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New York looks to Brussels for inspiration in sustainable housing

A view of New York city taken during a Belgian Economic Mission to the United States of America, Wednesday 08 June 2022. (BELGA PHOTO LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ)
06:26 10/06/2022

Representatives from companies in Brussels and New York met in the US city on Wednesday to discuss the exchange of best practices regarding sustainability in the construction industry, Bruzz reports.

The meeting was arranged by the Brussels business agency and took place at the office of New York think tank Building Energie Exchange (BEEX), which regularly organises lectures and trainings on sustainability, mainly for the construction industry. The meeting was set up as part of Belgium's national trade mission to the US, with head of delegation Princess Astrid as its guest of honour.

The main focus was the exchange of ideas between the two parties with an emphasis on what the New York representatives could learn from their Brussels counterparts in terms of sustainable construction, large scale renovation and citizen involvement.

"Climate change is undeniable. It's time to accelerate the knowledge exchange between our two progressive cities," said BEEX Director Richard Yancey at the beginning of the meeting. Yancey came to Brussels in 2015 with a delegation from the city of New York. They visited a number of exemplary buildings in terms of energy efficiency and sustainability. "We shared that inspiration afterwards in New York and I was excited to see how the city council got to work on it."

In concrete terms, New York City has had a new building code since the end of last year, which stipulates, among other things, that new homes must be heated completely without gas from 2024. The same obligation applies to high-rise buildings from 2026. By 2040, the city wants all homes to be heated electrically, for example via heat pumps. In the larger state of New York, that has not yet been voted on. Yet the state is on the same page as New York City in terms of ambitions. It's funding a large-scale pilot project in the city for the renovation of skyscrapers, the so-called 'empire state challenge', worth $50 million.

"In New York City, the buildings account for 70% of all CO2 emissions," said Greg Hale of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). "Brussels is certainly our reference in the field of passive living. Our goal is to make their way of building here business as usual."

Brussels wants to realise a large-scale renovation of housing in the city to make it more energy efficient. "Doing that is not the big difficulty,” said Brussels secretary of state for urban planning Pascal Smet who was part of the delegation in New York. “It only requires the will of business and politics and that will is there. The big challenge lies in ensuring social justice. Should we make people pay for their mandatory renovation or not? I admit I don't have the right answer yet."

Even during a panel discussion on citizen participation, the speakers did not come up with a straightforward answer. "We have already stipulated that at least 35% of the revenues from green energy must flow back to the poorer neighbourhoods,” said Kizzy Charles-Guzman of the City of New York City Environmental Administration. “We just have to determine what that means,"

The same environmental administration is also looking to Brussels in terms of sustainable mobility, urban agriculture and citizen participation. "We want active neighbourhoods with room for cyclists and pedestrians, healthy homes and happy residents," said Charles-Guzman. "With global partner cities like Brussels, we can continue to learn."

In various panels, the Belgian delegation members discussed with their American colleagues how the challenges of mobility, food, participation and buildings can be tackled.

It's not yet certain how the New York renovation wave will work and when. The empire state challenge is now mainly about looking for solutions, not yet about their implementation. But, "if we can do it in New York, we can do it anywhere," said Greg Hale, paraphrasing Frank Sinatra. Pascal Smet reversed the statement. "I am happy that Brussels, as a medium-sized city, can inspire a big city like New York," he said in his speech.

Written by Nick Amies