I was reading the magazine section of the same Sunday NYT that David noted for its coverage of all things green, when I came across a six-page advertising section for “green properties” that left me shaking my head. (Sorry, not available online.)
The title is prefaced by “luxury homes and estates,” so I already know we’re going to a place I’m not comfortable with. The tendency for green building coverage is to focus on lifestyle choices of the affluent or the extreme (examples here, here, and here), but that tendency is already well-trod, if painful, territory. What got me in this piece was something else.
These high-rise condominiums, town homes and vacation houses are capturing the interest of luxury buyers and renters who seek to lower energy consumption and make more earth conscious choices.
Now keep in mind that phrase: “earth conscious choices.”
The section profiles several of Manhattan’s highrises: the Solaire and the Verdesian, as well as an “environmentally aware sporting club” and a conservation subdivision. The biggest space is saved for a project in the works: Riverhouse Rockefeller Park.
What’s different about the pitch for green in these pieces is that they are actively selling an insulated, privileged form of green building — a green bubble lifestyle. In many cases the greenness of these buildings and sites is totally self-contained and privatized. They have enhanced air and water quality, all within an incredibly affluent setting. The irony of selling these properties as an Earth-friendly choice is that the choice is actually to cut yourself off from the Earth while simultaneously (via an expanded eco-footprint) contributing to the problems you are trying to escape.
The “environmentally advanced rental towers offer optimum comfort, enhanced indoor air and water quality and incredible views.” The sporting club offers “unparalleled outdoor pursuits and the highest level of club amenities built around the members’ commitment to conservation and preservation, in turn creating long-term real-estate value.” But the Riverfront takes the green bubble cake. Described as a “new shade of green in Battery Park City,” the Riverfront incorporates “Oxygen GreenTM” (yes it’s been trademarked!) into its design. “Oxygen GreenTM is the color of fresh unfiltered air and the cleanest water. It is a way to live a full life in the city in a low-E environment, using less water and electricity.” Along with this new shade of green the Riverfront features oversized fish tanks (the metaphor is killing me) in the lobby, a treehouse for the kids to play in, billiard and yoga rooms, and a 50-foot pool.
I realize it’s better to build a greener luxury tower or sport club than to build conventional ones, and reduced energy consumption or habitat conservation are net goods, and that we’ve got to start someplace, and all that balanced perspective crap. But … there’s something that really gets under my skin about selling clean air and water as luxury amenities and packaging them as Earth-conscious options. The creation and marketing of green refuges for the wealthy has echoes of the class discussion going on over here.
Greater adoption of green building practices is critical to addressing global warming and resource scarcity. The appeal of green buildings has been, I believe, the premise that they benefit people and the planet. However, as global warming becomes a more pressing reality, and the effects are felt more strongly, will we see green building transform into something monstrous? Instead of using buildings to help make the world greener, buildings might be used to create pockets of green sanctuary for the privileged. While extreme weather events level the poor, will the rich retreat into climate controlled green idylls? My critique is not directed at the rich — they’re just being marketed to. It’s the possibility that green building practitioners will retreat from the effort to use buildings to help the earth towards an effort to sell environmental security to the privileged.
But maybe this is just another example of what’s been criticized with organic foods and hybrid cars. Something with great potential benefit for the Earth gets commodified into something that perpetuates our problems.