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Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.Torchlight

A Closer Look at NYC.gov

By: Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.

September 26, 2005

In the beginning was the World Wide Web and now we have Podcasts and RSS. It's easy to feel inundated with too much information and too many ways to get it, even though we value speed and instantaneous interconnectivity and think that, if we wanted, we could know it all. But take a close look at NYC.gov to see what electronic information New York City government is broadcasting to its citizens about what it's doing to develop a sustainable city. What you'll find is that there is no flood of information on this big subject. In fact, it's very scarce. Sometimes it's stale. NYC dot gov can do better.

Why is the topic of sustainability so important that it should merit highlights on a web site where so many municipal matters jostle for attention? In the colorful words of Crain's New York Business, July 11, 2005 front-page story, "New York is in the grips of a construction frenzy". In the same week, the more staid New York Times reported that the Bloomberg administration has "quietly labored over projects and development plans in corners of the city — from Jamaica, Queens to Staten Island." Since one third of all energy consumed in New York goes to lighting, if the proposed private and publicly supported development in New York were built to maximize energy efficiency though high performance architectural innovations, it would reduce the City's energy demand on a strained electric power system and ease the burden of sharply escalating costs of oil and natural gas. Our success at putting up sustainable buildings will show that it can be done and we will quickly learn to do it even better. In response, new methods and materials appear on the market that will support emerging businesses and new skilled and creative jobs.

In light of the current "construction frenzy", NYC.gov's electronic information drought is puzzling for two reasons. First, City government in fact has some good news on the sustainability front, news good enough to highlight on its website. The ACS Intake building at Bellevue Hospital, the South Jamaica Library and the award-winning Queens Botanical Garden high performance building projects and are just three examples — and with enough site searching data on these projects can be found. But the annual Mayor's Management Report, "MMR" site is mute on the urban sustainability front. A review of the most recent online MMR turns up nothing. The Mayor's Office of Design and Construction chapter in the Preliminary Fiscal Year 04 MMR is silent about its high performance construction designs and the synonyms "green" or "sustainable" do not appear in the MRR's index. Since activities of the Mayor's Office itself are not included in MMR's, a reader must open NYC.gov to learn about the work of the Mayor's own Sustainability Task Force, even though many Mayoral agencies participate on this Task Force.

This reader's search for "sustainability" on NYC.gov yielded 84 hits. Among the top ten hits were the Mayor's Office of Environmental Coordination, "OEC" the agency spearheading his Sustainability Task Force and the New York City Department of Building's Building Code Revision Task Force, which includes a Sustainability Advisory Committee. An information-packed web page for the innovative Office of Sustainable Design in the Department of Design and Construction also came up, although not in the top ten.

Opening these pages can be an exercise in frustration. Although the Office of Sustainable Design was rich with information, the pages for the Sustainability Task Force and Building Code Revision Sustainability Advisory Committee only provided the names and affiliations of participants but not any information on the work of either group. This is disappointing in terms of the capacity of the web to provide up-to-date information about works in progress. But it is more than disappointing as a matter of government transparency and the power of the web to foster informed civic participation. Since these web pages contain no information on meetings or on the work that has been done or needs to be done by these groups, there is no way for the concerned public to be informed or to become engaged in the formulation of policy and standards that will fundamentally shape government actions as well as the commitments of significant resources by the private sector. The City's Building Code plays an essential role in defining our built environment and revising it takes great effort and rightly occurs infrequently.

A web-posted message from Robert Kulikowski, Director of OEC accurately notes, "While OEC's work is not always visible to the public at large, what we do affects all New Yorkers." OEC's web pages can make its work more visible and aid New Yorkers in shaping a sustainable City, but opening the "Greenhouse Gas Inventory" page and finding the message "The Greenhouse Gas Inventory is undergoing final data verification and will be posted here upon completion" about a report that was written years ago does not meet up to Mr. Kulikowski's express hope that "you will find our site informative." In contrast the website for the New York City Economic Development Corporation, has links to its 2004 report "New York City Energy Policy" which includes recommendations that bear directly on sustainability and high performance building. In addition, the site has a detailed Progress Report that came out this year.

The websites for DDC and CEDC are models for how the power of the electronic interconnectivity revolution can be used to provide in-depth and up-to-date information that is accessible to a public that has the right to know as well as citizens and stakeholders who want to be part of influencing the direction of public policy and the allocation of public resources. OEC's and the Building Department's web pages could be made more informative thereby becoming more open to civic engagement on effective urban sustainability.

Returning to the issue of the MMR, which is mute on sustainability, it is important to understand that of the web-accessible documents discussed here only the annual MMR is required by law. By virtue of it's obligatory annual publication it is unique among City government documents in its power to highlight the work of City government over time. Although it will never be a thriller or page-turner, the MMR can be a potent agent for learning from our past and developing our future. Now that Mayor Bloomberg has joined a coalition with 131 other U.S. mayors to embrace the goals of the Kyoto rules on climate change, he should see to it that the MMR becomes a useful virtual tool in measuring the actual progress in making New York the capital of urban sustainability. Such a change to the MMR would be a perfect example of what useful knowledge for a greener City is all about.

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