In less than a month, Eric Adams will take office as New York City’s mayor, and my hope is that his environmental priorities will focus on the work that is under the control of the city’s government. Many key elements of the green agenda will require his support — such as congestion pricing and renewable energy, but mass transit and utility regulation are under state control. Other sustainability policies require federal initiatives. Mayors should try to influence since they can’t control state and federal policy. But New York City is America’s largest local government, and my hope is that Mayor-Elect Adams and his team focus on the programs under his control.
The new mayor’s predecessor was big on Earth Day pronouncements but less interested in sustained follow-up. I’d rather see fewer words and more deeds out of City Hall. New York City’s government controls garbage pick-up and treatment, water supply, sewage treatment, parks, streets, and its own vehicles, procurement and 4,000 municipal buildings. The city also controls land use, zoning and building codes (the subject of a forthcoming piece). Our new mayor should focus his environmental agenda on areas under municipal control.
Let’s start with garbage by again quoting the immortal Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who famously said that “there is no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage.” But as we’ve learned over the past several years, if the garbage is not carted away by trucks, there are plenty of rats available to do the work. We need to get serious about separating food waste from the rest of our garbage, expand the use of the rat-proof brown and orange cans, and send all the city’s food waste to anaerobic digesters (a mechanized form of a compost heap). Separate food waste collection should be required of private carters who pick up commercial waste, and new food waste processing facilities should be located and rapidly constructed wherever we can get them sited — inside the city or outside of it. The market for recycled materials is unstable, but New York City should get creative about collecting and marketing recycled materials. Let’s find private partners that want to go into the fertilizer business with us. Let’s work to not just collect plastics but reuse them as well. We spend plenty of money on “tipping fees” to dump the waste; let’s use that money to set up real recycling facilities.
According to Washington Post reporter Tik Root, citing a recent study from the National Academy of Sciences, America is the world’s worst plastic polluter:
“The United States contributes more to this deluge than any other nation, according to the analysis, generating about 287 pounds of plastics per person. Overall, the United States produced 42 million metric tons of plastic waste in 2016 — almost twice as much as China, and more than the entire European Union combined… The vast majority of plastics are made from fossil fuels, and some can take hundreds of years to decompose. The researchers estimated that between 1.13 million to 2.24 million metric tons of the United States’ plastic waste leak into the environment each year. About 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean a year, and under the current trajectory that number could climb to 53 million by the end of the decade.”
New York City tosses out plenty of plastics and food, so let’s not try to solve the entire waste problem but set some priorities and first focus on that part of the waste stream.
New York City has a great supply of clean upstate water, and thanks to Mike Bloomberg’s revival of the multi-billion-dollar, long-delayed third water tunnel project, we have a reliable method of transporting clean water to the city. The Water Authority and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) should be allowed to continue their excellent work, but we need to focus on the missing link in our water system: the pipes that take the city’s water and bring it into our buildings. Some of those pipes are old, and the trouble takes place between the city’s supply and our water faucets. Lead and other toxics end up in our water after it leaves the city’s control. We need to incentivize building owners to measure the quality of a building’s water and replace the pipes and connectors where needed. The city government should detoxify the water supply in municipal buildings and schools. The city could fund private costs by allowing it to be deducted from property taxes and water bills. The city should also extend DEP’s water inspection program from the streets into our buildings.
Sewage Treatment and Flood Control
The waters surrounding New York City have improved over the last half-century due to the construction of modern sewage treatment plants, but some of those plants are getting old and need upgrading, and all of them release raw sewage into the water when our sewers, which combine street and household waste, overflow during intense storms. We need to expand the city’s green spaces for the amenity they provide and to reduce the city’s impermeable surfaces to absorb excess water. But as we learned this summer, we also need to invest in a system of holding tanks to keep our sewage treatment plants from being overwhelmed and to keep our basements from flooding. This will be expensive and require that we create a new revenue stream to finance this new climate-induced investment need. The post-Sandy resiliency work so thoughtfully described by Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times requires leadership and persistent follow-up. Community engagement needs to be accelerated, and a deeper understanding of the shape of proposed projects must be clearly communicated, modified, and then built. The East River Park project described in his piece will now be completed by 2026; originally it was supposed to have already been completed. We need to speed up infrastructure planning and construction in New York City.
The next priority should be to invest in New York’s perennially under-funded park system. We should expand the parks and increase their capital budget to keep their structures from falling apart. The middle level of Riverside Park is collapsing onto the train tracks that it was constructed on top of. The top-level is in even worse shape. Stairs in many parks are crumbling. And new parks are needed where homes have replaced factories, and people are now raising families. Parks reduce the heat island effect from climate change, improve air quality, absorb carbon dioxide, and make people happy. While funding for education, police and homeless people come first, parks need to get more than a penny on each tax-payer dollar. Parks are an essential city service, but they are often overlooked in the budget process and considered a frill. Four decades ago, then-Mayor Ed Koch and the Central Park Conservancy built a model of public-private park partnerships. Yes, few other neighborhoods can generate the cash that the Conservancy has generated, but the Friends of the High Line showed it could be done elsewhere, and Mayor Adams should get some of his new donor pals to focus on parks needing help outside of Manhattan.
Decarbonizing City Operations
There is an effort underway to make the city’s own buildings more energy-efficient and to power them with renewable energy. This has not been as high a priority as it needs to be, and we need to get federal and state infrastructure money and combine it with city resources to make it happen. The city can’t ask private developers to decarbonize if they don’t do it themselves. For renewable energy targets to be meaningful, the city government must demonstrate its own commitment. In addition to our municipal buildings, every city-owned vehicle, from garbage trucks to police cars, should go electric. New York and other large world cities should combine forces and use their purchasing power to create a market for electric garbage and fire trucks. Just as no one thought electric cars would ever be feasible until they drove a Tesla, these other vehicles can also be powered by electricity. In the short run, while new electric trucks are developed, every car the city buys should be electric. Federal infrastructure money should be used to build charging stations and invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy.
Just as the federal government has started to use its vast purchasing power to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency, New York City should do the same thing. When it contracts for a social service facility, it should let vendors know that their bid will receive points if they use renewable energy and if their vehicle fleet is electric. Whatever the city buys, it should express a preference for a green production process and an environmentally sustainable supply chain. If Walmart can do it, so can New York.
The priorities I am mentioning are all operational and all controlled by the city. We’ve had eight years of sustainability plans, carbon targets and policy pronouncements. Meanwhile, the city’s quality of life has deteriorated. Crime, abandoned stores, garbage, rats, homelessness, and vagrancy are on the rise. This is a city of enormous energy and creativity. Our new mayor should challenge the people of New York to pitch in. (“Ask not what your city can do for you, but what you can do for your city.”) On the environmental side of the house, let’s get the best scientists, economists, business people, engineers, managers, and community activists together to work on the practical problems of improving our city’s environmental quality. Let’s do it quietly, with fewer press events, but with focus, hard work and determination. Perhaps our new mayor will let our environmental actions do the talking for the next eight years. It would be a refreshing change.