07/08/2013 10:32 am ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

Will New York's Sustainability Program Survive Bloomberg's Mayoralty?

In the twelfth year of his three terms in office, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is characteristically trying to avoid the typical trap of the "lame duck" and is leaving an agenda that his successors will be compelled to address. While he still sometimes exhibits the political tin ear of a leader who came to public service as a second career, his accomplishments in office are undeniable and will provide a legacy that will be difficult to match. His political failures, such as his recent rhetoric on racial profiling, will be a footnote to his managerial successes, such as the declining crime rate and the impressive accomplishments of New York's sustainability planning and management program.

Last semester I advised a team of graduate students in Columbia's Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy program, who studied urban sustainability planning in 36 cities here in the United States and around the world. The Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability was the group's pro bono client for the project. The chief finding of the study was that cities all over the country and around the world have begun to integrate environmental protection and economic development in order to build urban sustainability. In other words, clean air, water, ample parkland, green infrastructure and the resiliency needed to deal with climate impacts are now considered central features of attractive, economically viable cities. We can't trade off economic development and environmental protection in our cities; both are now interrelated elements of a sustainable city.

Among many issues, my students studied the impact of political transitions on urban sustainability efforts. They were concerned that the next mayor of New York would fall victim to the "not invented here syndrome" and that New York's PlaNYC 2030 would be killed because it is too closely identified with Mayor Bloomberg. They knew that the City's Charter requires a sustainability plan, the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, and periodic sustainability reports. Still, as students of public policy and politics, they know there are many ways to kill a program; it can be starved of resources and attention and could be easily ignored and discarded.

The project team's analysis of the politics of sustainability was encouraging and made it clear that urban sustainability is not simply the priority of a visionary mayor, but once established, becomes part of the institutionalized base of urban governance. According to the study:

While municipal government has played a central role in most cities' sustainability efforts...local politics typically helped encourage plans rather than stifle them. In general there did not seem to be a problem with politics interfering with sustainability efforts. With leadership changes in cities, sustainability rose and fell as a priority, but was never abandoned entirely... This is... indicative of public support for sustainability, as well as the important work played by outside actors, including nonprofits, the business community, higher education and other levels of government, which maintain momentum even as governments transition.

New York's sustainability effort involved not only leadership by the mayor and his staff, but is also characterized by an effort to mobilize stakeholders from around the city. Community-based groups, mass-transit advocates, environmental groups, real estate interests, businesses, universities and hospitals were all involved in the city's sustainability efforts. Universities agreed to improved energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Community groups work on efforts to restore parks and enhance recycling. This broad base of participation and support will make it difficult for the next mayor to dismantle the city's sustainability program.

Another finding of the study is the degree to which cities around the country and around the world see New York's sustainability effort as a model to imitate. Urban sustainability leaders cited the explicit integration of economic and environmental goals, and the comprehensive scope of the program as elements worth emulating. My students also found that New York could learn a great deal from the innovative efforts of other cities. Philadelphia, San Francisco and Copenhagen provided examples of creative programs to manage solid waste. Congestion pricing in London and express busses in Bogota were among dozens of sustainability innovations that should be studied in greater detail.

While my hope is that sustainability planning and innovation are now fully institutionalized elements of New York City's system of governance and politics, I would never underestimate the capacity of our political class to destroy important institutions. Look at public education in New York. I am a product of New York City's once-excellent school system: a graduate of Brooklyn's P.S. 236, Junior High School 78 and James Madison High School. Those once-superb educational institutions may be improving, but I know they are not as good as they once were. Our parks, subways, public universities and other resources have seen their ups and downs over the past several decades. While the city is in far better shape today than it has been for a long time, what goes up could easily go down. There is every reason to be concerned that a mayor more concerned with placating powerful interest groups than serving the public interest could discard the sustainability accomplishments of the past several years.

Just because sustainability is important and valued, doesn't mean that the next city administration will have the ability to preserve, protect and promote it. We are in the midst of a confusing and soon to be circus-like mayoral election here in New York City. Even though nearly everyone in New York is a Democrat, there has not been a Democratic mayor in about two decades. Unlike Michael Bloomberg, the next mayor will not be free of political and financial obligations. Whoever emerges from this mess will be in debt to someone, and probably many someones. While reforms to the City's Charter have strengthened the powers of the City Council, New York City's government remains centralized under a strong, powerful mayoralty. If the next mayor doesn't care about sustainability as much as Mayor Bloomberg came to care about it, we can expect to see a compromised, half-hearted and symbolic effort.

It will be up to those of us outside government to maintain momentum and avoid destruction of this important initiative. At Columbia University, we will continue to educate students in our undergraduate major and PhD programs in sustainable development. We will prepare sustainability professionals in our master's programs in environmental policy and sustainability management. I am confident that the environmental community will be paying close attention to the next mayor's sustainability policies and programs, but it is also important that the real estate, tourism and business community continue to play an active role as well. It is clear from the analysis conducted by my students, that the best protection for urban sustainability efforts is the political support generated from the grass roots and from the city's key institutions. The Bloomberg team managed to mobilize that support. Once they are gone, it will be up to the rest of us to continue to advocate for this critical initiative.