Sustainability Planning in New York City: Let's Build on the Path-Breaking Work of the Bloomberg Team

03/09/2015 08:30 am ET | Updated May 09, 2015

One of the signature, legacy accomplishments of Michael Bloomberg's time as New York's mayor was PlaNYC 2030, the city's path-breaking sustainability plan. This plan and the metrics established to monitor its implementation were an important part of New York City's revival at the start of the 21st century. In the spring of 2014, graduate students at Columbia University studied sustainability planning around the world for New York's Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability. They found New York City "at the forefront of global efforts" and a model for sustainability planning and management throughout the world.

The de Blasio administration has been slow to decide how to approach sustainability planning, even though it is supported by many of the Mayor's political allies. His team seems interested in continuing PlaNYC, but wants to draw a distinction between sustainability under the two mayors.

Last week, on Capital New York, David Giambusso filed a report entitled, "De Blasio Plans More Extensive Feedback Process for PlaNYC". Giambusso noted that: "Mayor Bill De Blasio's administration is promising to expand community outreach and agency participation in its April update to PlaNYC". Giambusso described the extensive public participation process planned by Nilda Mesa, the mayor's new sustainability director, but also noted the extensive outreach process that accompanied the Bloomberg team's sustainability planning process. Sustainability planning under Mike Bloomberg was a wide-open, highly participatory process characterized by clear proposals, imaginative thinking and extensive give and take. Many stakeholders were involved in the original plan and in subsequent revisions. The de Blasio team's goal of expanding outreach is a good idea; claiming that his predecessor ignored the public is a bad idea and is inaccurate.

Bloomberg's successful leadership on sustainability creates a political image problem for Mayor de Blasio, and one that he needs to navigate with great care. As I wrote this past November:

Sustainability may always be a tricky political issue for a guy who came into office as the "UnBloomberg." The new mayor presented himself as a distinct contrast to the former mayor. That distinction created, and continues to create two problems for Mayor de Blasio. The first is that Mike Bloomberg was a superb mayor with an excellent record on a wide range of issues- many of which he and his successor agree on. Sustainability is one of those issues. The second, to paraphrase the great Fiorello LaGuardia, is that "there is no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage." Many of the tasks of local government are routine service delivery functions that have been slowly improving for decades...The political problem for Mayor de Blasio has been his need to differentiate himself from his predecessor- if only to ensure that he can survive the primary challenge from the left he will inevitably face in the next election cycle. If he and Bloomberg agree 80 percent of the time, it is in de Blasio's political interest to call attention to the 20 percent difference.

I give both mayors enormous credit for developing, and now maintaining, sustainability planning as a central principle of local government. The marriage of economic development and environmental protection initiated by Mayor Bloomberg was both important and innovative. The idea that community-based environmental justice groups and powerful real estate interests could sit together and find common ground was a remarkable accomplishment for the Bloomberg administration and for New York City. Bill de Blasio should make a point of giving credit to Mike Bloomberg for setting New York City on the path towards sustainability. We don't need to know how they differ on this issue, it is far more important to understand where they agree.

When I look at Washington D.C. and see Oklahoma Senator (and Environment Committee Chair!) Jim Inhofe bring a snowball to the Senate floor to "disprove" global warming, I despair of the hyper-partisan atmosphere that makes it impossible to get work done. The federal government seems unable to deal with the challenges of the 21st century. The contrast in my home city could not be greater. Mayor de Blasio needs to nurture the consensus we have here on sustainability policy and avoid his team's almost reflexive need to criticize what came before. Do we really want to descend the slippery slope to dysfunction that we see in our nation's capital? It is only natural that we should want to improve on past performance. If Bloomberg was still mayor, he'd be the first to argue for constant improvement. But improving on past performance does not require that we dismiss the accomplishments of the past.

Extending sustainability planning to all 70 city agencies is an excellent idea and an important initiative of the de Blasio team. My own view is that all competent management should be sustainability management. All of the city's agencies should plan for the impacts of climate change on their operations. They should ensure that their buildings and equipment are retrofitted for resiliency in the face of more frequent and intensive storms. Agencies should also make their operations more energy and water efficient and they should work to minimize the environmental impacts of the services they deliver.

Working at the community level is also important if we are to build widespread grass roots support for PlaNYC. Sustainability planning is about improving quality of life for everyone who lives in, works in, or visits New York City. Some elements of sustainability are based on objective conditions: clean air, clean water, and a toxic-free environment are examples of those conditions. We should not be debating settled matters of environmental and medical science. However, some elements of sustainability are not based on scientific fact and need to reflect the views and values of New Yorkers. The goal of having a park within a ten minute walk of all New Yorkers is a terrific aspiration. But what kind of park? Should it encourage barbequing? Should it have soccer fields or baseball fields? Should it have chess tables or playgrounds? New Yorkers are never shy about expressing their preferences, and sustainability planning should provide opportunities for all New Yorkers to be heard.

New York City is America's largest local government, and it is at the local level that most people actually experience government's performance. Public safety, education, sanitation, water, emergency response, social services, buildings, and environmental quality all involve local agencies. Rules must be developed and enforced, services must be managed and delivered. Our vision of what government should do and be reflects our values and principles, but at the local level government tends to be relatively non-ideological. If you want to live somewhere that does not have public hospitals, subsidized housing and extensive social services, you can always move to Arizona or Texas. New Yorkers don't all agree on the how much government service should be provided, but there is a reasonably widespread consensus on the need for an active local government. New York's most conservative elected officials are often seen as liberals or moderates in other parts of the country. In the past decade, New Yorkers accepted the need for sustainability policy and management. That consensus is an important legacy of the Bloomberg years. It would be a shame if that broad consensus was sacrificed in an effort to "rebrand" sustainability and distinguish it from what came before.