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Mike Bloomberg's Impressive Sustainability Record

Posted: 12/05/11 08:52 AM ET

Despite occasional errors like appointing Cathy Black as Schools Chancellor, and more recently suggesting that we could finance improvements in teacher salaries by doubling class size, Mike Bloomberg has been a superb mayor. I should mention that I think New York City, America's largest local government, has been well-led for many years. Ed Koch, David Dinkins, and yes, Rudy Giuliani helped rebuild this city from the depths of bankruptcy to its restored status as America's world city. Bloomberg has built on the foundation painfully built by his predecessors.

New York is a tough place to govern. New Yorkers have a tendency to complain in loud voices -- I like to think this is part of our charm. And succeeding in the public sector is more difficult than succeeding in business. When Bloomberg first ran for mayor, that was one of my main concerns: could he transfer his talent for business to the challenges of public service? It was not an easy transition and in some ways his wealth allows him to stand apart from standard politics, but Mayor Mike has learned to navigate life in the media political fishbowl. Otherwise, even with his money, he would never have been elected mayor in New York three times.

There is a good reason that public sector work is more difficult than the work of the private sector. The work done by the marketplace is work for which there is a clear market and the potential for profit. The public sector gets the work for which there is no market. It gets the really tough assignments. The way I usually explain it in public management class is that it's easier to "make a beer that tastes great and is less filling" then to reduce homelessness or crime. The success of a private firm is mainly measured with three indicators: Profit, market share and return on equity. How about the public sector? What is a successful homeless program? Or school? Or police force? How do you measure success? You can be the NYPD and reduce homicides from over 2000 in the 1990's to less than 550 in 2010. That looks like an amazing success, unless you are one of the 536 people murdered in 2010 or their loved ones.

In 2011, New York City's indicators of success are included in the 228 page Mayor's Management Report. This report demonstrates the complexity of managing America's largest city. Mike Bloomberg probably found this a lot harder than running a private firm. It is also different than working in the federal government. Unlike the work that goes on in Washington, what happens at the local level has immediate and often dramatic impact. If the subway breaks down, people walk. If the water main breaks, people can't bathe. The work of local government tends to be less influenced by ideology and more influenced by performance. I suspect Mike Bloomberg was better suited to being a mayor than being a senator. He has an impressive ability to understand data and its importance and relate it to policy and performance. His many years in the financial information business had something to do with that skill.

While the mayor's transformation from a businessman to a public sector leader was far from automatic, and never perfect, the record of his accomplishment and leadership on environmental sustainability has been impressive. It starts with his conversion to sustainability as he merged environmental concerns with his strategy for economic development. That was not his initial stance as mayor when he cut back recycling and rejected initial efforts to promote hybrid taxis. But sometime during his first term he was exposed to projections indicating that New York would add a million people by 2030. As he and his colleagues thought through that challenge, they developed PlaNYC 2030, the Bloomberg Administration's path-breaking sustainability design for the city.

One of the first issues he tackled was the traffic that another million people might generate. New York already has plenty of gridlock -- more people would only mean slower traffic. While his innovative effort at congestion pricing may have failed in the legislature, it remains an excellent idea. Wedding the congestion charge directly to mass transit subsidies made sense when he proposed it and makes more sense now; as the MTA struggles to balance its books. Efforts at energy efficiency, tree planting and park expansion, mitigating and adapting to climate change, transportation and water quality are all part of an integrated effort to make New York City an attractive and healthy place to live and visit. Of particular importance is a long-term commitment to reducing energy use in the city's own buildings and operations.

The mayor's sustainability record is deep, and it is clearly an issue he considers important personally. It extends to efforts to creatively reshape our local approach to environmental protection, but also includes international engagement. At the local level, there is the DEP's initiative in green infrastructure, a program designed to utilize ecosystem services to prevent combined sewage overflow. This must be added to efforts to protect the Delaware watershed via massive city investment in land purchases and best management practices throughout the areas that provide the city with its drinking water. On the global level, we see the mayor's leadership of a coalition of world cities in promoting the reduction of greenhouse gasses.

In addition to these environmental issues, the mayor's sustainability agenda extends to public health. Cleaning the air outside makes little sense if we are subjected to the dangers of secondhand cigarette smoke indoors. Mayor Bloomberg's antismoking crusade must be seen as an important element of his sustainability record. While bar and restaurant owners lobbied intensely against the smoking ban, he prevailed, and in the end demonstrated that most businesses did not suffer. In fact, many people who avoided bars and restaurants to avoid smoke were attracted to these places once they were smoke-free. Efforts to promote green markets and nutrition, and highly visible letter grading of restaurant cleanliness, have helped New York City's development as a sustainable city.

There is of course much more to New York's sustainability record, but even this small sample gives you a sense of the intensity of the effort to integrate environmental protection into the city's plans for economic development. New York is a world center of entertainment, business, education, health care, culture, diplomacy and tourism. While the city was founded on commerce and will always be about making money, people have to be healthy to enjoy the money they make. You know, "you can't take it with you." In this era of the global economy, we see the growth of the world city: A city in competition with all of the other great cities of the world. The competition requires that a city have excitement, excellent amenities, good transportation infrastructure, and high quality air, water and parks. This competition is at the heart of the mayor's sustainability agenda and helps explain the movement of environmental issues from the fringe of city priorities to the center. One of his greatest lasting legacies as mayor will be the integration of environmental protection and economic development. Michael Bloomberg is New York's first sustainability mayor.

 

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