Maintaining the Momentum Behind New York City's Sustainability Initiatives

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 08: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg attends a news conference where it was announced that free W
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 08: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg attends a news conference where it was announced that free Wi-Fi will be provided by Google to the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea on January 8, 2013 in New York City. Google has teamed up with the Chelsea Improvement Project, a local New York City non-profit and the city government to provide free Wi-Fi to the historic neighborhood. The network will become the largest public outdoor service of its kind in New York, and the first neighborhood in the city with free WiFi. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

As New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's third term draws to an end this year, it is imperative that whoever succeeds him as Mayor commits to maintaining the momentum behind New York City's sustainability initiatives. Mayoral leadership is at the heart of the progress that New York has made and we will be certainly looking to see the sense of vision and commitment in the candidates running for this important office. There is always a danger that sustainability will suffer from the "not invented here syndrome" when the next Mayor is sworn in. That would be a foolish and even tragic mistake if it were to come to pass.

The Bloomberg Administration was careful to ensure that sustainability was codified into law shortly after they released the path-breaking PlaNYC2030 in 2007. According to New York City's website:

"Local Law 17 of 2008, enacted by the City Council with the Mayor's support, requires that PlaNYC be updated every four years... The Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, created in 2006 and charged with developing and implanting PlaNYC, will lead the effort to update the plan."

By law, the next mayor must maintain the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability and must continue to update the city's sustainability plan and track the implementation of that plan. By the end of 2013 and Mayor Bloomberg's term there are 400 very specific sustainability milestones that will hopefully be achieved and there are 29 Sustainability Indicators that will continue to be used to monitor progress toward the city's sustainability goals for 2030. These goals range from creating more affordable housing while accommodating a growing population, to ensuring that all new Yorkers live within a ten minute walk of a park.

I consider progress made in sustainability to be one of the key accomplishments of Mayor Bloomberg's second and third terms of office. He and his team have managed to integrate the goals of economic development and environmental protection by demonstrating the clear connection between these two goals. The Bloomberg team has brought the rigor of quantitative performance measurement to bear on this critical issue and has managed the city's growth while increasing its livability.

The issue of climate change and adapting to its impacts has been brought home to all of us by Hurricane Sandy, but it has been part of New York's sustainability planning for a number of years. Climate change was prominent in the original PlaNYC 2030 which addressed climate mitigation and adaptation when it set the goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030 and increasing the city's resilience in the face of climate risks. As the 2007 plan stated:

"...Urban areas located on a coast like New York City face increased climate risks. Accordingly, cities have a responsibility to deal with both the causes and effects of climate change. New York City has always faced climate risks, including heat waves, snow storms, high winds, tropical storms, storm surges, lightning, and torrential downpours. These events affect every New Yorker, and as our climate changes, they will become more frequent and severe. We need to reduce our contributions to climate change, and simultaneously be ready for its effects."

Issues like education, public safety, economic development and transportation will dominate the Mayoral campaign that has just begun, but I think the issue of sustainability needs to be raised and pushed as well. We should not take for granted the progress that we've made. New York City is well positioned for the 21st century, but as Sandy showed us, we have a lot of work to do. We have the advantages of diversity, mass transit, excellent drinking water, beautiful parks and energy efficiency. We have great cultural, educational, and health institutions and a vibrant entertainment sector as well. We have a creative and hardworking workforce, and a tradition of coming together as a community during tough times like 9-11 and Sandy. People want to come here to live and to visit. But we have the challenges of aging and vulnerable infrastructure, over 500 miles of coastline, homelessness, poverty and an economy that remains in transition.

The law enacted in 2008 and bureaucratic inertia will ensure that some type of sustainability planning and management will continue under the next Mayor. But we need more than grudging acceptance from the incoming Mayor. We need leadership, vision and aggressive communication as well. We need a Mayor who cares about the future of the planet and understands its connection to the future of New York City. Sustainability has been a top priority under the Bloomberg administration and it must continue to be a major theme of the next mayor.

The transition to a renewable and sustainable economy will bring a range of new challenges. Some can be foreseen, such as the costs and disruption that smartgrid construction will bring to our already complex underground infrastructure. But some of the challenges will be unforeseen. They will require a deep level of commitment and a gut level understanding of the principles of sustainability and their relationship to the city's future well-being.

As the global economy continues to develop, the great cities of the world will find themselves competing for businesses, people and tourists. The quality of life that the city offers is a key element of that competition. Right now, New York City has many more advantages than disadvantages in that competition. Companies like Google will expand here because they need the brainpower that New York continues to attract. Students from all over the world come to study at our universities because they want to take advantage of the excitement and energy that New York provides. Unlike Beijing this past weekend, where air quality measured by the American embassy was the worst in history, New York's air and water is getting cleaner. But the competition for people and business is an endless one; and other cities are not sitting still. Mexico City, for example is experiencing steady improvements in its air quality. We need to continue to work to make our environment cleaner.

The rebuilding effort underway after Hurricane Sandy provides an opportunity to build a more climate-resilient city. Sandy has affected the city's consciousness in a way that no event has since 9-11. In both cases, we saw that the people of New York were tough and resilient. We are also capable of learning from our history, and thinking ahead and planning for the future. New York City's street grid, its water system and its subway system were all built with the future in mind. While the near bankruptcy of the mid-1970's forced us to focus on the present to get to the future, the last decade has seen us focus once again on New York City's future. That focus on the future and sustainability brought by Mayor Bloomberg and his team to City Hall needs to continue.