THE BLOG

New York City's Sustainable Dream

09/19/2016 08:01 am ET

New York City is a collection of places and neighborhoods, tied together by a few touchstone elements of cultural values, and built on century-old infrastructure that is constantly being dug up, repaired, and remodeled. I am a New Yorker and have lived here for over fifty years. I grew up in Brooklyn, on East 59th street between Avenue T and Avenue O. I went to PS 236, Junior High School 78, and James Madison High School. After high school I spent a decade in small-town Indiana, Buffalo, New York, Morgantown, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C. But the center of gravity for me has always been New York, and I have worked at Columbia University in the City of New York for 35 years. The city I grew up in may be long gone, but the city I moved back to has evolved into a place that I never want to leave.

From its start, New York has been a commercial place. The city that never sleeps has always been about commerce. At one time we manufactured products here: clothing, beer, bicycles, and even the Studebaker auto. Today we make ideas, movies, health care, software, communications strategy, and nightlife. We have over a million post-secondary students here, a number of great universities, several great hospitals, live theater, art museums and galleries, live music, sports teams, great public spaces, a real 24/7 mass transit system, and the most diverse population of any city in the world. About 40% of the people who live here were born in other countries. Including students, tourists, and illegals, most of the people you walk by on the street in New York were born outside America. Even those of us who grew up here, while a distinct minority of the city's population, typically don't have to go back too far to find our immigrant roots.

During most of the second half of the twentieth century, New York seemed like a city in decline. People were moving to the suburbs, and to Florida, California and Arizona. Industry was leaving, and in the 1970s the city came within a whisper of bankruptcy. Some people point to out-migration and still worry that the city is in decline. But in 2010 our population was 8,175,133 and in 2015 it was 8,555,405; that's not a city on the skids. Much of our population increase is due to births. Our international immigration more or less offsets our domestic migration to other parts of the United States. In an excellent report on New York City's population dynamics, Luke Junday of the University of Virginia's Demographics Research Group asks and answers the question: "How is New York City growing if it is constantly losing people?" According to Junday:

New York City... all but Staten Island - were among the eight counties with the biggest losses in net domestic migration last year...The conclusion suggested by domestic migration numbers is that New York is dying as its residents abandon ship...[However,] the city is as crowded and economically powerful as ever. Its population continues to climb despite an astronomical cost of living that suggests even more people would live there if they could... What gives? Outside of major urban centers, domestic migration numbers are generally a pretty good indicator of whether a county's population is growing or shrinking.

There are two parts to the answer [of New York City's growth]:

1. International Immigration
The first answer is simple and readily available. Big cities are gateways for international immigrants, who crowd into apartment blocks in search of economic opportunity before eventually moving elsewhere...

2. Natural Increase and Migration
This brings us to the second and, I would argue, more important answer: this cycle is part of the nature of cities in the 21st century. The additional population is being made up by something called "natural increase." Natural increase simply means that there are more births than deaths in a given location, thus increasing the population. Natural increase in New York and other cities is due to the age structure of those cities... New York is a young city compared to the nation as a whole...Young adults are important in demographics for two reasons. First is what they don't do: die. A population of 20-somethings will have far fewer deaths in any given year than a population of 60-somethings. Second is what they do: have babies.

New York has always been a place where people from other parts of the world grabbed hold of a small piece of the American Dream, but then moved to Houston, Atlanta, Phoenix, or Los Angeles where the housing was cheaper and as long as you could buy and drive a car, the path to success looked easier. New York's role as a port of entry continues the tradition that peaked at Ellis Island, where my grandparents began their own American Dream.

But New York City continues to attract ambitious dreamers from all over the world. As Junday indicates, many of those dreamers are young and at the start of their working life. They come for economic opportunity and are assisted by family and friends who speak their language and arrived before they did--and this is not limited to the city itself. While the five boroughs are the heart of the city, it is important to also count the twenty million people in the New York metropolitan area. From Valley Stream to Hoboken, and from Yonkers to Jersey City, these areas are part of the fabric of a place called "the city" that grew out from Flatbush to Astoria, sharing a few core values.

Those values include a tolerance of diversity, even when the foreign seems strange and maybe a little dangerous. New Yorkers may not always like new migrants but they believe that the city was built to accommodate new arrivals. New Yorkers stand in a subway car or walk down Broadway and their senses are always alert because they understand they are in public space not under their own control. This is not your SUV on the freeway, your suburban home with a security system, lawn and garage; you are sharing space on the city's mass transit circulatory system and everyone who pays the subsidized fare gets to ride. You get to control who sits next to you in your personal vehicle, but you share a subway car with scores of strangers.

Another obvious New York City value is a work ethic and, for many, a desire for frequent interaction with others. While it's possible to remain anonymous in a crowd, it's still a crowd. You can't simply drive past the homeless camped under the interstate, and while some try, most New Yorkers do not look away from people in need. They carry baby carriages up a subway stair well, give up their seat for someone who needs to sit, and say something when they see something. New Yorkers give the surface appearance of being tough and hard, but for the most part, there is melting mush beneath the hard exterior.

A growing value, but certainly nowhere close to dominant, is sustainability and environmental protection. Our water and air are cleaner than they've been in many decades. Our water system and parks are all being renovated. Our electric supply system is slowly getting modernized and made more efficient. Our recycling rate is slowly increasing. Government and the private sector are investing billions of dollars to make the city more resilient in the face of sea level rise. We still may end up underwater, but we are not giving up this place without a fight.

While older people may be set in their sloppy wasteful ways, young people are changing the culture. Greenmarkets, gyms, and environmental advocacy are on the rise. Teenagers from all over the world see the city on the Web and want to come to college here. Many come to school and stay here. People from nations with less stable political regimes are buying apartments and stashing cash and valuables in case they need to quickly run from home. New York City is always in the global media and the images of this place are the inescapable backdrop of the emerging global culture.

And that culture does not require the luxury consumer goods that are now available in all of the world's major cities. Its core culture values a place that is safe to raise a family and create a social and home life free from violence, and capable of interaction and acceptance by other immigrants and people who grew up here. Also valued is the vivid place that you see on the media: the parades, fireworks, movies, TV shows, nightlife, restaurants, celebrities, theatre, music and art. And young people are adding environmental sustainability to those core beliefs. Their emerging demand for environmental sustainability is the beating heart of New York's sustainable dream.

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