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plaNYC: A Sustainable New York by 2030
Sarah Rich, 12 Dec 06
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We're in New York right now on the final stretch of our book tour, and fortuitously, yesterday the city's mayor publicly announced a new agenda for the city which accepts the 2030 Challenge for rethinking urban development with a commitment to achieving major leaps toward sustainability by the year 2030. It's called plaNYC.

Mayor Bloomberg unveiled the plan at the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows, opening with a reference to that site's legacy of the 1939 and 1964 World's Fairs, and the daring vision of the people who'd been there, challenging the boundaries of imagination and putting forth bold ideas for the future. The speech was followed by a panel discussion with some exceptional New York leaders, moderated by Tom Brokaw, and including one of the Worldchanging team's great heroes, Majora Carter.

It was a realistic address about the immense and immediate challenges facing the city, but inarguably hopeful that New York is in a position to preempt looming problems with innovative thinking and integrated solutions.

The team appointed to develop NYC's long-term sustainability plan looked at everything from playgrounds to power plants to public transportation.

We've looked at every playground - all 1,310 of them, and identified which neighborhoods will need more of them going forward. We've rated the age and efficiency of all 25 of the power plants serving the city - through 2030. We've estimated which of our nearly 250 miles of subway routes will be congested on an average day in 2030. We have, in short, tried to anticipate every physical barrier our communities will experience to maintaining - and building on - the quality of life we enjoy today.

They emerged with three primary challenges for the coming 25 years:

1. Population: By 2010, the five borroughs of New York City will be home to 200,000 more people than they are today, and by 2030, that number will be nearly 1,000,000 additional residents (which doesn't take into account the constant additional presence of thousands of tourists). Bloomberg made the projection real by pointing out that this will be the equivalent of adding the entire combined populations of Boston and Miami.

2. Aging insfrastructure: With century-old buildings and systems still providing daily support to the city's population, and with that population hitting astonishing growth rates, the age and additional pressure on those areas of the city will present potential hazards and high cost if not restored carefully and soon.

3. Environmental quality: As a result of the first two, and the more global problems compromising the climate and our natural resources, New York's air, water and land face increased pressure and more significant consequences of impact.

The mayor's talk was interspersed with several video presentations focusing on particular challenges, and speaking with citizens, experts, and local leaders about their personal experience living in New York and what they expect (and hope) to see in coming years. Carlton Brown of Full Spectrum, LLC, was one of the last speakers on the video series, and his words not only beautifully summed up the feeling of the collected voices, but also perfectly echoed Worldchanging's own fundamental beliefs:

[New York is] a place where we have the smartest people in the world, we have all the resources to clean up brownfields, we have all the resouces to use less energy, design better buildings. We can do this. The only hurdles are not technological, they are about human will.

Of course, we are behind this idea wholeheartedly. Bloomberg echoed the idea that we already have the tools and technological know-how that's required to make some major changes. By embracing those available means, he declared, New York will -- by 2030 -- reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than thirty percent, achieve the best air quality of any big city in America, clean up all contaminated land, and open up rivers, harbors and bays for recreation by restoring wetlands and attending to the condition of local water bodies.

plaNYC is an action plan for New Yorkers and the agenda is laid out as a series of imperative actions that will require the cooperation of individuals, policy-makers, planners and community advocates. That collaborative and multi-layered approach was well-illustrated by the distinguished group of panelist who came together to talk over New York's problems and potential once Mayor Bloomberg closed his remarks. It was a very interesting discussion which brought out the need for individuals to look outside of the narrow lens of their own pursuits and see how their work intertwines with the larger needs of the city.

Brokaw began by asking each of the five guests to concisely review their most central concerns as we move forward. Majora Carter, Executive Director and Founder of Sustainable South Bronx, cited environmental justice issues and the domino effect of negative consequences that impact people growing up where environmental health is degraded. In the South Bronx, pollution causes brain damage in children, compromising their learning capabilities and making them more likely to struggle in school and end up in jail instead of in college. As a result, the challenges facing that entire community are bound to persist, with the residents there finding far less opporunity to get the education and empowerment that could push them into leadership positions in the city.

Diana Fortuna, president of the Citizens Budget Commission, brought up growth and the issue of regarding economic prosperity as a long-term goal, and pursuing it as such, rather than seeing only the present and immanent economic conditions. Smart decisions for the city can only be made within that framework.

Edward Ott, Executive Director of New York City's Central Labor Council AFL-CIO, addressed the opportunity to create jobs out of a reconsideration of urban expansion through the lens of sustainability. He emphasized the importance of including working people and families in planning the city's future, such that they see themselves as a part of the picture of a thriving city, not as a population being pushed to the periphery and excluded from crucial decisions. The cooperation of the working class can make great things happen fast, he said; and likewise, their collective resistance can make city-wide efforts much more difficult.

Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig, a research scientist at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University, focused foremost on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate extremes. Dealing with automobile dependency and power generation present a dual priority, and she cited not only reduction efforts, but also green building projects and smart design that will allow normal life in New York to generate far less CO2. We're in a competition with London, she said, to be leaders on climate change action (and we all know how much harder everyone works when they think they're trying to beat someone).

In discussing the impact of auto dependency, the idea of a congestion tax for incoming commuter cars arose, which sparked both audience applause and words of caution from Ott. He warned that such taxation needs not to become the burden of the working class, who commute by necessity and can't afford to be penalized for a circumstance that's allowing them to support their families. Carter suggested the use of dollars generated through taxation for supporting public services and community improvement.

Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, returned to population. With increasing numbers, we need to work fast to get ahead of the trend, and anticipate the challenges that population growth will present. He named resource-conservation solutions like district heating and cooling, distributed power generation, rethinking waste management, and other means of transforming the city's internal systems and operations.

Yaro characterized plaNYC as an exercise in direct democracy - a way to present choices about the city's future directly to the people who will be impacted, and to trust that they will make smart decisions. This follows on a point that several of them made in various ways, which is that New Yorkers live in New York because it's a place the promises opportunity. It's not because it's cheap; it's not, as Edward Ott said, because people want to "read in the dark and eat alfalfa sprouts." People come to work hard and benefit from that work, and nobody ought to have the benefits of a hard working life at the expense of another community. Majora Carter added that the playing field is not level, and that these opportunities don't reach each New Yorker equally. We need to look for ways to create jobs in one neighborhood by collecting and reusing wasted resources from another, as is being done in the South Bronx.

The individual statements blossomed into a lively conversation which left a sense that Carlton Brown's earlier statement might be more of a description of reality than a description of a problem. Human will was readily apparent yesterday, from all the borroughs and many influential organizations. Hopefully plaNYC will add necessary activation energy to the simmering collective potential and New York will gracefully step into its role as a world leader in urban sustainability.

Thanks to high-speed communication, the transcript of Bloomberg's talk and a video of the entire presentation are already available online.

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Very good article, though Majora Carter´s comments left me partly in shock (hopefully the transcript distorted the original message). Is it even possible, at the current pollution rates of the South Bronx, high as they might be, to cause such a domino effect as stated? I grew up in Sao Paulo, which probably has much more pollution (in every sense, from air, to water, to "visual") than the Bronx. I don´t feel my learning capabilities were compromised for that fact. Seems much more of an educational-program flaw than something biological. It sounded like a highly speculative, biased, poor on facts, lame conclusion. Even prejudicial: poorly educated people are bound to end up in jail (!), according to her statement. That´s so narrow-minded it´s absurd, and highly incompatible to a mind which states that wants to build a better community/city/world. I´d believe her words when I see a real study, with real scientific methods and statistically well-grounded conclusions (though the hypothesis seems so far-fetched that my plea would be hard to fulfill). Until then, such statements can only harm the cause of Worldchanging by misleading supporters.

Posted by: Tomas Buteler on 13 Dec 06

Sounds like a fascinating, far-reaching, and meaningful plan. Seems like there are a handful of politicians in the U.S. who have shown they can actually take a lead on meaningful sustainability legislation... Bloomberg, Schwarzenegger, Nickels (Portland). I'm sure there are others worth mentioning. Gives one a little bit of hope for the future.

Tomas, you pose a good question. Is this claimed link between pollution, brain damage, and socio-economic outcome a social hypothesis or a statistically-significant correlation / fact? There has indeed been some research in the area, though I don't know if it is enough to validate the full extent of the claim made by Ms. Carter. See for instance a very small study at

Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 13 Dec 06


Way to get the word out ASAP.

In 2030, when the world looks back, hopefully we'll be able to celebrate that 50-degree day in December 2006 when NYC got our marching orders!

When Tom Brokaw asked Dr. Rosenzweig whether we need to take a regional approach to sustainability, she answered enthusiastically "Yes, and our region is the entire planet."

What goes on here in NYC certainly has exponentially greater chance to impact what goes on in the rest of the world...than say a place like Kalamazoo.

Meanwhile, the day after, Brian Lehrer hosted an insightful discussion on the Mayor's plan:
*Chris Jones, vice president of research at the Regional Plan Association
*Michael Goodwin, Daily News columnist, Pulitzer Prize winner and the News' former Executive Editor and Editorial Page Editor
*Jill Gardiner, City Hall reporter for the New York Sun

Posted by: Daniel B. Simon on 13 Dec 06


Yes, there are scientific studies that bear up what Carter said. Modern pollutants are known to affect brain development. See Trasande, Landrigan (2004)The National Children's Study: A Critical Investment.
Also, "Lessons Learned for the National Children's Study from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Centers for Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research" Kimmel et al. (2005).
Both are found in the journal, "Environmental Health Prospectives" Also, take a look at the website

Posted by: Alex Lowe on 14 Dec 06

Sorry, I'm not too thrilled. Sure I like all the eco-city planning involved but the report lost me on the first point.

There is no such thing as a sustainability plan in an already crowded city like NYC if it involves population growth. The simple maths involved squash any potential for hope from all the other greenwashing.

What does it matter if you make huge energy efficiency and water saving measures — say 10% right across the entire city plan, but then add 20% population? You're still worse off. As Professor Bartlett points out, there is no such thing as ANY environmental solution if we allow the exponential growth of the human population to continue.

Otherwise, I love Eco-cities, parks, bicycle plans, and most of the other good stuff Worldchanging reports on. Unfortunately, population growth can undermine these achievements very, very quickly.... but keep up the great work.

Posted by: Dave Lankshear on 15 Dec 06


This addition of 1 million good people does not necessarily correlate to exponential population growth.

The migration from non-urban to urban areas is in full swing, so perhaps this is where the city is projecting that growth to come from.

Definitely worth looking into.

Anyhow, do you have any ideas on how to keep out those million people banging down our doors?

Posted by: Daniel B. Simon on 22 Dec 06

Hi All,

Just back from Mayor Bloomberg's major policy speech to the League of
Conservation Voters at the Queens Museum about creating a sustainable
city. The year 2030 is given as a target date for a handful of goals. A
quick assessment of the issues nearest and dearest to the hearts of
readers of this list is as follows:

1) CLEAN WATER! He set as a prime goal making 90% of New York City's
waterways safe and accessible for recreation. He noted that central to
this is bringing water quality up to grade.

His solutions, however, seemed focused on traditional infrastructure,
like expanding and improving waste water plants, and didn't make
explicit mention of the benefits of habitat restoration and the
stormwater reduction benefits of greenroofs. The fact that we still
have 2 billion gallons of raw sewage hit our waterways each year was
mentioned, but not the term CSO.

2) GLOBAL WARMING. As much as we might dream of kayaking up Broadway,
the mayor wants to improve our city's ecological profile by reducing
greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030. He skipped any discussion of
what kinds of power plants might be constructed and ***where*** in
setting that goal. Higher performing buildings, such as those with green
roofs, got a nod for energy efficiency. But greenroofs were not the
focus of any significant comment. Also, the restoration of marshes as a
storm buffer was not mentioned when the fear of flooding was raised.
This is despite the fact that New Orleans was invoked as a cautionary
tale. Many experts believe that New Orleans would have been greatly
protected by its formerly exansive wetlands.

3) BROWNFIELD CLEANUPS. The mayor announced that he wants to remediate
huge swaths of land. This might turn out to be one of his more radical
goals, and one with great waterways benefits too. We'll need to learn
more details. Composting was not mentioned.

4) CLEAN AIR. The mayor wants NYC to have the cleanest air of any major
American city. See below a note on transportation. No mention of the
Midwest blowover pollution. He did emphasize the need for more parks and
playgrounds, stating that each resident should live within a 10-minute
walk from a park. But he didn't specify that these parks should be
green, as opposed to asphalt activity areas.

5) IMPROVED TRANSPORTATION. Bikes made it into a photo/video
presentation, but it was atmospheric. He made no explicit mention of
expanding bike paths and such. I don't even recall the greenways being
pulled into the spotlight. During the panel discussion afterwards, Tom
Brokaw mentioned congestion pricing, though not by name, which drew
great applause. He also noted the success the city was having in
replacing diesel engines in garbage trucks.

In short, his goals were "apple pie" in terms of controversy and missing
vocabulary we might yearn to hear. The spur for the policy platform is
our our expected population surge to over nine million people in that
2030 timeframe, so expect the center of his logic to be seeking ways to
maintain largely unaltered versions of current lifestyles. But the goals
are commendable regardless, and he did explicitly say that his new
Office of Sustainability and Long-term Planning would be seeking input
from neighborhood groups and grassroots activists.

Posted by: Erik on 24 Dec 06

Interesting coming from a London perspective. Feels like we are witnessing a little ego-driven one-upmanship from Bloomberg, in response to Ken Livingstone not only winning the Olympics for London but also grabbing global headlines (and conference keynotes) for his London Plan and green initiatives (congestion charge etc)?!

Well, if it is all in the service of more sustainable cities, that sounds fine to me...

Posted by: Hana Loftus on 26 Dec 06

NYC has come a long way, and it's been quite a year for urban sustainability, especially at local and state government levels.

Warren Karlenzig of SustainLane just posted on his blog 'Green A City', The Top 10 Sustainability Stories of 2006. #4 is Bloomberg's sustainability planning --

Posted by: Ben Reebs on 27 Dec 06



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