NYC Marathon Ups Its Green Game

The TCS New York City Marathon is, arguably, the highest profile race of its kind on the planet. Managed by New York Road Runners (NYRR), it boasts the biggest field in the world with over 52,000 runners. Managing the event sustainably is a high priority for NYRR. GreenSportsBlog spoke with Caitlin Cunningham, the organization’s Senior Manager, Event Development and Logistics, to dig into the specifics of the greening effort surrounding the marathon.

 

Marathon Sunday.

If you live in Manhattan like I do, those two words connote the annual, joyous mid-autumn celebration of The Big Apple that is the TCS New York City Marathon.

To Caitlin Cunningham, Senior Manager, Event Development & Logistics for New York Road Runners (NYRR), Marathon Sunday has an entirely different meaning.

She is responsible for managing sustainability for the Marathon. Not surprisingly, that is no easy task. After all, over 52,000 runners race past an estimated one million spectators across all five boroughs on the first Sunday in November, generating many tons of waste, along with carbon emissions associated with getting to and from the event.

 

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Caitlin Cunningham of the New York Road Runners stands atop the Staten Island side of the Verrazano Bridge, starting point for the TCS New York City Marathon (Photo credit: NYRR)

 

“We’re aware of our impact on the city in terms of trash and other environmental issues,” acknowledged Cunningham. “So we have to be creative and work hard to minimize our footprint.”

 

GREENING GOES INTO HIGH GEAR DURING MARATHON WEEK

Runners and spectators begin to see the fruits of the sustainability efforts of NYRR, its partner organizations and several city agencies on the Sunday before the big race.

The Poland Spring Marathon Kickoff five-miler features a partnership between NYRR and City Harvest, the nonprofit that helped launch the food rescue movement in 1982. Since then, it has collected and donated massive amounts of unused food from a myriad of events and other sources to charities throughout New York City. In 2018, 800 lbs. of food from the five-miler found its way to soup kitchens and more.

The night before the race, NYRR hosts a pasta dinner for more than 3,000 runners at the TCS New York City Marathon Pavilion, located in front of Tavern on the Green in Central Park. The organization has a Zero-Waste goal for the dinner, meaning it diverts 90 percent or more of its waste from landfill. With a 2018 diversion rate of 79 percent, the organization is closing on the Zero-Waste finish line.

Then, very early on race day, NYRR and the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) spring into action with a comprehensive mass transit operation. Its objectives are to get more than 50,000 runners to the starting line smoothly and on time, while minimizing environmental impact.

“More than 90 percent of the runners take NYRR-provided transportation options, many of which are added for the marathon, from different points in the city, either directly to the start of the race on the Staten Island side of the Verrazano Bridge or to lower Manhattan’s Staten Island Ferry terminal,” Cunningham said. “About 23 thousand people take the ferry across New York Harbor to the staging area. The nearly ubiquitous use of mass transit is key to getting runners to the starting line on time and also to minimizing our carbon footprint.”

Once in Staten Island, the runners are given bagels and bananas, with City Harvest there to collect the unused food — they also are at the finish line in Central Park, picking up unused “recovery bags”, containing Poland Spring bottled water, Gatorade, Snyder’s Pretzels, and more.

Before taking off across the Verrazano Bridge, many runners shed their outer clothing layers. Prior to 2012, those sweat pants and jackets would be destined for the landfill. But, for the past six years, thanks to a partnership with Goodwill Industries of Greater New York and Northern New Jersey, the apparel has found a second life. In 2018, Goodwill collected 91,000 lbs. of clothing, bringing the six-year haul to just under 863,000 lbs.

That’s a lot of clothing!

 

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Goodwill Industries of Greater New York and Northern New Jersey places collection bins across the TCS New York City Marathon start bridge for runners to donate their heavy clothing before taking off (Photo credit: NYRR)

 

Once the starting gun goes off, the New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY) and private hauler Royal Waste begin a coordinated effort to ensure that, 1) by Monday morning, the city streets show no trace that the marathon even took place, and 2) as much of the vast amounts of waste generated by the runners and spectators is diverted from landfill.

DSNY largely plays the role of street sweeper, gathering leftover spectator trash. They also collect apparel left by runners on the bridges and streets. Unfortunately, those textiles cannot be reused because they were picked up off of the ground, so they go to landfill.

Most of Royal Waste’s efforts focus on recyclables, like bottles, cans, papers and cardboards, with a small amount of composting at this point.

“Royal Waste’s advanced sorting system allows it to do a great job of waste diversion,” noted Cunningham. “They cover the entire course, from the start at the Verrazano Bridge through the boroughs, into Manhattan to the finish line at Tavern on the Green. In 2018, they were able to divert 82 percent of the 222 tons of waste they collected.” That represented a 2.5 percent improvement over 2017.

“New York Road Runners has always made an effort to minimize our footprint on our city and the communities we encounter,” Cunningham said. “Over the past several years we have strived to gain more metrics on our ongoing sustainability efforts so that we can make more precise decisions on the future of our sustainability goals and make our impact even more significant.”

 

BEYOND THE MARATHON: NYRR HELPS REFURBISH SCHOOLYARDS

Sustainability is a year-round pursuit for NYRR, encompassing much more than the marathon.

“One of our most exciting programs is a partnership with The Trust for Public Land in which we transform asphalt schoolyards into state-of-the-art, green, community playgrounds,” reported Mike Schnall, Vice President of Government Relations and Community Investment at NYRR.

 

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Mike Schnall of NYRR (Photo credit: NYRR)

 

NYRR has contributed $2 million to help fund the design and construction of playgrounds at seven schools. Students themselves designed the new outdoor spaces, working in concert with landscape architects.

The seven community playgrounds feature green infrastructure design elements, a hallmark of The Trust for Public Land’s playground work. Specialized plantings and porous pavement help reduce storm runoff that can flood streets and overwhelm sewer systems, allowing untreated water to end up in rivers and bays. Each playground absorbs hundreds of thousands of gallons of water annually and includes 20-30 new trees that bring shade and better air quality to their neighborhoods.

 

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Through its partnership with NYRR, The Trust for Public Land unveiled a student-designed playground at CS 154 Harriet Tubman Learning Center, in Harlem (Photo credit: NYRR)

 

“As New York Road Runners continues to grow, our team will continue its commitment to leaving the communities that welcome us into their neighborhoods better than the way we found them,” Cunningham said. “We have some exciting, new, organization-wide sustainability initiatives and policies in the works and are eager to establish sustainability as a core value of New York Road Runners.”

 


 

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Birds Flying Into Minneapolis’ Glass-Walled US Bank Stadium Not a Good Look with Super Bowl LII Only Two Months Away

Excitement is building in the Upper Midwest as Super Bowl LII at Minneapolis’ US Bank Stadium is less than two months away and the hometown Vikings stand a legitimate shot of being the first hometown team to play in the game. The sustainability-related news surrounding the game is also positive — for the most part. 

Earlier this month, GreenSportsBlog featured the many good, green works of the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee. And US Bank Stadium is up for LEED certification. 

But there is one environmental aspect of Super Bowl LII and US Bank Stadium that draws concern: The problem of birds crashing into the largely glass exterior of the stadium that opened in 2016 and killing themselves; a problem that the Vikings and the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority were made aware of during the stadium’s design phase. 

 

I have to admit, I never thought about the possibility of glass buildings being a Killing Field of sorts for birds. Yet, according to the American Bird Conservancy, up to 1 billion birds are killed in this manner in North America alone every year.

But I am not a bird expert. Nor am I an architect. Heck, I never, a la “Seinfeld’s” George Costanza, wanted to pretend to be an architect.

Nor am I a resident of Minnesota, nor am I a Minnesota Vikings fan.

That last sentence is relevant because, if I did live in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and/or chanted “Skol, Vikings!” after they scored a touchdown, I would likely have been well aware that birds fly into the massive glass exterior of US Bank Stadium. The Vikings home, which opened in 2016, will host Super Bowl LII on February 4, so this will likely be a topic of discussion as the game approaches. So I decided to talk to an expert.

 

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A number of birds have crashed into the largely glass exterior Minneapolis’ US Bank Stadium, host, in February 2018, of Super Bowl LII (Photo credit: Glass Paint)

 

Bruce Fowle (perhaps appropriately pronounced “FOUL”) is Founding Principal Emeritus at FXFOWLE, a leading New York City-based architecture firm. He was a founder and chairman of the New York chapter of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, an advocacy group for social justice and a sustainable built environment. Most importantly for this story, Fowle and the firm were engaged by New York City’s Javits Center to renovate its all-glass exterior — then the number one bird-killer in the city, according to New York City Audubon.

 

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Bruce Fowle, Founding Principal Emeritus at FXFOWLE (Photo credit: FXFOWLE)

 

According to Fowle, the “problem of glass buildings for birds really came to light about 25 or so years ago. A group of ‘birders’ (aka bird watchers) in Toronto and other cities created the Flight Light Awareness Program (FLAP) to track bird crashes. New York City Audubon started a similar initiative, Project Safe Flight. Like organizations sprang up in other cities, including Minneapolis.”

These groups began with a similar, rather grisly methodology: tracking bird deaths by going out in pre-dawn mornings, collecting carcasses before maintenance crews cleaned them up.

The problem, according to Fowle, is particularly acute during migratory periods. At night, birds are attracted to decorative lights — like those at the top of the Empire State Building — and fly towards them. During daylight hours, migrating birds see through clear glass and think they can fly into the dark spaces inside. Bushes and trees in an atrium are even more toxic: Birds will make a beeline to the greenery, often plowing into the glass at speeds up to 30 miles per hour. Reflective glass poses its own challenges for birds — confused by either seeing their own reflection, or perhaps thinking it is an adversary, or seeing sky and vegetation.

Fowle himself was unaware of the problem until his wife started working for New York City Audubon in the 1990s. In 2009, by complete coincidence, he became the lead architect when his firm was selected to renovate the exterior of the all-glass Javits Center, the largest convention facility in New York City. This gave him the opportunity to solve its bird mortality problem. After some digging, Fowle and company found a winning solution.

“Our big breakthrough came when we found a high-performing glass that was much less reflective than the original — eight percent reflection factor vs. 35 percent,” said Fowle. “By adding a ‘fritted dot pattern’ on the glass, which was needed to control solar gain and reduce energy consumption, we solved the fly-through problem. In the end we reduced bird-kill by 95 percent while making the building more transparent, more visually appealing, and more sustainable – a grand slam!”

 

Javits Exterior Upgraded Glass

 

Javits Interior Upgrade

Exterior (top) and interior views of New York City’s Javits Center after it was renovated to include high performing glass with a “fritted dot pattern” that helped reduce bird kills by 95 percent. (Photo credits: Chris Cooper)

 

The energy bit is important when one considers that glass is not a good energy saver. Per Fowle, “Glass is popular for large buildings from aesthetic, cost, and marketability perspectives, but it is not at all energy efficient.”

But I digress. Back to the birds.

With the help of New York City Audubon, FXFOWLE’s work with the Javits Center attracted the attention of Audubon Minnesota. The nonprofit, dedicated in large part to bird health, was worried about the plans for a mostly glass exterior of a new home for the Vikings. Their concerns were heightened due to the fact the facility would be built smack dab in the middle of the Mississippi River Flyway, the route for millions of migrating birds from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and through to South America. Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the new LEED Platinum home of the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United, which also has a substantial glass exterior — although not as significant, percentage-wise, as US Bank Stadium — does not have a similar bird-kill problem. One likely reason is that it is not located on a flyway path.

Fowle recalls that he and his colleagues “recommended the glass used at Javits to the Audubon Minnesota, who then passed that on to the Vikings, the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA), and their architects. So all the key players were aware of the [bird-friendly] option during the planning phase, but apparently, because of alleged concerns about a relatively modest cost increase, they decided not to go the bird-friendly route.”

So US Bank Stadium was built with approximately 200,000 square feet of highly reflective glass, and, as predicted, birds started flying into it.

Sixty dead birds were observed during the fall 2016 migratory period, according to a February 2017 study compiled by the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis — a separate group from the Audubon Minnesota — Minnesota Citizens for the Protection of Migratory Birds, and Friends of Roberts Bird Sanctuary. The report asserts that the number “significantly underestimates true mortality at the stadium complex, because it does not include birds removed by maintenance staff, security guards, and scavengers.” And the US Bank Stadium’s reported kill rate is approximately 30 percent greater than has been seen at any other building in the Minneapolis area during any migratory period.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune and others publicized the story — which generated public protest. That led to a backlash —i.e. 60 dead birds aren’t that big a deal. Then, there was a strong volley to the backlash in the form of an October 2014 Star-Tribune OpEd co-authored by Jerry Bahls, then president (he retired this June) of the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis and Lisa Venable, co-founder of Minnesota Citizens for the Protection of Migratory Birds.

 

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Bird advocates hold up poster-sized photos of dead birds at a February 2017 public meeting. They said that volunteers found those birds dead outside U.S. Bank Stadium in the early morning. (Photo credit: Minnesota Public Radio/Jerry Nelson)

 

Their story highlighted the strong public support in the Twin Cities and Minnesota more broadly for the use of bird-safe glass at US Bank Stadium (“The current glass choice simply does not reflect Minnesota values, as evidenced by the 95,000 people who signed their names to a bird-safe glass petition to the governor and the unanimous resolution passed by the Minneapolis City Council”) and the pivotal role migratory birds play in pollination and pest control (“One bird can eat 500 pests per day, reducing the need for toxic pesticides.”), before pivoting to the already-existing Javits solution.

Even though several cities throughout North America have adopted Bird-Safe Guidelines and some, such as San Francisco, have legislated compliance, the pleas for bird friendly glass at US Bank Stadium continued to fall on deaf ears.

This continued after the stadium opened last fall, when Audubon Minnesota’s proposal to retrofit of the glass to reduce the kill rate received a no go from the MSFA and the Vikings.

Calls and emails to Audubon Minnesota to get its take on the inaction at US Bank Stadium, and to see if there would be any organized, peaceful protests around Super Bowl LII, have drawn no response. The group is conducting another bird kill study, along with a team from the University of Oklahoma and the MSFA, with results due sometime in 2019.

Of course, Super Bowl LII will have come and gone well before the study is published.

The Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis will not protest, mainly for logistical reasons. “There will be a large ‘Exclusion Zone’ for security purposes around the perimeter of US Bank Stadium from January through the Super Bowl in early February,” said Bahls.

 

Jerry Bahls

Jerry Bahls, retired president of the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis (Photo credit: Jerry Bahls)

 

Thus, it seems very unlikely that there will be any protests around the bird kill issue near US Bank Stadium in the weeks before Super Bowl LII. And, if that’s the case, the opportunity to gain national — and even international attention — on urban bird kills will have gone by the wayside.

While I certainly get the need for an Exclusion Zone, it says here that it is a shame that peaceful protests beyond the perimeter will not take place before Super Bowl LII. Such high profile actions would demonstrate to planners and architects of future stadium and arena projects — not to mention big, non-sports structures — that the public cares about the bird kill issue and that it should be a strong consideration during the design phase.

 

 


 

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