Tuesday, March 8, 2011

White roof campaign launches in western Queens

What's in white roof painting for you? A lot.  You don't even have to mention climate change.  Roofs painted white are cooler in summer, so their buildings are cooler, use less air conditioning, have lower electric bills, and burn less carbon-emitting fossil fuels.  Climate change groups have lists of people who like to go out and paint roofs on a weekend.  The City has a program which coordinates the whole thing, providing expert supervision, project management, roof inspection, paint purchase and so on.  The City will send work crews out to paint building roofs, as long as the building owners will buy the paint, and share their before and after electric bills.

My theory is that by promoting a tangible project that offers something to everyone, white roof painting can bridge the huge gap between climate change activists and conventional citizens.  The trial run: last year, several volunteer groups pitched in and painted the roofs of four buildings, in collaboration with 350.org's International 10/10 International Day of Climate Action. This spring is the full NYC test.  Or at least the full Queens test.

Since NYC CoolRoofs is a City program, and one that lowers energy costs, I've had enough cover to promote it through my day job throughout western Queens, to elected officials and many civic leaders and nonprofits. 

I laid the groundwork by writing a six page memo explaining exactly how nonprofits and commercial building owners can use the program.  NYC CoolRoofs had not prepared anything like this themselves.  Like most other things, painting the roofs of buildings white seems simple until you get into the details, and quickly becomes complex and confusing.  The project guide, reviewed and approved by NYC CoolRoofs - available on request - explains exactly what one can get from the program, and how to do it. 

Next, I wrote a letter to elected officials, civic leaders and nonprofit managers, customizing each email, and the corresponding phone call, to appeal to members of each group in turn.  Straight up self interest.

- Elected officials can get photo ops, and direct City funds to their favored constituent nonprofits. 
- Nonprofits get a visible, public project that looks good in the weekly paper and community networks. 
- Everyone likes to support a City sustainability program, as long as it doesn't cost them too much.
- Everyone likes lower air conditioning bills
- I hardly allude to how white roofs lower the City's overall carbon emissions, and don't even mention the urban heat island effect.  

The deal gets sweeter.  The City wants to find nonprofit facilities with roofs of over 10,000 square feet, close to Manhattan via mass transit, for some corporate sponsors who want to set up volunteer painting days for their employees, and they'll buy the paint too.  I've customized the pitch and sent it out widely, using my excellent day job connections in western Queens.  Not quite as good as money falling from the sky, but not bad either.

So far, I've referred the Variety Boys and Girls Club in Astoria, with a 40,000 s.f. roof.  I should get more hits.  If a few do it, the word may spread and others may follow.  For roofs that are approved, NYC CoolRoofs will pull together volunteers, which I hope to be able to supplement from the groups who worked on the issue last summer. 

I will also be pitching it to commercial building owners through my day job newsletter, which goes out to thousands of contacts in Queens. 

For the business community, it's a different pitch.  The City will send out free labor to coat roofs white, and the owner buys the paint. Their cost of materials will be returned within about three years through lower air conditioning bills, if:

- it's an owner occupied building
- built before 1980 (and so is not very insulated)
- is only one or two stories tall
- and has a black tar roof.

Again, strictly appealing to self-interest.  

I have obsessively spent an inappropriate amount of time and effort to promote this program, since it was piloted in LIC in 2009.  I must see this test completed before I can move on. 

What if all effort gets no more than five responses? In that case, I don't think that this program can be sold by anything short of having Mayor Bloomberg conduct news conferences and walkthroughs in every Queens community board, accompanied by the Naked Cowboy playing guitar, and aides strewing hundred dollar bills behind them.

Not Mayor Bloomberg.  Guess again please.

What's the yield if it works? A model for climate change activists to organize NYC civic networks at the neighborhood level, getting beyond NYC's very small environmental activist community. 

This week I was at two events.  One was a panel about how NYC agencies are preparing City infrastructure for severe weather, floods and climate change events.  Very wonky, and very far from the public discussion.  Another was a get together with about twenty green activists.  Less wonky, but equally far from the majority of the public.  In both cases, a vivid reminder about how few New Yorkers are really tracking these issues.

In my pitch letter, I suggest the other elements of the program.  That white roofs, or another conversation starter, can identify and attract neighborhood leaders who can be sold on promoting other elements of a proactive NYC sustainability campaign: green building retrofits, energy conservation, mass transit, local and regional agriculture.  And I list other NYC groups who are working in those areas.  Can an approach like this connect the vast numbers of NYC civic leaders with the sustainability programs they need, but aren't aware how and why?  

Transition backwards

The Transition movement is a neighborhood scale organizing method, most widespread in England.  It starts by public education about climate change, peak oil and economic contraction, and guides participants in finding community-level responses.  (I tried doing this between 2006 and 2008, with little success.) 

Rob Hopkins, at a Transition event. Not in NYC, for sure.

One could describe this project - a conversation starter that recruits for a portfolio of sustainability programs - as applying the Transition model backwards.  We'll see if it works. 

Want to place bets? Suggest other conversation starters you think would be better than white roof painting? Offer me a job or a beer?

Want to try this in your neighborhood? Contact me at beyondoilnyc@yahoo.com.


  1. Good grief, Dan. I'm just catching up on the blog after being away for 2 months in Australia learning permaculture and natural local clay concrete making (so long Portland cement!) I'm thinking NYC isn't going to get the message until it's too late. Nobody is interested in this conversation and it's extremely frustrating. Good on ya, mate, for pushing it along. I'm offering you a beer.


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