Answering the Call
The university is moving full speed ahead in powering the development of The New York Climate Exchange
By Liza N. Burby
In April, The New York Climate Exchange (“The Exchange”), a new nonprofit organization anchored by Stony Brook University and composed of leading universities, businesses and community organizations, was chosen to lead the Center for Climate Solutions on the 172-acre Governors Island in New York Harbor. Since August, a new sign at the end of a short ferry ride from Brooklyn to Yankee Pier welcomes visitors. It states “The Future Starts Now” with renderings of the historical renovation and new build that’s to come on the 400,000-square-foot site.
There are also posters around the island that offer teaser information about ongoing programming. While the groundbreaking isn’t set to begin until 2025, the university has already hit the ground running, moving ahead to leverage SBU’s expertise on the island. According to Kevin Reed, associate provost for climate and sustainability programming (and a key player in the development of The Exchange proposal), the academic, corporate and community partners have already begun working together to determine the specific programmatic focus areas for the coming years.
“Stony Brook is the right leader, both in New York and beyond, in the areas of climate and also in the areas of solutions for New Yorkers,” said Reed, who is also associate dean for research and a professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS). “But we also want to work with our partners. What are our joint priorities? Where should we be focusing? Climate change requires a bigger interaction with industry, government and nonprofits, so we see this as an opportunity to start to form a liaison with them, learn about them and help inform priorities for the next couple of years. A lot of our focus is building those relationships so that we can create a great foundation for the programs in the future as well, and can lead to workshops, a discussion series or a seed project.”
Helping New Yorkers connect with the potential impact that The Exchange will have for New York City and the global community — even before shovels hit the ground — is part of the process as well. The construction project is in the early development phase, with the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill doing the predevelopment work, which includes site testing, approvals, permitting and design. Construction on the site will preserve much of the existing natural, cultural and educational resources that make Governors Island unique and will feature a mix of new build and historic preservation. This development will consist of new research and educational facilities near Yankee Pier and the renovation of historical buildings, including the iconic Liggett Hall and the Fort Jay Theater. Exchange partners have also been able to provide input on the site plans, and The Exchange is exploring opportunities to share the design process with the broader public. Construction is projected to be completed in 2028.
A Call for Ideas
Meanwhile at Stony Brook, Reed said that while the university works toward initiating classes on Governors Island in about five years, this is an exciting stage during which all ideas are on the table. Part of the 2023-’24 academic year will be focused on engaging campus more broadly to find out what they want to get involved with, and he said that faculty are expressing enthusiasm about the possibilities.
“We want to start thinking about some of the classes that could be offered. What are the different types of workforce training activities that we want to do and what activities are needed by New Yorkers? So the next year or two is going to be focused around convening on our own campus about how faculty could get involved,” he said. “We’re going to be much more diligent in the coming year about interfacing across the campus, getting ideas for specific topics of the initial programming, as well as creating more clear mechanisms for students, faculty and staff to be involved.”
Reed said some of the areas to be explored are how to make it easier for SoMAS to work with the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “Can we develop new curriculum, new graduate programs that will make it so Stony Brook is ready to take full advantage of The New York Climate Exchange when it’s open? Those are the conversations that I’m looking forward to starting this fall. Breaking down silos to have conversations with other departments, especially in the area of climate change and climate solutions on campus, is a real opportunity for a lot of creativity to come from Stony Brook.”
Marianna Savoca, associate vice president for career readiness and experiential education in SBU’s Career Center, said she’s looking forward to the potential for varying types of experiential opportunities for university students.
“We envision varied approaches to these experiential opportunities and collaboration with faculty and employers to develop virtual engagements, hybrid engagements (such as some work virtual or in classroom with some trips to the island), and sequenced engagements, like a fall semester project on the home campus with a spring term immersion experience on the island,” she said.
Savoca added that the Career Center will be able to leverage its extensive network of corporate and nonprofit partners through its Career Center Employer Engagement team and the Center for Service Learning and Community Service. Moreover, she said, her office has relationships with nearly all the metro New York college career services’ professionals, which will help to roll out experiences to students at all area colleges and universities.
The arts are an important component of programming and education for The Exchange as well, said Julie Sheehan, associate professor of creative writing and literature, who was on the initial steering committee. She’s hoping for creative writing pop-up events, such as eco poetry. “Of course, in creative nonfiction there are essays and environmental writing that comes out of the creative writing community. I think this is a really important thing for artists to be thinking about.”
Sheehan pointed out that the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Arts Center is already on the island. “That makes a natural ally for doing pop-up events that might bring people over to Governors Island who otherwise might not go. And, of course, the New York City Poetry Festival is there and that’s been a really popular event. It’s another natural ally for us in developing programming that reaches out.”
Adaptable Communication Paths
Laura Lindenfeld, dean of the School of Communication and Journalism, said that what is already being done at both entities is central to the kind of work that needs to be done around climate.
Lindenfeld, who was on the writing team for the original proposal, said the school already offers a master’s in science communication specifically for people with a scientific background who want to become professional communicators. She hopes to be able to build a track in climate communication to integrate more learning opportunities, both in the classroom and in experiential learning opportunities for people at the graduate and undergraduate levels.
“We’re very committed to being able to highlight responses to problems rather than just pointing to problems,” Lindenfeld said. “I think there’s just such opportunity for us to help tell the story about Governors Island and to be able to integrate that into our students’ learning experiences and the journalistic and science communication outputs that they create.”
Further, faculty who have expertise in environmental communication, like Christine Gilbert, an assistant professor who has a joint appointment with SoMAS and the School of Communication and Journalism, see the potential for programming on the island. Gilbert, who teaches a graduate course on communicating science and health risks to the public, highlighted the three-hour workshop “Climate Conversations” for scientists, researchers and others whose work focuses on climate change and its impact on the world. The program is designed to help these experts understand how to connect with others and engage them in productive conversations about this complex and controversial topic. She said to date the Alda Center has trained more than 20,000 scientists and medical professionals around the globe.
“The training is designed to help you understand who your audience is so that your message can really land effectively,” she said. “When we learned SBU won the Governors Island bid, we were really interested in finding out if there was an opportunity for us to offer this workshop, either for visiting scholars coming to the island or even as part of the undergraduate or graduate programs that will be offered.”
Communicating environmental concepts is also key in the College of Business, said Stacey Finkelstein, professor and area head of marketing, who was on the academic planning committee. “My main idea behind all of this is to leverage business theories and tactics for improving sustainability. You can develop the most energy-efficient technologies, but these technologies will do little good if companies and consumers do not adopt them, if
regulators cannot be persuaded to support further energy-efficient activities, and if the product/service is not accessible via robust supply chains.”
Finkelstein said she hopes there can be an incubator through Governors Island where businesses “that are really doing this right get to mentor businesses that are looking to align themselves with industry leaders. I think being that hub, not just for engineers and scientists, but also for businesses to learn from other businesses who are incubating and doing things well, is really important,” she said.
Some faculty intend for their current research to be applied to Governors Island when the construction is completed. Among these is Dilip Gersappe, a professor and chair of materials science and chemical engineering. Gersappe said he has two projects that could eventually be tested through The Exchange. The first involves research that uses natural processes to enhance barriers, specifically biopolymer-stabilized earth materials for resilient and adaptable infrastructures with the goal of stabilizing soil to provide natural barriers to erosion.
“Biopolymers not only encourage natural vegetation; they improve the roots of the vegetation. Long after the biopolymers disappear from the soil, the roots form a really strong structure, which stabilizes slopes,” he said. “It uses a bacteria that is actually naturally present in soils, and the bacteria produces this biopolymer.”
Gersappe said this project could be ideal on Governors Island because it has a coast. “We can use it as a test to see what grasses grow, how they grow and ways in which we can enhance the growth, and essentially do this all while monitoring everything just to make sure that whatever we are adding is not bad for the environment.”
He added that at SBU, there are already two other key faculty members working on this with him: Distinguished Professor Miriam Rafailovich from the Department of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering, and Professor Marcia Simon, who is from the Department of Oral Biology and Pathology. As a biologist, Simon grows the bacteria for biopolymers, and the three are conducting some growing experiments at the Stony Brook Greenhouse.
Gersappe has also teamed up with Shannon Yee, an associate professor in the G.W.W. School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, one of many SBU academic partners in The Exchange. Yee said the initial themes that were listed in the Governors Island proposal around energy systems and food and water have enabled him to work with SBU faculty like Gersappe and Benjamin Hsiao, a distinguished professor in the Department of Chemistry.
“The three of us are going to team up moving forward to really look at the waste pillar because one of the commitments for the Living Building Challenge is to be net zero waste,” Yee said. “I’m just excited to be a partner with Stony Brook and Ben and Dilip on seeing this move forward.”
Hsiao and Gersappe have been developing a waste management process that converts food and animal waste into fertilizer and growing media, with the goal to develop a circular solution with animal and food waste.
Gersappe added, “By the time the build-out is completed on Governors Island, we can actually start both using this as demonstration and also testing just to show engineering with nature.”
Another faculty member who would like to bring his research to The Exchange is Jaymie Meliker, a professor in public health, Department of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine. He’s focused on public health and climate change and has three projects he hopes to focus on with The Exchange: mental health and well-being in response to storms and other catastrophes impacted by climate change; dataset linkage to assess health impacts of climate change, and programs to increase resiliency; and spread of environmental contaminants from storms impacted by climate change.
“These efforts will help us to develop social solutions to the climate crisis, which we can test in New York City for implementation more broadly,” he said. “But my three examples are ways that we can try to collaborate between The Exchange, Stony Brook University and the surrounding communities to try to answer some questions about how climate is impacting human health, and if there are steps we can take to intervene on that pathway to help mitigate health consequences. I’m excited about the potential.”
Reed said that the call for ideas goes beyond faculty and invites alumni living in the city and the surrounding area to explore Governors Island and find ways to stay engaged by visiting thenewyorkclimatexchange.org. “We have such a wide-ranging base of alumni who can engage with us, whether they’re local or out in the rest of the nation and the world. There will be opportunities for them to submit ideas so they know they have a voice in shaping some of the early priorities.”
After this story was completed, the Exchange announced it had named Stephen Hammer, PhD, as its founding chief executive officer. He officially began his duties on December1.Hammer is a leading global climate policy expert with more than 30 years experience. To learn more about him, please see the official announcement by clicking this link.