New York City's Sustainability Plan 2.0

11/15/2010 08:50 am 08:50:53 | Updated May 25, 2011

Beautiful weekends, like the one we just had, bring nearly everyone out to the city's streets and parks. The incredible energy and diversity characteristic of New York City can be felt throughout the five boroughs -- from Marine Park in Brooklyn to Morningside Park near my home. The exuberance and joy of the city seemed to be everywhere. Of course, it is not everywhere, since pain and poverty are far from eliminated in this place, but this weekend's sunshine was worth a smile or two wherever you were. In good weather and bad, Mayor Bloomberg and his team have been working for the past several years to develop and implement a plan to enhance the city's quality of life and global competitiveness. Visitors to New York have started to comment on the visible changes underway, and PlaNYC2030, New York's sustainability plan, is now being revised. According to the PlaNYC2030 web site:

The City is required by law (Local Law 17 of 2008) to update PlaNYC every four years. The first update is due on Earth Day 2011. The Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, which is charged with implementing PlaNYC, will lead the effort to update the plan.

Since early October, the Mayor's Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability has been holding "community conversations" in each borough and also has encouraged online participation in a unique new web tool called "All Our Ideas." This web site provides the public with an opportunity to weigh in on a set of proposed sustainability initiatives and also suggest ideas of their own. Waste management and food supply were two critical issues that were not included in the original PlaNYC2030 and are being considered for the revised plan, along with a number of other key issues.

Last spring a group of graduate students I advised in Columbia's Masters of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy Program did a project for the Mayor's Office to learn the basics of New York City's system of food supply. Student interest in local food, waste reduction and a sustainable built environment is growing at many universities, as is interest in the new field of sustainability management. The field of environmental studies was once seen as the study of natural systems alone, but is now increasingly focused on urban environments. The emphasis on sustainable cities is growing at Columbia's Earth Institute and also at the City University of New York, where my colleagues, Professors William Solecki and Peter Marcotullio of Hunter College, run the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities. The cities themselves are paying more attention to sustainability issues. In September of this year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was selected to lead the C-40 Cities, a global group of large cities working to address the climate issue. These are all positive developments that create little controversy or media attention, but are very important indicators of the growing political centrality of environmental sustainability.

New Yorkers are known for their hard edge and argumentative tendencies, but I think every once in a while we should step back and take a long and deep look at the city we live in and perhaps appreciate this unique and special place. In 2006 I wrote about New York City's emergence as a relatively safe, very international and energy efficient place where:

About 7 million people are transported over 722 miles of subway track each workday. Over 25,000 tons of garbage is collected each day. Over 1.2 billion gallons of water are drawn daily from reservoirs that are over 100 miles from the city. Over 1.1 million children attend public elementary, middle and high schools and over 200,000 students attend the colleges of the city's public university. New York City has over twice as many college students as any other city in the United States. Over 500,000 people live in public housing. In 2003 the city's public hospitals handled nearly one million health emergencies, and about 5 million walk-in visits to outpatient and community-based clinics, and in-patient care for approximately 210,000 people.

New York State law guarantees all New Yorkers shelter as a matter of right, and in its own rough and imperfect way, this city has long welcomed settlers from all over America and all over the world. While no one would argue that New Yorkers live together in perfect harmony, people from all corners of the planet manage to live here in close proximity and in relative peace. If the planet is to survive, all people will need to learn how to live together the way New Yorkers have learned to share the same small space. We will also need to learn to manage our impact on the planet, while increasing the wealth and production of the economy.

The quality of life goals embedded in PlaNYC2030 can only be reached by a city that does a better job of managing its scarce resources, while reducing its waste and environmental impacts. The people running New York City know that one does not trade-off environmental quality for economic growth. They are elements of the single concept of sustainability. The fact that the Mayor and our city government are already developing the second edition of the city's sustainability plan should be a source of hope and optimism.