For every student who ever complained, “It’s so nice today; why can’t we just have class outside?” Colin Cathcart has the answer: “Sustainable New York.”
The one month long summer session course, which Cathcart taught to nine Fordham undergraduates in June (one took it as an independent study in July), took place almost exclusively outside, with a particular focus on the Manhattan waterfront. Rather than talk about the concepts of green architecture and sustainability in a classroom, Cathcart and his class visited some of the most cutting edge “green” projects and innovations that New York City has to offer.
“Green architecture is dominated by architects and engineers, but architecture is really only one part of urban sustainability,” Cathcart said. “It’s very interesting to see how architecture fits into that larger piece and how cities can be made much more sustainable livable, enjoyable and pleasurable culturally by following these various figures doing crazy things all over the place.”
One of those projects is the Science Barge, a floating prototype of a sustainable urban farm that has also functioned as an environmental education center since it was launched by NY Sun Works in May 2007. The barge, which is completely off the power grid, was docked at Pier 48 in the Hudson River when Cathcart’s class descended upon it with a mission: Build a kitchen. Part of the barge’s mission, which it delivers from facilities around New York City, is to teach school children not only how fruits and vegetables are grown using re-circulating greenhouse hydroponics, but also to show how much waste is generated during food preparation.
“We’re in the kitchen all the time, every day, and it’s where we make a tremendous number of very, very costly environmental choices,” Cathcart said. “So how do you make that connection between levels as clear as possible to the kids coming to the kitchen to learn about food, waste and energy?”
So just as the barge, which draws power from photovoltaic cells and wind turbines, treats its own waste water with restorative wetlands and its solid waste with composting, so too is the kitchen an example of self-sufficiency. The materials come from the building material salvage non-profit group “Build It Green,” hot water and power for the solar food cooker are generated by solar power, and treated rainwater will replenish the tanks. The idea is that children who understand where food comes from and where garbage goes are less likely to adopt unhealthy eating habits.
It’s part of a larger plan of Cathcart’s Brooklyn-based architecture firm, Kiss Cathcart, to help the barge’s organizers convince schools, and eventually private residences, to install self-sufficient gardens on New York City rooftops.
“There’s a possibility of action after you have decided what kind of policies or what kinds of design solutions there are. You can take action, and then it becomes about people,” he said. “How do you talk to people about your ideas, how do you respond to people’s needs or biases or positions within the hierarchy, that becomes then the key. Design is not the answer; it’s getting it done.”