Allison (Allie) Molinaro took Alan McGowan’s Renewable Energy Systems course this spring. As part of a class assignment, she submitted a paper she wrote to SSRN, an open-access online community where students can post early-stage research. Her paper, The Effectiveness of Vegetation in Reducing Building Energy Demand, generated interest and an offer to publish from one of the oldest journals in the US covering real estate matters and disciplines that impact the built environment.

Congratulations! How did your paper go from class assignment to an offer to publish?
Thank you! It was all very surprising. We were assigned to write a paper on a topic of our choice related to energy in Alan McGowan’s class last semester, so I wrote a paper focused on green roofs and green walls because they have been of interest to me for a while. I had never heard of SSRN before Alan (Professor McGowan) introduced it to us. As part of the submission requirement, Alan had us all upload our papers onto SSRN. I didn’t think much of it until I received an email three weeks later from Stephen Miller, Editor-in-Chief, of Thomson Reuters Real Estate Review, saying that he liked my paper and wanted my permission to publish it (which was of course a resounding “yes”)! The funniest part is that when I received the email, I was sitting on a green roof!

How did you get interested in the use of vegetation to increase energy efficiency?
It’s an idea I’ve been toying with in my head for several years now. I remember a reading about urban heat islands in a meteorology class I took in undergrad that talked about the low albedo of urban surfaces, rainwater overflow from impervious surfaces, and the compounding heating effect of the sun’s rays as it is absorbed by the additional surface area from vertical walls, and eventually I thought, “why don’t we cover all the roofs and walls with plants? That would fix all three problems in one!”. What struck me most was the untapped potential of walls—each city has thousands of square feet of exterior wall space that seemed to be trapping heat in the streets, absorbing heat into buildings, and even re-radiating light as heat back into the environment, and nothing was being done about it. Not long after I learned about the prospect of urban greenery in reducing air pollution and increasing biodiversity; decreasing energy demand seemed like a possible additional benefit. I hadn’t spent much time pursuing the subject in my previous graduate semesters, and being it was my last one I figured I would use the opportunity to research the energy benefits of urban greenery myself. I knew that green roofs had gained some traction but I was not as aware that green walls already existed, just like I had imagined them several years ago. I was happy to find that some researchers had already begun to look into their potential.

Your paper talks about the recent ‘green roofs’ legislation passed by the New York City Council. What impact do you think that will have here and elsewhere?
I am quite excited. One of the bill’s sponsors, Councilman Rafael Espinal, calls green roofs the “Swiss army knife approach to dealing with climate issues,” and I couldn’t agree more. Like I said earlier, building greenery alleviates stormwater overflow, filters air pollution, provides habitat, reduces the urban heat island effect, and even boosts mental health, so all these benefits will be felt in addition to lower energy demand. In terms of impact elsewhere, I think New York City has made a name for itself as one of the most progressive and environmentally aggressive cities on the East Coast, and by now a lot of policymakers in other cities are looking to New York City for guidance and inspiration. Now that New York City has been the first to do so, I am hoping that requirements to incorporate green roofs will become standard in other major cities across the nation. With some education and outreach from academia, I am also hoping other cities will include some sort of requirement, incentive, or goal for green walls. I hope policymakers realize that greenery is a natural and safe solution to not just energy demand but a slew of other issues, as opposed to pursuing risky technological solutions with unknown effects.

You graduated with your MS in Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management this May. What’s next for you?
I plan to stay in the New York City/North Jersey area. I spent some time interning with Clean Water Action during graduate school, and I am about to begin there full-time as a Political Environmental Campaign Organizer in July. Ultimately, I hope to work my way up in the nonprofit arena; my love for the nonprofit sector has really grown over the last couple of years. Since I am staying close by, I hope I can come back and visit The New School sometime too!