04/15/2009 11:04 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Re-Making the Big (Green) Apple

In the U.S. we've looked to places like Portland, Seattle and even Austin, Texas for the crunchy-granola thinking on sustainability. But now, nearly a year-and-a-half after Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched New York's sustainability push called PlaNYC 2030, the Big Apple has a shot at becoming the nexus for the best thinking and action on our paradigm shift to a cool, green world.

Not amazingly, New York's transit orientation has always made its citizens greener than the rest of us - New Yorkers emit just a third of average per capita CO2 emissions. It also has more than its fair share of green entrepreneurs - in fashion, food, in furnishings - and the big spirit and moxie of its 8.25 million souls.

Green LED lights at the Empire State Building by paulaloe @ flickr

But New York, already the largest its ever been, will add another million people by 2030. That fact, combined with some aged infrastructure, already high density and scary threats from climate change, means PlaNYC was a direly needed set of blueprints for how to go forward greenly.

PlaNYC is 127 separate initiatives for the city's land, water, energy, air, transportation and climate systems, and plus an overall goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions 30% - from the 2007 benchmark - by 2017. Already changes can be seen on the ground, and the spirit is in the air. One tenth of a goal of planting 1 million trees has been achieved. Next month hybrids will hit the streets as the city starts in earnest on its plan to turn iconic yellow cabs and black limos greener.

PlaNYC is a combination of the small but important and the truly ambitious. Larger retail store owners will be required to shut their doors in summer if they've got the air conditioning going - it could save 215,000 tons of CO2 annually. To promote safe bicycle commuting (not something N.Y. is known for) new paths are being forged, and safe locking spaces are being added at City buildings.

On the truly ambitious side are the plans for cleaning up all brownfields, as well as shifting New York's buildings to a greener zone - currently 80 percent of city emissions are generated by buildings! That means benchmarks, energy audits and then retrofits of City buildings - lighting and heating/cooling - and incentives to get private owners on board.

The massive work required to do the audits and retrofits is also a great opportunity to spur a green-color job revolution - the folks at Sustainable South Bronx are working on a program to train New Yorkers to be ready for a green industrial revolution.

Of course, PlaNYC has its critics and detractors: cabbies that complain their hybrid yellow cabs will save gas but cost more to lease, neighborhood advocates that point out that in spite of trying (thus far unsuccessfully) to pass a congestion charge, New York's development codes require new buildings to construct lots of parking spaces - which will lead to more cars.

But a plan of this scope can't possibly keep moving forward without that kind of jostling between the goals and the on-the-ground realities. What is truly amazing about PlaNYC is its big, big approach. Lately Americans' desires for everything bigger have come back to seriously bite us. But in this example, thinking really, really big is exactly what we all need to not lose momentum in the green leap forward.

More from TreeHugger on New York greening
::1000 "Black Car" Taxis to Go Hybrid in New York City
:::: Seen in New York: MTA Touts Green Credentials
::Green Buildings in New York Not Just for the Hoity-Toity
::New York Times on Green Collar Jobs
::The TH Interview: Ariella Maron-The Greening of New York City
::Bloomberg Proposes Congestion Charge For Manhattan