While Congress Stalls, New York City Pushes Sustainability

While the right wing attacks environmental protection policy in Congress and in state capitals, local governments all over the United States continue to grind out small scale initiatives designed to make their towns more sustainable. A city can save cash by reducing its use of energy, water and other natural resources and can also save money by reducing waste and other forms of pollution. Under our often criticized Mayor, New York City has been at the forefront of this movement, and recently it updated its path breaking sustainability strategy- PlaNYC 2030.

Summarizing the progress made under the initial plan, the Mayor's Office for Long Term Planning and Sustainability reported that:

In just four years we've built hundreds of acres of new parkland while improving our existing parks. We've created or preserved more than 64,000 units of housing. We've built whole new neighborhoods with access to transit. We've provided New Yorkers with more transportation options. We've enacted the most ambitious laws of any city in the country to make existing buildings more energy-efficient. And we've reduced our greenhouse gas emissions 13% below 2005 levels. Over 97% of the 127 initiatives in PlaNYC were launched within one-year of its release and almost two-thirds of its 2009 milestones were achieved or mostly achieved. The updated plan has 132 initiatives and more than 400 specific milestones for December 31, 2013.

The original plan was driven by the need to accommodate the additional million people projected to live in New York City in 2030. As a man who made his fortune organizing and analyzing data, Mayor Bloomberg immediately and profoundly understood the implications of that estimate. The goal of a more sustainable city grew out of the need to ensure that New York continued to maintain a high quality of life capable of drawing the price premium that people pay to live here. While no plan is perfect, and every organization stumbles once in a while, PlaNYC has been a stunning success. It has reframed the debate about New York's future. It has integrated discussions of economic growth with discussions of environmental protection and enhancement.

The Mayor's sustainability program has not always been successful. It is true that the city lost its battle to implement congestion pricing and generate new funding to enhance mass transit. It is also true that its bid to mandate hybrid cabs was tossed by the courts. But it has worked relentlessly to improve mass transit, and despite the resistance of some taxi fleet owners, the number of hybrid cabs is growing every year. The city's updated sustainability plan promotes solar energy generation at New York's closed landfills. It also begins to eliminate the use of some of the world's most disgusting and filthy heating oil in New York's apartments, offices and schools.

The plan also takes a baby step in addressing garbage: the least sustainable part of the city's environmental infrastructure. After the city's last landfill closed at the start of the 21st century, New York began to export 100% of its garbage to out of state landfills and waste-to-energy incinerators. Nearly all of the garbage was shipped by truck and most ended up in landfills. If you wanted to invent a more expensive and destructive way of getting rid of the city's garbage, you'd be hard pressed to do so. The city's long term waste management plan called for barging the city's garbage out of state via waste transfer stations located on our waterfront, but neighborhood resistance to these new facilities has been overwhelming. Under the new plan, New York inches toward modern waste management by calling for a pilot project to experiment with a waste-to-energy plant. The waste issue still needs work and should include an aggressive effort at waste reduction, enhanced recycling, anaerobic digestion (a mechanical form of composting food waste), and waste-to-energy. Environmental justice issues should be addressed by ensuring that the city develops a large number of small, decentralized facilities instead of a small number of mega plants.

What is important about the newly revised PlaNYC 2030 is that it continues to set the sustainability agenda here in New York City and continues the progress New York has made toward sustainable economic development. Sustainability is a real part of New York's government. It is not just something that is rolled out for Earth Day. Recently, I moderated a panel discussion that discussed New York City as a sustainable city. It featured David Bragdon, Director, NYC Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, Ester Fuchs, Director, Urban and Social Policy Concentration and Professor of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, Cas Holloway, Commissioner, NYC Department of Environmental Protection, and Bill Solecki, Director, CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities. You can view the conversation in its entirety here. Two aspects of that discussion leap out at you: first, the dedication of New York's government and intellectual leaders to the issue of environmental quality, and second, the integration of that issue with the overarching issue of the city's long term sustainable economic development.

Having started my career in the federal government, I must confess that I prefer to focus on city and community level issues. Federal policy discussions often descend to silly and symbolic ideological discussions. Environmental reality is sometimes absent from the debate in Congress. In contrast, no one at the local level disputes the need to devote resources to maintain and improve environmental quality. At the local level, the issues are real and non-optional. As near as I can tell, everyone around here likes to breathe. Garbage must be removed, water must be supplied, subways and roadways must be re-built, schools need to educate and yes, poor, sick and elderly people must receive care. It's no surprise to me that the nation's largest city continues to take two steps forward for every one step back on the path to sustainability. Progress continues despite the lack of support and occasional hostility of the federal government.

While it is popular to bash New York's Mayor Mike, I think a fair minded observer must give him credit for providing leadership on urban sustainability. He has made this issue a central issue of his mayoralty and deserves praise for the vision and energy he has devoted to New York's sustainability. He has made it a major priority and it will be a lasting part of his legacy as New York's Mayor.