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Is Sustainability Sustainable in a Post-Bloomberg NYC?

By Courtney Small

With the end of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure drawing near, many are speculating which of his policies will survive the next administration. New York City’s comprehensive environmental plan, PlaNYC 2030: A Greener, Greater New York, has been championed politically by Bloomberg, but is grounded in science and data, and performance management. It has demonstrated progress, achieving multiple goals for the city, making it appealing to any administration. On Oct. 22, we hosted an event where we posed the question “Is Sustainability Sustainable?” to our guest experts, Rit Aggarwala and Sergej Mahnovski. The answer is simply that it needs to be.

Cohen, Aggarwala & Mahovski in Low Library
Cohen, Aggarwala & Mahovski in Low Library.

Rit Aggarwala helped design and implement PlaNYC during his tenure as the first director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability from 2006 to 2010. He currently is looking at urban sustainability through a more global scope, serving as the special advisor to the chair of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, Mayor Bloomberg. Sergej Mahnovski is the current director of the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability and steered the office during and after Superstorm Sandy, an event which led to new resiliency efforts by the office. Both serve as professors at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

PlaNYC, an initiative championed by Bloomberg starting in 2007 and led by the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, prepares the city for one million more residents, a stronger economy, and the effects of climate change, all while improving the quality of life for New Yorkers. The plan targets the essential components of the city: housing and neighborhoods, parks and public spaces, brownfields, waterways, water supply, transportation, energy, air quality, solid waste, and climate change. The plan, through its 132 initiatives and over 400 specific milestones, is innovative, comprehensive and action oriented. Since PlaNYC’s inception, New York has achieved the cleanest air quality in 50 years and is passing the halfway mark to the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

To suggest the future of PlaNYC, it is important to understand the motivation in designing it. The plan, as we learned from Aggarwala, did not start off as an environmental initiative. “One of the things we forget is that it was a strategic plan for growth and quality of life,” he said. The plan was developed in response to growth beyond the capacity of 8 million residents, something that had not happened since the population plummeted in the 1970s. Until the early 2000s, the population of New York was growing, but filling existing empty capacity. PlaNYC was designed to help the city accommodate a growing population, while maintaining and improving quality of life.

Climate change adaptation was not something that was inherently part of this equation, and Aggarwala recalls needing to fight to have it included in the original plan. Though NYC assessed its climate risks through the NYC Panel on Climate Change, mitigation was the main focus of PlaNYC until we faced our most serious and obvious climate threat — Hurricane Sandy. Mahnovski talks about this shift following Sandy, and the avowed focus of the administration on resiliency. Resiliency is important due to the climate threats facing the city, including increasing sea level rise, storm surges, increasing wind speeds, heat waves and droughts. Each risk affects infrastructure and vulnerable populations differently, and each is being addressed by the work of Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability through its $20 billion plan, A Stronger, More Resilient New York.

As politicos dissect Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio’s plans for the city and how they compare to Bloomberg’s legacy, our panelists point out measures which protect PlaNYC initiatives during this transition. First, the existence of the plan and the office which manages it is now mandated by city law.  Mahnovski also notes the strength of the office lies in the fact that they are data-driven rather than political. The analytic rigor of their plans guide smart policies, and support for those policies should not change based on the mayor or changes within City Council.

Of course, the panelists acknowledged there are risks during a changing administration. Aggarwala points out that the post-Sandy focus could override the attention paid to mitigating emissions. Another risk to the initiative would be that it continues in name only, and that the more political issues – like congestion pricing and waste-to-energy plants, would not have a strong supporter in City Hall.

Overall, it was clear that sustainability initiatives are essential to remaining a competitive, thriving and growing urban center. It is important for a central, non-political actor to make sure these plans are advancing cohesively and strategically in all the agencies, even when the initiatives are fully-owned by the agencies. Time will tell, but our city will need to continue to be green in order to be great.

Watch the full event here.

Courtney Small is manager of strategic initiatives for the Earth Institute.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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