Welcome to Sustainable New York

bloomberg%20photo.jpgExciting developments are afoot here in New York City. City Council Introduction 395, a proposal to develop a comprehensive sustainability action plan for the City of New York, was introduced in committee at the end of September. Not to be outdone, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had the council hold off on conducting hearings on Intro 395 so he could announce the creation of the Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability (at a joint press conference with Arnold Schwarzenegger, no less).

The mayor's plan includes first, creating the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability within the Mayor's Office of Operations, which will undertake - among other projects - a greenhouse gas inventory for city government and the city overall; second, appointing a "Sustainability Advisory Board" to advise the city on environmentally sound policies and practices; and, third the creation of a new partnership with the Earth Institute of Columbia University to provide the city with scientific research and advice on environmental and climate change-related issues. The initiative grew out of a pledge the mayor made to the New York League of Conservation Voters to guide the city's sustainability agenda. The Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability will be led by Rohit T. ('Rit') Aggarwala, a former McKinsey transportation consultant who holds an MBA and a Ph.D. in history from Columbia, and will help develop a plan for the city's long-term growth and development.

Once a long-term sustainability plan is established, the agency will be responsible for tracking, measuring, and reporting the city's performance against the targets set in the plan. The office's greenhouse gas inventory for city government operations should be released this Fall, with the broader city inventory released in spring 2007.

City Council Intro 395 sets out roughly the same course as the office as far as requiring a sustainability action plan and establishing an advisory committee, but - being a written piece of proposed legislation - it is far more specific in its detail of what the plan shall include, and what role the advisory committee shall have. Intro 395 requires that the advisory committee submit preliminary recommendations regarding the plan by March, 2007, and that the office submit a draft plan by September, 2007.

The final version of the sustainability action plan would be published by March 2008, and establish specific quantitative goals for increasing sustainability in categories of environmental concern including: climate protection, air quality, energy efficiency and conservation, water quality, waste reduction and recycling, toxins and hazardous materials, transportation, open space, land use and natural resources. For each of the established goals, 5-, 10-, and 20-year targets will be determined, and annual review will determine whether and how the targets can be met. Finally, the office would have to include a response to each of the advisory committee's recommendations, and where not adopted, give a reason why not.

At the council committee hearing, Mr. Aggarwala testified that he supported Intro 395, but wanted to wait on implementation until the already-appointed advisory council had a chance to meet and issue recommendations, i.e., in the spring of 2007. He also mentioned that he had been advised that the bill may present legal issues, specifically 'curtailment' of executive branch authority, by requiring responses to the advisory committee?s recommendations.

A number of not-for-profit groups also submitted comments, with some commenters seeking addition of public health indicators in the plan, with specific evaluation of disadvantaged communities. Other commenters questioned how city agencies would be encouraged or required to comply with the plan's targets. And yet other commenters sought immediate implementation of the plan, given the rate at which greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced to prevent global heating, or, in lieu of immediate implementation, urged independent initiatives by city agencies to build green capital projects. No commenters opposed the bill.

Regardless of how the bill is finally drafted, or whether the bill is passed this fall or next spring, the mayor and the city council seem committed to work together to put New York City on the same track as other American cities that take sustainability seriously, like Chicago, San Francisco and Denver. If city agencies can be persuaded to take the performance goals seriously, as most agencies have with other performance goals, it would be not only a vast improvement in sustainability awareness and action, but also a powerful catalyst for the private sector to supply cost-effective technology and products for a greener regional economy.

Photo: Mayor Bloomberg speaking at the first meeting of the Sustainability Advisory Committee

Photo credit: Spencer T. Tucker, NYC.gov