NYC Audubon’s Dustin Partridge wants New York City to become more livable for both people and wildlife—and green roofs, he says, are key to that effort.
As you walk through the apple orchard, with Honeycrisps and GoldRushes at your feet, a swallow flies by, then a kinglet and an Eastern phoebe, whose presence signals the start of the fall migration. Not far off, grape vines grow along a trellis, native wildflowers buzz with insect activity, and ripe tomatoes and ears of corn wait to be picked.
Taking it all in, you could easily imagine being on a bucolic farm in upstate New York, far from the hustle of the city. But if you listen closely, you can hear the cars whizzing by on the West Side Highway 60 feet below. And if you turn around, you can see the Empire State Building to the east.
This is the scene atop the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in midtown Manhattan, home to nearly eight acres of greenery, from short, low-maintenance sedum to tall grasses—making it one of the largest green roofs in the U.S. and a habitat for more than 60 bird species. On a cool, sunny August morning, Dustin Partridge, Ph.D., GSAS ’20, director of conservation and science at NYC Audubon, is walking from section to section, stopping often to look through binoculars at birds he spots out of the corner of his eye.
Partridge began studying the benefits of urban green roofs for wildlife not long after he began his biology graduate studies at Fordham in 2009. As his research expanded and he decided to go beyond his master’s program to pursue a doctorate, he became one of the first researchers on the Javits Center green roof following its installation in 2014, and he and his staff have continued to monitor its animal and insect activity closely ever since.
For Partridge, it’s a critical part of making New York City more hospitable to humans and wildlife—and more resilient amid heat waves and other effects of climate change.
Protecting Birds and Boosting Biodiversity
NYC Audubon is one of more than 450 independent chapters of the National Audubon Society, a network designed to “protect birds and the places they need” throughout the U.S. (NYC Audubon has announced its plan to change its name in 2024, due to John James Audubon’s legacy as a slave owner; the national organization has not announced a similar plan.)
To understand why birds need protection broadly, consider this: North America has lost nearly 25% of its bird population in the past 50 years, according to research published in Science magazine. The causes range from climate change and habitat loss to toxic pesticide use—and the research points to wider disruptions of ecosystems vital to both humans and wildlife.
To understand why birds need protection in New York City, consider two factors: The city lies squarely on the Atlantic flyway migration route—an air path for transient birds that stretches from Greenland to South America and includes ground areas where birds stop to find food to fuel their journey. The city is also home to more than 8 million people—and an infrastructure that has not only replaced natural habitats but is often hostile to the wildlife still around. It is a city of glass skyscrapers, one in which up to 230,000 birds die each year in window collisions, according to NYC Audubon research.
It’s within this setting that Partridge and his colleagues at NYC Audubon—along with a dedicated cast of volunteers—are working toward protecting wild birds and their habitats in the five boroughs. They do this through initiatives ranging from bird-friendly building campaigns like Project Safe Flight that aim to help birds migrate through the city safely, to community science bird surveys in which amateur birders and experts alike can submit data based on their local observations. The organization’s work, though, is not only about benefiting wildlife, according to Partridge.
“Biodiversity is important for humans,” he says. “It helps reduce the impacts of climate change. It can lead to ecotourism. Everything we do for wildlife and for birds is also very much for people, especially when it comes to quality of life in the city.”
And while biodiversity is both apparent and expected at other sites where NYC Audubon conducts research—from coastal wetlands like South Brother Island in the Bronx to large green spaces like Central Park—it can also thrive in places fewer people see or know about, like at the Kingsland Wildflowers green roof atop the Broadway Stages film and TV studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, or within the Justice Avenue bioswale in Elmhurst, Queens, a vegetated ditch that catches dangerous combined sewer overflow and holds it until it can be absorbed by the underlying soil.
Of all the projects NYC Audubon has worked on, though, the Javits Center, with its midtown Manhattan location, stands as one of the organization’s most distinctive research hubs, one that is fertile for both biodiversity and human collaboration.
A Green Roof ‘Role Model’ in Midtown Manhattan
As the Javits Center green roof neared completion in 2014—just two years after New York state announced plans to raze the building—Partridge began working as an ecologist and green roof program manager at NYC Audubon. By that time, he had decided to turn his research on urban green roofs into a doctoral dissertation, working closely with Fordham biology professor J. Alan Clark, Ph.D.
Along with Clark and master’s student Kaitlyn Parkins, GSAS ’15, who was studying bat foraging activity on green roofs, Partridge spent hours atop the building’s springy sedum carpet setting up bird monitors and collecting insect samples to track food availability.
“Dustin was that original researcher on the Javits Center green roof,” notes Clark, who also called his former advisee “a visionary, hard-working man.”
In the years since beginning his research, not only did Partridge attain his doctorate, in 2020, but he became a founding member of the Green Roof Researchers Alliance, a consortium of more than 60 researchers, teachers, and policymakers for which he is currently the managing director. The group advocates for green roofs not only as sites for increasing biodiversity but also as tools that offer energy savings for buildings, increased stormwater capture, and improvements in air quality.
And as Partridge’s role at NYC Audubon has grown, so has the organization’s work with the Javits Center, which opened a large expansion to its north side in 2021. Atop that expansion is where you can find the orchard, pollinator garden, and working farm, all of which are managed by Brooklyn Grange and serve as additional sites for NYC Audubon research.
For Partridge and his colleagues, their field station on the original building roof—a trailer with monitoring equipment and a computer—allows them to dig deeper into the diversity and amount of wildlife populating all those acres, a group that included more than 60 bird species as of October 2023.
All this activity makes the Javits roof a point of interest for others looking to replicate its success—from the mayor of Seoul, South Korea, where a new convention center is being planned, to the New York State Office of General Services, which has shown interest in setting up similar green roofs across its administrative buildings. That success has also led to plenty of positive press for the project, with recent media attention from The New York Times, WNYC, and Gothamist, among other outlets.
“Javits has become quite a role model for the city, both in terms of bird-friendly design and for the green roof,” Partridge says. “We’ve learned so much here and it’s been great for moving the city’s policy forward. It’s a really well-known building to point to: This could be the rest of the city.’”
So, will it be the rest of the city?
Legislative Progress—But Work to Be Done
While green roofs are far from ubiquitous in New York City—and while access to them and other green spaces is still unevenly distributed toward wealthy areas—Partridge points to some examples of progress. In 2019, the New York City Council passed Local Laws 92 and 94, both part of the city’s Climate Mobilization Act, which require all new buildings or roof replacements to have a “sustainable roofing zone”—solar panels, a green roof, or a combination—covering 100% of the roof.
Meanwhile, the city’s green roof tax abatement offers property owners $5.23 per square foot of green roof space and $15 per square foot in districts deemed priority areas based on a lack of green space, combined sewage overflow issues, and heat vulnerability. And as for the protection of birds, in 2020, New York City enacted Local Law 15, which requires all new construction and significant renovations in the city to use bird-friendly materials like visible window glazing or UV-reflective patterns.
“It’s so important that as people create these habitats that they use bird-friendly glass surrounding them,” says Parkins, who went on to work and consult for NYC Audubon from 2013 to 2022 and is now the glass collisions program coordinator for the American Bird Conservancy. “The worst thing we can do is lure birds and other wildlife into places that are dangerous for them.”
NYC Audubon and its counterparts at the state organization, Audubon New York, are also advocating for two pieces of legislation—the Lights Out Act at the local level and the Dark Skies Act at the state level. Both laws would curb the use of interior and exterior lights in buildings that are dormant through the night. Those bright lights are a major cause of bird death because they lure migrating birds away from their intended path and cause them to crash.
Partridge says that New Yorkers who would like to see that legislation passed, or who want to see green roofs added to their buildings without a mandate, can call their City Council members and state legislators, and talk to their building owners about the benefits of sustainable roof coverage.
He also encourages both avid birders and more casual, curious parties to volunteer with NYC Audubon or even just to sign up for a free birding tour, which can underscore the importance of protecting New York City’s wildlife and their habitats.
“It’s incredible, the bird life that’s in the city,” he says, “and we have really amazing guides that can take you out. It’s just great to see not only the birds that will spend their summers or winters here but also the birds that are migrating through. It’s a whole new world that so many New Yorkers don’t see, and it’s an amazing aspect of the city.”