Islands in the Sky—Growing NYC’s Green Infrastructure

Jacob K. Javits Center Green Roof. Photo: Argenis Apolinario

Islands in the Sky—Growing NYC’s Green Infrastructure

This article appears in the summer 2024 issue of The Urban Audubon.

Olivia Liang | June 21, 2024

As New Yorkers, we’re confronted with age-old assumptions about our City. It’s often seen as a collection of skyscrapers, a land of concrete and asphalt. Our only interactions with nature are the occasional House Sparrow dust-bathing in the corner park or low-flying pigeons pecking at the leftover feed of carriage horses.

While others may need a reality check, birders know the truth: New York City is a biodiversity hotspot with growing, vital green space.

When people think of the five boroughs, Dr. Dustin Partridge, Director of Conservation and Science at NYC Bird Alliance (formerly NYC Audubon), wants them to imagine more than high-rises and low-rises and the sprinkling of parks. He wants people to consider what this land was like before European arrival, when the Lenape people, Manhattan’s original inhabitants, named this place “Manahatta,” meaning “hilly island.” 

“It was a diversity of habitats, with upland forests, freshwater wetlands, and ponds. There were trout in what is now Central Park’s Harlem Meer,” says Partridge. “The reason New York City developed into what it is now is that there were resources to support a lot of people. It's how cities have come to coincide with biodiversity hotspots.”

Green infrastructure, one of the central pillars of NYC Bird Alliance’s conservation work, is an effort not to restore this former state, but to honor it. For millennia, migratory birds incorporated this biodiverse region into their migratory pathways because it allowed them to eat and rest during their risky journeys along the Atlantic Flyway. While this need for a safe, refueling station during migration has not changed, the landscape has.

Green roofs in New York City could never replace ground-level habitats nor be as lush as they once were, but they can provide the critical stopover habitat that birds need to survive.

 “Green roofs provide little islands in the sky that allow birds to have that habitat,” says Partridge. “Green roofs can give wildlife a fighting chance.”

A House Sparrow forages atop a Google campus building. Photo by Michelle Talich.
What is Bird-friendly Green Infrastructure? 
An investment in green infrastructure is an investment in biodiversity, which is why green infrastructure initiatives can take many forms, from enriching parks with better habitat to adding green roofs throughout the City. While the ideal bird-safe combination is a green roof with insect-rich habitat, native plants, and surrounding bird-friendly glass, the diversity and creativity of NYC Bird Alliance’s work come from the challenge of serving people as much as birds. We strive to build a City that benefits the lives and health of New York residents and avian migrants.

“A green roof is a space for the public, it's a space for wildlife, it's a space to reduce environmental impact,” says Myles Davis, Senior Manager of Green Infrastructure. “We define success in terms of NYC Bird Alliance’s mission and values: bird conservation, habitat protection, and providing a space for New Yorkers to connect with wildlife and birds safely.” 

NYC Bird Alliance’s Role: Research, Advocacy, and Storytelling
As Senior Manager of Green Infrastructure, Myles Davis often has to explain an interesting part of his job. 

“I’m a biodiversity consultant for private corporate buildings,” he says. Working with the buildings that NYC Bird Alliance contracts with, Davis analyzes how their green infrastructure contributes to bird diversity and which aspects pose potential risks, like reflective glass. The end goal? To build a more bird-safe and diverse City.

“A lot of our current work is with private organizations, but that’s a subset of the larger green infrastructure picture we're encouraging,” says Partridge. “Our partnerships with sites like the Javits Center let us gather information to tell their sustainability story—and give us data to explain why green roofs are so important.”

That data has been critical for encouraging green roof installations throughout the City. In 2019, Partridge and the colleagues in the Green Roof Researchers Alliance, a coalition led by NYC Bird Alliance (at the time, called NYC Audubon), helped create an improved State Green Roof Tax Abatement, which provides a financial incentive for buildings to install green roofs, especially in environmentally at-risk areas. (See page 5 for an update on renewing that legislation.)

Leading from the Rooftops
Dr. Dustin Partridge, Director of Conservation and Science, atop the Javits Green Roof. Photo by Argenis Apolinario.
The Jacob K. Javits Center, constructed in 1986, became an early focus of the new Project Safe Flight run by NYC Bird Alliance (at the time, NYC Audubon). Community science volunteers monitored the all-glass building for nearly a decade before rating it as one of the City’s greatest causes of avian collision deaths. Because of this review, and thanks to a partnership with Bruce and Marcia Fowle (the organization’s former Executive Director and board President), the Javits Center replaced its windows with bird-safe glass in 2014. 

Since then the Javits Center installed a nearly eight-acre green roof network (one of the largest in the United States) and eventually a native pollinator garden, shade garden, food forest, and farm. The Javits Center has since become a leader in sustainability, security, and technology, setting a new standard for convention centers throughout the country with its green infrastructure. 

“Our green roof is living proof of the power of sustainability,” says Alan Steel, CEO of the New York Convention Center Operating Corporation, which operates the Javits Center. “Thanks to our ongoing partnership with [NYC Bird Alliance], we have been able to understand how simple, smart changes to our infrastructure can have a positive impact on the urban environment.”

NYC Bird Alliance’s team continues to survey the Javits Green Roof, monitoring the 65 bird species, five bat species, and thousands of insects seen utilizing the green space, most notably the Herring Gull colony

“Just since April 2023, we’ve documented 14 new bird species at Javits,” says Davis. “These are long-distance migrants and a lot of urban-sensitive species, so we know there’s conservation impact.”

NYC Bird Alliance also used the Javits Center success story and data to influence bird-friendly legislation, Local Law 15, which requires the use of bird-friendly glass in new and renovated buildings.

With projects and partnerships that span the City, NYC Bird Alliance’s green infrastructure has grown and evolved. We’ve worked to reduce collisions at the Javits Center. We’ve raised public awareness of conservation issues at Kingsland Wildflowers at Broadway Stages, which includes 24,000 square feet of low-growing sedum and wildflower meadows in a largely polluted and industrial area. We have prioritized restoration projects at Sherman Creek. And most recently, we have helped invest in sustainable development at Google’s office buildings.

Kingsland Wildflowers atop Broadway Stages in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Photo by Niki Jackson
Google: Striving for High-Impact Conservation 
Since 2023, NYC Bird Alliance has worked with Google to redefine the green spaces of their New York City office buildings. With a presence at their buildings in both their Chelsea and Hudson Square campuses, including the recently reopened St. John’s Terminal, our survey technicians have supported Google’s sustainable development goals with biodiversity monitoring on their various green roofs. 

That green space hosts a surprising amount of avian diversity. Last fall, at the St. John’s Terminal building alone, our scientists observed over 40 bird species using the built habitat to forage and refuel during migration. 

With a global company like Google choosing to foster green space, we are hopeful that they will be a game-changing role model for other companies and office buildings across New York City and the world.

A Palm Warbler, one of over 40 bird species found by NYC Bird Alliance scientists at Google’s St. John’s Terminal office building as part of our green infrastructure monitoring in fall 2023. Photo: Michelle Talich
Envisioning a Green and Bird-friendly Future 
Imagine all the roofs of New York City. Your house or apartment building. Your place of work or study. Schools, libraries, and hospitals, office and government buildings, community centers, and museums. Now imagine green roofs on each one. This is a vision Jessica Wilson, Executive Director of NYC Bird Alliance, often prompts. One where from their rooftops, New Yorkers hear crickets instead of traffic and see Cerulean Warblers or Purple Martins. 

“With a green future, not only will New Yorkers be more connected with nature, but the City itself will become stronger,” she says. Green roofs will capture stormwater, improve air quality, reduce noise, and improve health, making it a richer and more sustainable home for birds and people. 

But Partridge perhaps captures this vision best:

“When I give tours of Javits, after walking through the green roof and seeing birds using habitats from farm to orchard to sedum, I take everybody to a view of the other roofs in New York City. It’s this barren landscape of no green space. When you walk through Javits’ green habitats, you forget where you are. That's the future of the City. Transforming roofs into this landscape of green that can be used as wildlife habitat and benefit humans—that's going to change the character of the City entirely. It will be a habitat that can support more biodiversity, have more benefits for people, be more livable, and more climate resilient.” 

“When I look at a building with a green roof on it, that’s what I see as the future of New York City.”