finance, law, and urban agriculture science expertise to such a topic. We can be more creative and courageous in our efforts.  We can redesign that roof, and many like it, on campus.

To what extent do we allow perceived legal, liability and insurance constraints to limit our creative approaches to community problems and potentials?

If we are concerned with possible accidents and suicides, why isn’t our focus on addressing the human aspect of such problems rather than placing restrictions on the potential venues for such tragedies?

Isn’t playing with butterflies more fun than watching them?

Alan Bruton
Faculty, Parsons The New School for Design