In his brief time in office, Mayor Eric Adams has had to deal with the murder of two police officers, an infant shot in the face, a woman pushed to her death in the subway, and a weekend snowstorm. Through it all, he has been a visible, reassuring, and energetic presence throughout the city, providing leadership and clarity. Last week, he took the time between the city’s many emergencies to announce his all-star environmental leadership team. Now, I admit I am biased since two of the three folks that the mayor appointed to lead on environment teach in master’s programs I direct at Columbia University. This semester, Rohit Aggarwala, the city’s new environmental chief, is teaching the Politics and Policy of Urban Sustainability in our environmental science and policy program and Kizzy Charles-Guzman, the new environmental justice director, is teaching our capstone workshop in the sustainability management program. Both are experienced, dedicated public servants and both are world-class experts in the substance of their field. The fact that they take the time to teach and mentor the next generation of sustainability professionals is a testament to their high ideals and sound values.
The third member of the leadership team doesn’t teach at Columbia, although he has an undergraduate degree from here. The mayor’s press release provided his background and observed that:
“Vincent Sapienza has dedicated his career to protecting and improving New York City’s water and wastewater infrastructure. Sapienza served in three senior positions within DEP, leading the Bureau of Wastewater Treatment from 2009 through 2014, then heading the Bureau of Engineering, Design and Construction through 2016, and then as commissioner for the past five years. Sapienza is a New York State licensed professional engineer and holds a BS from Columbia and an MBA from Hofstra.”
What is most impressive is that in the interest of creating a unified and integrated environmental management structure, Sapienza was willing to give up the position of commissioner in the Department of Environmental Protection and move from CEO to COO. This is evidence of his dedication to mission and the persuasiveness of Adams and his team.
Rit Aggarwala was a key leader in the development of the Bloomberg Administration’s path-breaking sustainability plan, PlaNYC 2030. He has a deep, scholarly and practical understanding of environmental policy, politics, and management. Kizzy Charles-Guzman has a long history in community-based environmental justice and was once the environmental policy coordinator for the prominent environmental advocacy group WEACT for Environmental Justice. I was far from alone in applauding these choices, according to a statement on WEACT’s website:
“We thank Mayor Eric Adams for boldly committing to implement the recommendations of New York City’s first Environmental Justice for All Report,” said Peggy Shepard, Co-Founder & Executive Director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “And we also thank the Mayor for appointing Rohit T. Aggarwala, Vincent Sapienza, and Kizzy Charles-Guzman – a team that has the experience and expertise needed to take meaningful action on environmental and climate justice. Congratulations to all!”
As important as this stellar team is to the city’s environmental future, so too are the structural changes initiated by Aggarwala’s appointment as the city’s chief climate officer, meaning that all environmental programs in city government are within his purview. This begins with the consolidation of a variety of climate, environmental justice and resilience units housed throughout the mayorality that will now be integrated into the city’s overall environmental protection program. This consolidation is a strong indication that Mayor Adams means business and intends to do more than make symbolic pronouncements about climate change and environmental justice. He actually intends to take action.
One area that was not mentioned in the mayor’s announcement was the city’s current effort to decarbonize its own buildings and fleet of vehicles. My hope is that these efforts also have at least a “dotted line” connection to the city’s new chief climate officer. With over 300,000 employees, over 30,000 vehicles and about 4,000 buildings, the city government could join with the federal government and insist that its procurement processes adhere to green principles and that wherever feasible, city structures should be retrofitted to save energy and convert to renewable energy.
New York’s transition to environmental sustainability will take a generation to complete and will present financial and operational challenges to our government. In addition to the cost of retrofitting our many old buildings, we have the problem of flood control. After Hurricane Sandy, we were concerned with shoreline flooding, a logical response for a city with about 600 miles of coastline. We developed a variety of solutions for protecting the shore and also implemented efforts to develop green infrastructure to absorb rain and other sources of stress on our sewer system. In the summer of 2021, we experienced a month with a great deal of rain, and so the city’s permeable surfaces were saturated with water. When we experienced a day where rain fell at the rate of five inches in one hour, there was no place for the water to go and it flooded basements. In some basement apartments, people were trapped and died. That was the day we learned the limits of green infrastructure. While we should use natural systems as much as we can to absorb excess water, it’s clear we need to do more.
Our infrastructure is not designed to deal with the type of extreme weather we saw last summer. It seems clear that before we get global warming under control, we will see more events like the flooding we experienced during the summer of 2021. We need to adapt our infrastructure to these new conditions. It’s been over a century since we faced a challenge of this scale. The construction of New York City’s water system was a similar and very expensive challenge. While New York once had plentiful and clean sources of groundwater, very early in the city’s development, we polluted that source of water and needed to build and pay for public reservoirs and water mains. The water system began with a reservoir at the current site of Bryant Park, and the main branch of the NY Public Library and steadily migrated north as development proceeded and today is on land owned by the city in the Croton and Delaware watersheds. Our water supply is protected by New York City enforcement officials and annual expenditures of $300 million a year. That system is one of the main responsibilities of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection and its Bureau of Water Supply. It is funded by water use fees set by the city’s Water Board. It may be that a similar structure and system of funding will be required to construct a system of flood control for New York City. While no one is excited about paying more taxes than they now pay, no one is particularly excited about flooded basements and subways either. The difficulty, of course, is that it’s easier to generate revenue to pay for a certain need, such as a biological necessity like clean water, than to pay for holding tanks for floods that are only predicted to happen and might not take place often enough to justify the spending.
The advantage of the city’s new environmental management structure is that it will now have the organizational capacity to develop a strategic approach to addressing extreme weather events, the ability to create financing methods to pay for that approach, and the engineering capacity in DEP to analyze and manage the construction and operation of whatever infrastructure the city decides to build. The previous more balkanized structure could not handle a problem this challenging. This structure can.
Last but not least, the elevation of the issue of environmental justice and the creation of a direct reporting line from Kizzy Charles Guzman to Rit Aggarwala means that issues of community impact will be carefully factored into decisions about environmental infrastructure siting and outcomes. New York City has begun the process of evolving into an environmentally sustainable city. This new team and organizational design provide reason to believe that the path to sustainability may well be accelerated during the Adams administration.