State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


The Transition to the Sustainable City, Here in New York

new york sustainable city
New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge. Photo: Pixabay

Cities are always evolving and transitioning from one identity to another. Technology, economics, culture and politics stimulates the change, and it is gradual enough that it is often not fully observed or understood. My home city of New York was a commercial and manufacturing city throughout the first half of the 20th century. At the end of World War II, nearly half the city’s GDP was in the manufacturing of clothing. The far west side of Manhattan south of 34th Street was dominated by many small clothing factories. We made our money making, shipping and selling things; there were factories all over the city: bicycles on Berriman Street in Brooklyn, Studebaker cars in western Harlem, Domino Sugar in Queens, and we had an active shipping port on the west side of Manhattan. In the late 1960s, that started to fall apart; our city’s transition to the post-industrial city began and nearly drove us to bankruptcy. That manufacturing city had been built on top of a mercantile trading city and today’s service-oriented city is built on top of that old commercial and manufacturing city. Tomorrow’s sustainable city will be built on top of the one we know today.

While the crew running the country doesn’t understand it, the nature of economic life in the 21st century has changed dramatically. We are in a global, brain-based economy, where manufacturing has taken its place on the low end of the value chain and new technology and ideas are on the high end. The competition between nations is not for industrial might, but for technological innovation. Manufacturing supply chains cross national boundaries and allow us to enjoy low-priced, high quality goods and services.

What does that mean in policy terms? It means that public policy should foster global trade and international finance and commerce. We should be investing in our research universities and in education from pre-K all the way to Ph.D and beyond. To stay employed, we will all need to be life-long learners and public policy should reflect that need. We should be subsidizing innovative technologies. And we should do everything we can to make America a comfortable destination for the world’s smartest people. That means we should be encouraging immigration instead of scaring it away. And here’s a secret: you are not going to get the brilliant engineer to come if she can’t bring her grandmother with her. And no one will come if they are characterized by the president as gangsters and criminals. Protecting the steel and coal industry is a policy for the mid-twentieth century. No one has a monopoly on those industries. If one country doesn’t want to sell us steel, we will buy it from another one. We won World War II because our raw materials and manufacturing capacity were unparalleled. But let’s stop fighting the last war. Today’s global competition won’t be over hardware, but over software. It will be over the attractiveness of our quality of life. Our strategic advantage is our environment of freedom, innovation, creativity and safety.

As economic life is changing, so too are cities. In the United States, 80 percent of the GDP is now in the service sector. Automation is likely to ensure that trend continues. Machines will make things and people will design and sell them. A century ago most of our time was spent pursuing food, clothing, water and shelter. Today most of our time is spent producing and consuming ideas and information and sharing what we learn on social media. We are paying more attention to the quality and health impacts of what we eat, breathe, drink and do. Environmental quality is now an assumed output of a well-governed modern city. As our cities become more crowded, we seek more exciting public spaces, better restaurants, better mass transportation, and better places to walk with assurances that the air is relatively clean.

Here in New York we are seeing the birth of our own sustainable city. It started with Mike Bloomberg’s path-breaking PlaNYC 2030 and continued with Mayor de Blasio’s OneNYC development plan. It included the multi-billion-dollar resiliency plan developed and funded in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to reinforce our shoreline and build a more climate adapted city. Mass transit is slowly attracting reinvestment. We have built new urban parks like the High Line, the newly opened Domino Sugar Factory Park, and the Freshkills Park at the site of Staten Island’s infamous landfill. We see the development of a more sustainable city with the growth of bike lanes and Citibike bike-sharing stations. We see it with on-going and institutionalized efforts to protect the ecosystems around our upstate reservoirs and the construction of a multi-billion-dollar third water tunnel. We see it in the slow and steady investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy sponsored by New York state and its electric utilities (and paid for by consumers).

A more sustainable New York City will need to invest in new forms of solid waste management, including recycling, waste-to-energy, and fertilizer technologies such as anaerobic digestion. The city already recycles food waste from 400,000 residents. Renewable energy, smart grids, energy efficiency, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, enhanced mass transit and improved public spaces will also need to be built. We’ve done this before in New York: the street grid, park system, electrical grid, subway and water system did not appear by magic. They were built by forward-looking government and business leaders seeking to build a more prosperous city. It worked. The next step is to adapt and, where necessary, rebuild that infrastructure for a sustainable future. Technology, economics, leadership and politics will stimulate reinvestment and build the infrastructure needed for the sustainable city. Mike Bloomberg’s leadership led to the completion of the city’s third water tunnel. The need for a better functioning subway system, driven by a growing population, economics and political pressure is leading to reinvestment in mass transit. Our energy grid will be rebuilt when solar cell and battery technology make distributed generation of electricity more cost-effective and frequent. That will force Con Ed and the state’s other utilities to redesign their business model and gradually modernize the grid. Transformative renewable energy technology is not here yet, but it is coming.

The key businesses of the sustainable city are those that develop and utilize technology for human betterment and growth: research, education, health care, media, communications, arts, culture, design, entertainment, physical fitness and wellness. Commerce that fosters human interaction will also be central: cafes, restaurants, social clubs and recreation facilities. A sustainable city must also work to ensure that reward for initiative and entrepreneurship does not create a permanent impoverished underclass. Reward for performance is important and desirable, but there should also be an effort to provide opportunities for the brains and talents of all children to reach their potential. Without poverty alleviation, social and political stability cannot be achieved, and therefore environmental stability cannot be achieved without a sturdy and well-functioning economic safety net.

This too has been done before here in New York; we just need to adapt our safety net for the new global economy. New York has public hospitals, a large public housing system, a massive public school and library system, and a large if imperfect social welfare system. Just as the private settlement houses of the early 20th century gave way to a government-sponsored welfare system, a more effective public-private partnership must be developed to continue the work of poverty reduction here in New York. The number of poor and homeless children in this very rich city is both unacceptable and unethical.

Since the Dutch landed here in 1624, the city has constantly evolved. The British took over in 1664, we gained independence a little more than a century later, and the five boroughs united to become a single city in 1898. That evolution is far from over. We have an opportunity to build an exciting, dynamic and transformative model sustainable city. If a sustainable city can make it here, it can make it anywhere…

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments