State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


New York: A City of Seasons

When I was a kid, after school ended around June 30, my family would pack a U-Haul, hook it up to our car and head “upstate” to a bungalow colony in Kerhonkson, New York. When I was 11 years old my parents bought a little summer house in Lake Secor, in Putnam County. Summers until high school were spent “up in the country” to escape the heat and humidity of New York City.  My father would wake up a little earlier than usual on Monday mornings and head to “the city” for work. Air conditioning was not yet common, New York had very few tourists in the summer, and anyone with the means to get out headed for the beach or the mountains. Eventually, I was expected to work in the summer and so I found myself employed in the bike business, the recording business and the locksmithing business (all by generous family members who took pity on me) and could only escape the city on weekends. But from my childhood until today life seems to change in each of New York’s seasons.

New York City in the summer was a different place than the rest of the year. As the Lovin’ Spoonful once sang: “Hot town, summer in the city / back of my neck getting dirty and gritty…All around, people looking half dead / walking on the sidewalk / hotter than a match head.” Of course, they also sang about how terrific the nights were and Gerry Goffin and Carol King wrote a song about the cooling breezes they enjoyed “up on the roof” and anyone who couldn’t leave the city cooled off on roofs, fire escapes and stoops. Half a century and thousands of air conditioners later, the city is loaded with tourists and is much more crowded than it once was. This year about 67 million tourists will visit New York, more than double the number who visited in 1990. Still, the embedded cultural habits of this seasonal city prevail as many native New Yorkers escape the city each summer for places that are cooler or at least a more mellow. Air conditioning is fine, but it’s not an ocean or mountain breeze.

So today, the day after Labor Day, you can feel the heart-beat of the city accelerate as over a million public school students return from summer vacation and a similar number of college and graduate students get ready to return to school. Many New Yorkers close their beach, lakeside and mountain homes, cover up their barbecue grills and get back to work. Labor Day is a day to celebrate America’s workers and, in this city, it is immediately followed by an entire city sparked back to life. It’s like a starting gun at a 100-yard dash: suddenly everyone is back on the move. In New York City the pace picks up today and grows in intensity until we all step back, reflect and give thanks with family and friends on Thanksgiving. The city is never as intense as it becomes between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. The U.N. arrives in September, Halloween brings costumes, parades, and parties, hiring throughout the city starts to increase, and during autumn business in the 24-7 global economy is relentless. The city that never sleeps is really up all night.

And then the night before Thanksgiving the big balloons are inflated near the Museum of Natural History for Macy’s famous parade, and what once was an informal west side gathering of parents and their kids has now become an event itself. The NYPD sets up a police presence to guard Snoopy and Garfield and keep the crowds under control. And for a little while commerce takes a brief break until it comes roaring back on the Friday after the holiday in stores and the Monday after the holiday online. And as the days get shorter the lights are brightly lit all over the city, from the Tree in Rockefeller Center to our own beautiful College Walk on Columbia’s campus. Craft shops are set up in Columbus Circle, Union Square, Grand Central Station and Bryant Park and people start matching gifts to the people they care about. Finally, a million or so tourists gather to watch a ball drop at New Year’s Eve in Times Square for reasons that completely elude those of us who live here. The city then empties out a bit as some locals leave for warmer climates. Not that it is ever uncrowded or quiet, but some of the intensity that starts the day after Labor Day leaves New York at the start of the new year.

The pace picks up again as school starts up later in January, and as the days get longer and spring approaches some of the city’s outdoor life resumes. There are other seasonal themes in New York. Religious holidays close and open entire communities, and the 40 percent of the city’s population born in other nations proudly celebrate holidays from back home. The cycle ends with the start of summer and two quintessential American holidays: Memorial Day and Independence Day. In my family, we open our summer home in Long Beach, New York on Memorial Day weekend. The holiday weekend always culminates on our street corner that Monday when we join with our neighbors waving American flags while the town’s veterans, scouts, public school bands, police, fire fighters and other notables march in a parade commemorating the bravery of those who died to protect our freedom. That freedom provides the stability and peace required to ensure an economy that values work and a culture that enables friends and family to laugh, play and enjoy together.

Today, New York’s work year begins. Tonight, I’ll meet about 85 students in my Sustainability Management graduate course. This is a course I developed that combines the two areas I have long worked to understand: organizational management and environmental protection. After decades of keeping these two interests distinct, I wrote a book in 2010 that Columbia University Press published entitled, Sustainability Management. For the past decade, I’ve been teaching that managers must add a concern for the “physical dimensions of sustainability” to their management toolbox. Just as they need to understand the strategy, finance, marketing/communication, accounting, performance data, global trade and contracting, they must also understand and manage an organization’s use of resources such as energy, water, and other raw materials. They need to measure and manage the waste associated with their organization’s production process and contain the environmental impact of their products and services. A sustainability manager reduces the organization’s costs and risks and takes responsibility to steward the planet for our children and their children.

I love the seasonality and endless variety of my home city and I do not find its intensity incompatible with the goal of environmental sustainability. My latest book is called The Sustainable City and I wrote it to demonstrate that environmentalism and an exciting, dynamic urban community are completely compatible. In some respects, it is the city’s diversity that facilitates our changing pace of work-life balance. Religious, cultural and national holidays allow us to press the pause button, and sit back and reflect on who we are, what we are doing and why we are doing it. Anticipating the sound of the Shofar on the Jewish Holidays and the sound of the steel drums at the J’ouvert festival and West Indian Day Parade are both parts of my back-to-work ritual. I know my time for zoning out on ocean breezes has come to an end for a while. But as the work year starts and my work week grows longer, I know that our work is not endless and the cycle will slow a bit when Snoopy and Garfield fly again over Central Park West.

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

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