Just north of Williamsburg in the borough of Brooklyn lies Greenpoint, a neighbourhood where hipsters and the Polish community rub shoulders. It’s also the exact site of one of the largest oil spills in U.S. history.
The incident dates back to the mid-19th century, when around 50 petroleum processing plants lined a waterway north of Greenpoint. The spill was only discovered 140 years later, in 1978.
It’s estimated that 17 to 30 million gallons of oil, benzene, and naphtha — along with several other carcinogens — were deposited beneath the feet of the people of the neighbourhood.
In 2005 a lawsuit was filed against ExxonMobil, which led to the creation of the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund. It provides financing for greening and environmental education projects.
The Greenpoint Library was renovated through this funding. At the height of the chaos of 2020, the library reopened its doors. The building is at the cutting edge of environmental design with solar panels, judicious use of natural light, and a bioswale to control rainwater runoff. LEED-certified, it was designed by Marble Fairbanks in collaboration with SCAPE.
The list is impressive — but it’s how the library’s educational mission has been integrated into the design itself that above all distinguishes the building.
A true neighbourhood library
The project was developed according to the principles of biophilic design, which aims to integrate nature in and around the built environment. Library visitors thus enjoy benefits for both their mental and physical health. This vision is apparent right from the access to the building: once surrounded by a stern fence, it’s now encircled by a green space. “A method of celebrating the local landscape,” explains Gena Wirth, landscape architect at SCAPE. On the ground floor, people are greeted by Pennsylvania sedge and serviceberry.
“Libraries are important pieces of social infrastructure. They provide books and a suite of services to communities, including education,” adds Wirth.
The pedagogical aspect of the Greenpoint Library is above all visual. You learn the environmental history of the area through your own eyes.
A granite outcropping lines the entrance, symbolizing the locality’s ice-age history. On the second floor, native, fruit-bearing shrubs have been planted — including witch hazel and red osier dogwood — and the green rooftops were designed with pollinators in mind. Inside, the meeting room walls are decorated with slats of local wood: walnut, ash, and red oak. “There is interpretive signage located both inside and outside the library explaining the various features. […] Locating these is part of the fun of exploring the library,” enthuses architect Jason Roberts, director of Marble Fairbanks.
On the third floor, you’ll find garden beds: come summer, they will serve as learning spaces for the community groups caring for the plants. Through two eco-labs, people can put citizen science principles into practice. On the whole, the library space has been designed to encourage environmental responsibility. A cistern collects rainwater, which is then used to water plants, with the hope that this will encourage the community to do the same. “Few projects hybridize landscaping with education the way we did here,” confirms Gena Wirth.
In addition to lending books, the library is an oasis for other “inhabitants” of the neighbourhood:
“Asclepiads are important for monarchs. The idea is that bees and butterflies might spread pollen and allow for diversity. The wind might spread them around, it might show up in other parts of the project, it might be collected by participants,” explains the landscape architect.
Reading the world through green-coloured glasses
“Aside from being intrinsically valuable, green public building projects can be excellent vehicles for initiating broader community conversations about sustainability,” asserts a 2014 article for The Australian Library Journal. And what spaces better fuel dialogue than libraries — these places of learning and discovery?
The world is bursting with examples. In Johannesburg, South Africa, the Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library will be built in part from mud. Seed libraries, where you can “borrow” seeds, grow them, then share the fruits of your labour, first appeared in the San Francisco area and are multiplying rapidly. The Library at the Dock in Melbourne, Australia, is one of the greenest public buildings in the country.
The work of librarians across the world is guided by the values of accessibility, diversity, education, and social responsibility.
For many librarians, the challenges of the climate crisis need answers that can be found through their skills — and so much the better if this can be in buildings that enrich our imaginations and fuel reflection.
Rooted in the history of the neighbourhood, on soil that’s likely forever contaminated, the Greenpoint Library is the right place to lead its patrons to action.
Gabrielle Anctil is a radio journalist and researcher for Radio-Canada’s Première Chaine. She writes for a variety of media, including Continuité, Unpointcinq, and La Gazette des femmes. She can be found beaming on her bicycle all year round.