THE BLOG
09/22/2014 08:50 am ET Updated Nov 22, 2014

Mayor Bill de Blasio Pivots Toward a Sustainable New York City

Spencer Platt via Getty Images

Nine months into his mayoralty, with over 300,000 climate marchers having massed in Manhattan, and a U.N. climate meeting set to start, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has decided the time is right to renew the city's sustainability effort. The mayor and his team have announced the goal of reducing New York City's greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2050. The mayor deserves high praise for articulating these new goals. The major focus of the program is increasing the energy efficiency of our built environment. According to New York Times reporter Matt Flegenheimer:

New York would become the largest city in the world to make the commitment, according to the city's leaders. Though the proposal is likely to rankle some residential and commercial building owners, who will bear a portion of its cost, officials have framed the issue in part as an extension of the citywide focus on income inequality since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in January. High energy costs, the de Blasio administration argues, amount to a regressive tax, because lower-income residents by and large pay a higher share of their rent for energy than wealthier residents, and often live in less-efficient buildings...Such ambitions, though, will come at a significant near-term price: At least $1 billion of its capital funding alone will be devoted to enhancing the city-owned buildings over the next decade, the administration said, excluding the cost of the private building alterations and other changes.

With this week's emphasis on climate and environment, and the mayor's long background as one of the city's sharpest political minds, the timing of this announcement is no surprise. However, in addition to the words of the new and far-reaching policy design, we are starting to see some movement in staffing the city's sustainability offices and working to integrate sustainability into the mayor's broader economic policy priorities. These are important signals that the mayor is about to get serious about sustainability.

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, and every mayor has done their bit to ensure that these nonpartisan businesslike operations are left alone to do their job.

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. This is not to minimize the distinctions between the two mayors- they have different styles, histories and values- but the day-to-day governance needs of the city's millions of residents, school kids, college students, artists, workers, businesses and tourists are quite consistent. And whoever has the privilege of serving as New York's Mayor feels the same pressure from the same folks- regardless of politics or anything else. Forget to plow the snow in Queens and the mayor quickly learns the real meaning of government accountability. Moreover, on a range of policy issues the differences between our former and current mayor are fairly trivial.

Sustainability policy under Bloomberg emphasized that a more energy-efficient city with cleaner air and water and beautiful public spaces could help the city attract wealth and business. Under de Blasio, the focus is on the benefits to working families in the outer boroughs. The sales pitch for the same programs is that energy efficiency can reduce the energy bills of poor people- which de Blasio's staff term a regressive tax. Of course the landlords save money on energy bills too, although it is likely that when the de Blasio program hits private buildings the capital for energy efficiency measures will come from landlords. Those funds will somehow end up in people's rent payments, but if structured correctly will still be lower than the price of wasted energy.

Sustainability under Bloomberg focused attention on the city's big institutions: big businesses, universities and hospitals. That was the low hanging fruit at the start of PlaNYC. These organizations had the money to invest in sustainable buildings and operations and agreed to join in a citywide effort. I believe that sustainability under de Blasio will focus on the outer boroughs and the city's many neighborhoods and communities. An example of a community-based approach is the Sanitation Department's composting program that is sending city workers door to door to explain the program to landlords, superintendents and tenant groups. This is an important policy direction and could hold enormous promise if it is carefully integrated into next year's revision of the city's PlaNYC sustainability program.

The Times article referred to an air-conditioner modernization program for New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) apartments. This too is an excellent and long overdue idea. Tenants in NYCHA apartments do not pay utility bills. There are no meters in those apartments. Even though new air conditioners use far less energy than old ones, if you don't pay for electricity, there is every incentive to find a cheap, old air conditioner and let the city pay for the power. I am sure that the cost of replacing these air conditioners can easily be covered over a few summers by reduced energy use. One other reform the city might consider is to install reverse energy meters. Put meters in NYCHA apartments and provide a rent discount based on energy saved. Metering these apartments is probably the third rail of affordable housing policy; no politician will touch it for fear of being burned. Nevertheless, it will be very difficult for the 400,000 people living in NYCHA housing to save energy if they do not know how much of it they use.

Sustainability was not a key element in the de Blasio platform. Pre-Kindergarten, affordable housing, better police-community relations and concern over the tale of two cities were the policy ideas and values that brought him to office. In less than a year he has shown an ability to focus and deliver on his key priorities. Despite the inevitable noise in a city of this size, Pre-K must be seen as a transformative program and landmark policy victory for the mayor. He took a key point of leverage that will make it possible for more adults to work and for more young children to attend school, experiencing the joy of learning and playing in a safe, secure place with new friends. The new mayor also won a number of less visible early victories on affordable housing.

Sustainability was a second tier issue for the new mayor. In fact, it was probably a third tier issue for Mayor Bloomberg nine months into his term. Remember that September of 2002 was the first anniversary of the horror of 9/11, and Mayor Bloomberg and the rest of us had other, more painful priorities to deal with that month. But eventually Mayor Bloomberg and the rest of us returned to the tough work of rebuilding the city we love. Bloomberg learned that a million people would be added to our population by 2030, and the city's sustainability plan grew out of an effort to accommodate those new people. Mayor de Blasio is trying to improve the quality of life for working and middle class people who are struggling to find a way to stay in their homes and neighborhoods. I am confident that a more sustainable city is also one that protects housing, water, air, energy, transport and overall quality of life for poor people as well as rich people. You can't build a gated community to keep out air pollution. Sustainability is a way to create a tale of a single, united city.