02/17/2014 10:18 am ET Updated Apr 19, 2014

Renewing NYC's Sustainability Agenda: A Community Based Approach

New York City's new mayor has his hands full. Mayor de Blasio needs to ensure that people understand that he is serious about his campaign themes of economic opportunity, Pre-K education and outer borough empowerment. At the same time, he needs to gain operational control of America's largest local government. And if that doesn't seem like enough to do, he gets to deal with a relentless cold winter of endless snowstorms.

The mayor is a skilled politician and an excellent communicator, but I worry that people are starting to associate him with crummy weather. I doubt that Mike Bloomberg made a deal with the snow gods to leave New York alone, and I'm pretty sure that the new mayor is not in charge of the weather. But that doesn't mean that he's not getting blamed for it. While the mayor can't do anything about the weather, he is in charge of the city's environmental and sustainability initiatives and it will soon be time to make his mark on those programs.

I suspect that sustainability has not been a high or visible priority thus far, because Mayor de Blasio largely agrees with the programs that his predecessor began, and there are no urgent fixes needed. On the other hand, any issue that lacks mayoral attention is considered low priority and will be unable to attract the talent and resources needed to be effective.

From outside City Hall, when I compare Bloomberg and de Blasio's approach to policy and strategy, I see differences of style and substance. Mayor Bloomberg preferred the well-rehearsed product roll out style often seen in the private sector: colorful brochures, snazzy web sites, well-crafted graphics and succinct power point slides. I confess that the public management professor in me prefers that approach. The new mayor read his first State of the City address off the podium -- no teleprompter and no visual aids. He doesn't need them. He is a clear and effective communicator. Mayor Bloomberg brought about changes from the top down. To achieve reductions in greenhouse gasses, Bloomberg went to the largest institutions in the city: the universities, hospitals, real estate and finance industries -- and got them to sign on to greenhouse gas reduction targets. It was an impressive and effective strategy that continues to bear fruit. But one can argue that those gains are now in place and it is time to look elsewhere for the next generation of sustainability initiatives.

Community based sustainability initiatives are the obvious next step and one that fits into the new mayor's values and political style. The goal should be to change the mindset and values of average New Yorkers. New York is a fast-paced city and many people do not think they have the time to slow down a bit and separate their waste before they toss it in the garbage can. Writing in Scientific American last year Katherine Tweed observed that:

"Compared with other big cities, New York's recycling rate is paltry--a mere 15 percent, less than half the national average of 34 percent. That puts Gotham way behind Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland, Ore., and San Francisco, which claim to divert about 65 to 75 percent of their waste from landfills."

In 2013, then Mayor Bloomberg set the goal of diverting 30 percent of the city's waste stream from landfills by 2017. The waste diversion rate is not a pure measure of recycling because it can also include burning garbage in Waste-to-Energy plants. Nevertheless, landfill diversion is an excellent measure of sophisticated waste management. It is an indication that we have thought of a use for garbage other than dumping it into a hole in the ground. Reducing and recycling waste came late to Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC sustainability program and it could become a centerpiece of a renewed program under Mayor de Blasio. A renewed sustainability effort could focus on changing the way New Yorkers think about consumption, waste and garbage. It could feature community mobilization strategies, block by block recycling competitions and mass public education campaigns.

This has worked in the past. When I was growing up in New York the anti-litter campaign told us that, "A Cleaner New York is up to you". The anti-jay-walking campaign said we should, "Cross at the green and not in between". People learned to clean-up after their dogs. Cities like Portland, Oregon and San Francisco have developed a culture of sustainability. We can do it too. If we can eat pizza without a fork and knife, surely we can learn how to sort and reduce our garbage. Culture and values are a powerful influence on how we behave. While racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia are still problems here in New York, this is a far more tolerant place than the city I grew up in. People and their values can change. We need to see the force and power of cultural change brought to bear on our day-to-day behaviors: on how much water and energy we use; on how we discard our waste.

Community-based, bottom-up strategies could be brought to energy efficiency initiatives. Funds could be provided for block parties to reward energy efficiency gains. Energy audits could be provided free of charge to home owners. Green buildings could also be integrated into the mayor's affordable housing initiatives. The goal of bringing every New Yorker within a ten minute walk of a park is a terrific part of PlaNYC. Perhaps community groups could be provided with small grants to work with the Parks Department to clean-up and fix up local parks. Community groups and block associations could also be asked to propose and help plan places where small, (what used to be called "vest pocket") parks might be built to help reach the goal of bringing parks to the people.

Last spring, I worked with a group of graduate students in Columbia's Graduate Program in Environmental Science and Policy who analyzed sustainability efforts in 30 American cities and six cities outside the United States. These students examined the impact of political transitions on sustainability initiatives. They found that while these programs might change shape or direction under a new mayor, they nearly always continued and very often advanced to a new stage of institutionalization. Developing and implementing PlaNYC 2030 was one of the most important accomplishments of Michael Bloomberg's time as mayor. By bringing together environmental activists, business interests and the city's government he managed to integrate environmental protection and quality of life issues into the city's long-term plan for economic development. By insisting on measureable progress and regular reporting on all of the city's sustainability goals, Bloomberg convinced skeptical on-lookers that he was serious about sustainability.

It is time for our new mayor to pick up the baton and continue the relay race toward a city that pays attention to its air, water, waste, carbon footprint and ecological impact. The other parts of his agenda are heavy lifts and clearly require a great deal of time and energy. But without his personal attention to the sustainability agenda, and without an effort to renew it to reflect his own style and values, it will flounder. While I hesitate to give political advice to the guy who just won a landslide victory as mayor, I'll offer my two cents: given the difficulty of accomplishing some of his other goals, it might be politically useful to focus some attention on sustainability. Sustainability is an objective that has enjoyed wide support throughout the city. Everyone likes clean water, everyone needs to breathe, and everyone wants to be prepared for the next super-storm Sandy. It's time to remind people that New York City is a world leader in sustainability policy and management, and time for the new mayor to visibly demonstrate his commitment to those goals.