Since New York City legalized urban beekeeping three years ago, beehives have been popping up on rooftops all over the city. Of course, Brooklyn rooftops predictably became dotted with beekeepers from Brooklyn Grange and 11216 Honey, but even Manhattan started to get in on the action, with hives appearing on the roofs of more storied institutions like the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Actually, the practice of beekeeping has historically been a rural endeavor. And, like urban farming, beekeeping's associations of being bucolic and artisanal—and therefore green and sustainable—have been appropriated as a trendy way for city residents and businesses to project an image of environmental-friendliness. For large corporations, this positive, feel-good sustainability has become trendy and profitable too, as evidenced in the New York Times' recent, detailed story about the clandestine, eco-chic urban beehives on the roof of One Bryant Park, aka the Bank of America Tower, the US of A's architectural monument to Mother Earth.
The Times' story touts the first-ever LEED-Platinum-certified skyscraper's environmentally friendly features, such as a special air-filtration system, a garden within the lobby, a green roof that uses compost from the cafeteria, and ... some 100,000 European honeybees! Placing the artisanal buttercream icing on the locally made organic cake is the Times' prominent photo of the green roof's beekeeper, a shaggy mix between flannel-clad Bedford Avenue lumberjack and free-spirited, sun-bleached surfer, holding up a faithful beehive. It's all so "pastoral small-farm mindset makes the big, dirty city sustainable and green," right?
Ironically, the New York Times missed this enlightening and disturbing article by the New Republic, which nearly 10 days prior uncovered the fact that the "squeaky-clean" image of the Bank of America Tower actually hides some rather dirty facts. Built in 2010, the BoA tower consumes more energy per square foot than any similarly sized skyscraper in the city, twice more than the 82-year-old Empire State Building, which was built decades before green building standards even entered gastrulation. As pointed out by Gizmodo, the New Republic piece exposes the flaws in the LEED certification system, which fails to assess a building's resource and energy consumption after tenants have moved in. The current checklist rates a building's carbon footprint before it is actually occupied, hindering efforts to combat climate change.
Similarly stated by Fastco, LEED tends to focus on cosmetic "add-ons," like urban beehives, which simply work to cast buildings in a readily visible, eco-friendly light. Urban beekeeping undoubtedly brings numerous benefits, like locally-sourced and pesticide-free honey, an engaging and rewarding hobby for communities, and the chance to learn a new skill. But, in terms of sustainability, the add-on is rather lukewarm. The Times' emphasis on LEED-supported building methods, which appear to be environmental champions but in actuality are comparatively trivial, brings up the problem of only looking at issues on the surface, rather than digging deeper into facts.
While the New Republic maybe exaggerated a bit when calling the Bank of America skyscraper a "toxic tower," there's no denying that the U.S. Green Building Council has a long way to go in ensuring that our future buildings help reduce, rather than expand, our severe impact on the environment. LEED should reframe its system to assess a building's performance when it is actually being used, and reward features that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Until then, mainstream news outlets will continue to praise token, artificially sustainable features that make us feel warm and cozy about docile attempts to green our cities.
Photo-collage by Katherine Wisniewski