Manuel Suarez, 42, part-time warehouse worker from the Dominican Republic, left high school early, now lives alone in one bedroom apartment on 12th floor of 18-story public housing high rise, East Harlem. Recovering from broken ankle at home, has one AC in bedroom. No laptop and spends little time on Internet or email, but uses smartphone to keep in touch with neighborhood seniors and the wheelchair bound he tries to help in bad weather. He also worries about his dog suffering when it’s hot.
When the team first started brainstorming, it decided Manuel should host a “Cooling Party.” He’d put up flyers around his NYCHA building, buy popsicles, play music, invite friends and neighbors over to sit around the AC and hang out. But then they realized: The AC is in his bedroom. That’s a lot of people to pile inside.
So the team’s ideas quickly evolved, but it didn’t lose the desire to foster a lively community spirit. Instead of hosting gatherings in Manuel’s bedroom, they proposed opening up a rooftop garden.
Manuel would begin by testing a pilot garden bed, asking the tenant association and community board for $75-$150 to foster a small plot of land. After this garden proved successful, the team hoped, he would also receive a green infrastructure grant from the city, and the garden would grow to cover the entire space.
Manuel would also use a heat sensor in his apartment to determine which days were high risk. On those hot afternoons, he would text his friends and neighbors to come upstairs, have lunch or iced tea or popsicles, play dominos, bingo or cards, or sit and talk in the shade. The teenagers on the building would be enlisted as summer volunteers to assist the more elderly residents in making the journey to the roof.
Slowly, the team suggested, the building would be transformed. Leafy trees would shade a seating area, greenery would cover the asphalt, vines would reach down the sides of the building and stop it from absorbing so much heat. Water sprinklers would spray recycled water produced by the building – taking grey water and turning it into green.
Areas for improvement suggested by the expert panel included:
- Adding sprinklers and saturating plants might lead to a dangerous amount of extra weight on the roof from the extra water. That could be addressed by using ultra-light soil.
- While the rooftop garden and the ivy-covered walls will certainly cool down the building itself, will the roof have enough shade to cool people down when they’re sitting on top of it?