When Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation in July reforming New York’s existing green roof tax abatement program, the legislative framework came largely from a proposal outlined by Danielle Spiegel-Feld ’10. In an article in the NYU Environmental Law Journal (ELJ), “Expanding Green Roofs in New York City: Towards a Location-Specific Tax Incentive,” Spiegel-Feld argued for providing larger tax breaks for property owners who install green roofs—vegetative coverings on buildings—in areas where they would provide the greatest environmental and social value.
The legislation is the most recent victory for Spiegel-Feld, executive director of the Frank J. Guarini Center on Environmental, Energy, and Land Use Law. In her role, she conducts research on pressing environmental issues, connects with nongovernmental organizations to coordinate advocacy strategies, and provides evidence-based recommendations for policymakers.
New York’s initial green roof tax incentive program created only seven green roofs in nine years, and Spiegel-Feld became interested in why the program was failing and how it could improve. After she published an op-ed on energy efficiency, the office of New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer became interested in her environmental research, which led to a discussion on green roofs. She and Stringer co-authored an op-ed on the benefits of reforming the existing law, which include reducing stormwater runoff and energy use, providing insulation for buildings, and improving water quality.
Spiegel-Feld’s current work on New York City’s environmental affairs is slightly different from the trajectory she envisioned for herself as a law student. “My long-term goal was always to be involved in the development of environmental policy, but I did not imagine I’d work on local issues,” Spiegel-Feld says. “There was so much hope at the time I was in law school that the federal government would make real progress on the big environmental problems of our days that I figured I’d work on federal policy. Since then, the federal government has taken a big step back, which has led me to this local level.”
In addition to her work on green roofs, another proposal from Spiegel-Feld led to a New York City law requiring buildings to display letter grades for energy efficiency. In a Guarini Center brief, she advocated for an energy efficiency grading system similar to one already being used in Denmark, then worked with the New York City Mayor's Office of Sustainability and the City Council on legislation to implement the idea. Signed into law in 2018, the legislation goes into effect in 2020, making New York the first US city to require the public posting of energy letter grades.
Spiegel-Feld became interested in environmental protection as she was earning her BA in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, and she decided to become a lawyer. NYU Law’s environmental law faculty, its proximity to prominent environmental organizations, and the city’s progressive political atmosphere provided an attractive opportunity for advocacy, she says.
She served as ELJ notes editor, worked as a research assistant for Dean Emeritus and Lawrence King Professor of Law Richard Revesz, and authored a note for ELJ under the advisement of Sarah Herring Sorin Professor of Law Katrina Wyman. Wyman now works closely with Spiegel-Feld as the deputy faculty director of the Guarini Center.
“It’s great to be able to learn from a former student, and I’ve learned a great deal from writing, teaching and working with Danielle,” Wyman says in an email. “She has built up the center, and pioneered the center’s focus on urban environmental law. She already has done much to promote environmental improvement in New York City. I especially admire her early appreciation of the importance of improving energy efficiency in buildings to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in New York City.”
After graduating, Spiegel-Feld worked as a research fellow at the University of Copenhagen where she studied the impact of international trading operations on domestic policy decisions in the United States, and then as a senior associate at Israel Policy Forum. She joined the Guarini Center in 2014.
While Spiegel-Feld’s work is on local issues, her advocacy in a city as populous and influential as New York has made the kind of impact she envisioned as a law student.
“Cities can be real leaders in environmental policy, and so what happens here matters, and it matters not just because this is a city of 10 million people, but because policies that are developed here tend to have a catalytic effect,” she says. “And what I find really gratifying is building interest in what New York City can do as an environmental regulator and helping to put those policies into action.”
Posted August 26, 2019