Saturday, May 21, 2011

The White Roof Campaign: declaring victory and moving on

I am officially declaring victory in the White Roof Campaign and moving on to new projects.  Here's the season wrap-up.  If you've followed the White Roof Campaign, some of this will be repetitive, but I'll be quick about it. 

The City launched NYC CoolRoofs, its program to paint the roofs of NYC buildings with highly reflective white coating, in the summer of 2009.  It's one of many initiatives within PlaNYC, the City's long-term sustainability plan.  Mayor Bloomberg and Al Gore painted the first building in the program, the roof of the Long Island City YMCA.  I and other sustainability activists saw its potential as an organizing tool, and a way of getting volunteers involved.  Tip of the hat to John Kolp, who convinced me of its merits, and has been one of the program's biggest advocates. 

Since then I have been involved in various efforts to recruit volunteers to paint roofs, and to recruit building owners and tenants to get their roofs painted...oh, excuse me...the correct term in the program is "coated."  I was told confidentially this has something to do with requirements that painting jobs go to union workers who get high hourly wages, rather than to volunteers or individuals receiving very modest stipends.   So that's coating roofs, y'all.  They are highly reflective special coatings - not paint.

In fall 2010, I and Anne Craig of Stop Oil NYC helped organize the coating of four roofs, along with a number of volunteers, around the time of's 10/10/10 international day of climate action.  The photo at was taken on the roof of the Democracy Prep Charter School in Harlem. 

In late 2010 and early 2011, I focused on recruiting buildings for the program.  Since my day job at a local economic development nonprofit involves promoting City programs, it was possible for me to do this as an official LICBDC initiative. I sent out letters of introduction to elected officials and civic leaders, aimed at getting nonprofits to coat their roofs.

Commercial building owners are motivated by costs and benefits rather than the urban heat island effect.  I researched the exact circumstances when putting a white roof coating on a commercial building would yield its owners a profitable return on investment: when it's an owner occupied building, built around 1980 or before, only one or two stories, with a standard black tar roof. 

If the owner of such a building uses the CoolRoofs program's offer of free labor, their cost of white coating will be paid back in three years or less through lower air conditioning bills.  Outside of those conditions, the coating project is no longer a slam-dunk good investment, and is simply a good public spirited thing to do.   It is a waste of time to ask commercial building owners to coat their roofs when their buildings fall outside that category.  Civic leaders and nonprofits are more interested in promoting their participation in City sustainability efforts, so analyzing their return on investment in coating costs is less central to discussions with them.

I also put together: a detailed guide to using the program, reviewed by the program's director; outreach flyers for civic leaders and commercial building owners; and a news release about the program. 
All of these documents are available online for the use of would-be supporters and participants.   Go for it. 

The Bloomberg Administration's Office of Long-Term Sustainability Office wants cool roofs, green roofs, and water retaining roofs to become standard building features. They have their own internal goals and budgets of which I am unaware.

NYC climate change and sustainability activists must evaluate this test campaign to promote the CoolRoofs program and ask whether it is a good way to create grassroots change, raise local participation in climate change response practices, and recruit volunteers and collaborators.  And how many roofs got painted, and how many neighborhood residents and leaders knew about it.  Is it really a good place in which to invest volunteer efforts - or a waste of time better spent on other actions?

I especially invite activists to comment on whether painting the roofs of buildings white is a good focus, or whether they would suggest better ones. 
See the YouTube clip here


Show me the money

In Jerry McGuire, Cuba Gooding plays a sports star who demands that his agent, played by Tom Cruise, show him the money 

I am indebted to Dave Cohen, former Oil Drum editor and ASPO writer, for the technique of illustrating points with movie references and YouTube clips.  Dave blogs at

We don't know the final 2011 results from my western Queens outreach campaign, but here's what we have so far, from the buildings I referred to the program.  In April, NYC CoolRoofs volunteers coated the the 14,000 square foot roof of Sunnyside Community Center, in Sunnyside, Queens, and the 8,000 s.f. roof of Variety Boys and Girls Club in Astoria.

The program is in touch with buildings owned by several Long Island City businesses: Petrocelli Electric Co. (with a roof of perhaps 20,000 s.f.); Mayer Malbin Co., which owns three buildings; Conserve Electric; and Pumpernickel Bagel and Deli. Goodwill Industries has two Astoria warehouses in line for coating – with an unknown number of other Goodwill Industries stores and warehouses around the City potentially to follow.

Other Queens businesses include the Corona clothing retail store All Dressed Up; and Coppola’s Pizza in College Point. There are a few residential buildings.  Three buildings of the Linden Towers Co-Op in Flushing are cleared for coating, and co-op board leaders are part of a much larger group of residential buildings.

It’s unclear how many of these buildings will actually be coated this summer, whether there are others that have heard about the program and will seek to get coated eventually and whether media and community outreach connected with any of these projects will have ripple effects, getting yet other roofs coated.

Some really good news is that NYC CoolRoofs just hired two full-time staff to focus on outreach and building recruitment.  This seems to be the bottleneck for expanding the number of square feet coated through the program. I encouraged the new staff to contact elected officials, focus on getting their offices to refer well known nonprofits in their districts, and aim for a few highly visible projects that can be leveraged and promoted to recruit similar projects.  The same advice  goes for any any other activists who want to use CoolRoofs as an organizing tool in their neighborhoods. 

I think that CoolRoof boosters should not seek to raise funds to buy coating for a nonprofit. IMHO, activists are better off encouraging nonprofits to be self-reliant and raise the coating funds themselves.  If nonprofits want to do this, they can make the modest effort to fundraise among their own members and neighbors, increasing neighborhood support for the project.  Then, as long as the discussion is already under way, they can set up next steps: bringing other good sustainability initiatives to their neighborhood, like GrowNYC, and the Con Ed energy upgrade program.

But as far as my involvement with Cool Roofs, I hereby declare victory, and I'm done.  Time to move onto other projects.

One is the question of how the Transition Movement model of community organizing and communicating about sustainability challenges can be applied to NYC.  Look for future posts around this theme.  The other is looking for a full time green job.  So far, I've sent out some applications but nothing has materialized.  A friend suggested that I research entrepreneurial opportunities in regional food production and go into business for myself.  Bright ideas - and comments - are welcome.   


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  2. Thanks for sharing this info!
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