Recap: FABnyc Talk About ‘Neighborhood Sustainability’

Posted on: February 28th, 2014 at 11:00 am by

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Shawn Shafner, David Bergman, Wendy Brawer and Toby Cumberbatch. Photo: Lori Greenberg

How does a neighborhood become sustainable? And how do the people in that neighborhood become engaged in their environment?

FABnyc (Fourth Arts Block) and the Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design recently presented the second part of a community forum series called “Neighborhood Sustainability: One Block At A Time.” Both events were held at Bowery Arts + Sciences (aka Bowery Poetry Club). The latest event, moderated by architect, educator and Boogie contributor David Bergman, included panelists Wendy Brawer of the Green Map System, Toby Cumberbatch of Cooper Union and Shawn Shafner of The Poop Project. The group discussed their innovative approaches to urban sustainability in their neighborhoods and how to get beyond academia and engage the public.

Bergman started off by outlining the evening as focusing on “connecting and reconnecting the dots in several ways: breaking down barriers between fields of study, reconnecting with ecosystems and using art to connect and collaborate.” When the “silos of specialization between artists, scientists and others are broken down and allowed to communicate with each other,” he said, broader solutions to environmental and community issues can be found.

Brawer, as the first panelist, described her work developing the Green Map System during what she called the “design-a-saurus era” in which design, due to wastefulness of energy and materials, was “driving us to extinction.” She developed a method of mapmaking to engage people in their community, getting them involved in locally-led, globally-connected projects.

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Wendy Brawer, center (with green helmet) on a “Lower East Ride.” Photo: David Bergman

Another way she gets our community interested is by leading the “Lower East Rides,” bicycling events which tour areas of the neighborhood that have environmental issues. Many of the stops along the route are to inspect sites hard hit by disasters like Hurricane Sandy.

Next up was Cooper Union’s Greenhouse project, led by Cumberbatch and located on a Fourth Arts Block rooftop. This generation’s graduates, he said, “will have to clean up the mess that everyone else has made.” First year students work on a greenhouse, “creating a closed loop food system” in which the food is produced entirely by the resources contained in the greenhouse, with the addition of the sun and rain. He slyly added, “if you want to find out how to grow plants in the most efficient ways, well, there’s lots of information out there about marijuana.”

Shafner’s Poop Project was seen as picking up where Cumberbatch’s food system leaves off. He described a sense of alienation among the public when it comes to thinking about “where their stuff comes from.” The Poop Project started, he joked, because “as a constipated kid, I thought a lot about poop growing up,” and that people needed to think about “the journey that your shit is taking through our water system.” The project is a “literal and metaphoric thought process about how we deal with our shit.” Many remarked on the fact that Shafner, more than anyone else in the group, probably had the most colorful dinner party conversations when asked what he did for a living.

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Photo: HavenOnHarlem.com

The Q & A amongst the panelists seemed to keep coming back to poop, focusing a lot on an issue that most New Yorkers are not even aware of: the city’s sewer overflow problem. Brawer noted that there are fifteen sewer overflow outlets on the LES alone. Bergman noted that he has taken his classes on boat trips to examine the coastline and water systems of the city, where they observed the caution signs along the shore at those overflow points. The signs warn that, whenever it rains, raw sewage and bacteria may come out of the pipes and could last for over 24 hours.

“Closed loops” – the idea that waste materials are always the input for something new, so that nothing is ever wasted – were a frequent topic. Schafner cited “food – poop – soil – food” as a “loop” that even a child could understand.

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Photo: Lori Greenberg

Following the panel discussion and question period, attendees grouped around tables to discuss, among other topics, how artists and their work can engage communities in environmental issues. Bergman concluded the evening by referring back to an attendee’s question about how artists can know that their work has value. He replied that art which raises awareness of the environment and influences peoples’ attitudes, can be one of the highest callings.

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