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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Dirty Heat and Ugly Streetscapes

In a city with transportation as efficient as New York City, much of the energy use and air pollution comes from building systems. The old, decrepit heating systems in many of the city's aging apartment buildings is a particular problem.

Many community activists focus their energy on trucks. The impacts of heavy vehicles traveling on streets with children is undeniable, and smart campaigns to improve the routing and safety of large vehicles need all the support they can get. The fixation on trucks to address asthma problems, on the other hand, seems largely misplaced. Refocusing some of that energy and attention on heating systems would do more to combat asthma, improve quality of life for lower-income residents, and reduce energy consumption.

Combating truck use is largely a futile effort, since many of these trips are necessary and relatively efficient. Companies have already done a great deal to optimize routing in the interest of cutting costs to improve their own profits. Federal regulations have already vastly improved emissions in recent years. There are certain investments that could make rail alternatives more competitive, and I do not mean to discount them. Yet these are mostly changes on the margin and require major investment. The benefits that would ultimately reach disadvantaged communities would be small and diffuse.

Rather than pouring all the energy into the invisible remaining emissions from the tailpipes of trucks supporting working-class jobs, it's time to focus on the buildings belching big black clouds of smoke over low-income and working-class neighborhoods. Targeted support to improve heating systems in old apartment buildings could be implemented more quickly and continued on an ongoing basis, with much better results. Every time one of these buildings is improved, the quality of life would directly benefit the residents, mostly lower-income, who have had to suffer from poor heating for countless winters.

As it stands now, many heating units actually fail in these buildings. Then an emergency mobile boiler is brought in, parked on the street, and connected into the building. The residents who suffer from the lack of heat are far more impacted than anybody else, not only by suffering through the cold by also by the way they are marked with a sign of poverty. You truly have a "poor door" when there's an emergency boiler sitting outside the entrance to your apartment building.

The emergency boilers have negative effects for others in the neighborhood, too. When an emergency boiler gets plopped down, the deterioration of the building starts to erode the public space in the neighborhood. These boilers contribute to poor air quality, remove parking spaces from use, disrupt street cleaning during alternate side parking, and create an unattractive space that may even feel unsafe for pedestrians walking down the sidewalk between the building and the boiler.

Addressing these building systems really should be priority repairs. Although far too slowly, there has been some progress, primarily by converting the buildings to natural gas. Not only are the new systems cleaner and more efficient, supplying them with fuel is less disruptive.

Compare that to the trucks that supply heating oil to buildings. Heavy vehicles drive down residential streets, where they often block traffic, and sidewalks too, as they pump fuel into basements. The trucks that deliver the fuel add to emissions in the process. In the rush, unfortunately, a new blight is creeping into the streetscape.

The gas connections have started sprouting up as the most unsightly set up pipes, often in stark contrast to architectural detailing on the buildings. Measures to provide protect the connections from damage or vandalism only exacerbate the problem. While avoiding onerous requirements that discourage or delay the transition to cleaner gas heating systems, better design standards really need to be adopted to protect these urban neighborhoods from further degradation. Financial assistance to get these buildings fixed expeditiously and with a modicum of dignity would be a worthwhile investment.

There has been some gradual movement in the right direction, but we need more focus and dedicated resources to replace dirty heating systems, and to do it right. There are few improvements that would have so much impact on the quality of life for low-income residents, working-class neighborhoods, and the city's overall air quality. Hopefully we get it done quickly, without panicking and blighting the streetscape in the process.

Update 1/19/15:
Yesterday's example of a dirty boiler spewing soot over a neighborhood:

1 comment:

  1. Alot of the dirty boilers use No 4 and No 6 fuel oil, which was supposed to be phased out in 2014 in NYC. However, many buildings (as you can see) have not switched over. No 2 fuel oil is much thinner and is much cleaner then No 4 and No 6. We have to continue think about the ramifications of using more Natural Gas. http://www.nyc.gov/html/gbee/html/codes/heating.shtml