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Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.Torchlight

A Green Pulse Beats in NY

By: Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.

November 23, 2005

Now that local elections are over in NYC, and before the Governor's race shifts into high gear, it's time to ask if urban environmental issues could be detected on the campaign trail or at the ballot box. Good news — there is a green pulse. Not such good news — it's faint, or more concretely, the quality of the urban environment was not a critical issue for most voters.

That there is a pulse can be inferred from voter approval of the $2.9 billion New York Transportation Bond Act of 2005. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority will get half of this money for construction of the Second Avenue subway as well as for a long list of transit improvement and maintenance projects. Approval of this Bond Act is a real victory for clean air and sustaining a mass transit system that makes New York's urban density possible. The green pulse is felt in the New York League of Conservation Voters' early support of a Bloomberg re-election because of his record on air, water, parks and his Solid Waste Management Plan as achievements of his first administration. The pulse could also be detected, more faintly, in the on-line daily Gotham Gazette's Mayoral Issues Grid with its small nod to environmental issues.

Is a faint pulse the best we can do?

No major editorial support for the re-election of Mayor Bloomberg or morning-after stories throbbed with the urgent call for leadership in the urban environment. According to a national survey conducted by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University this year, 80% of Americans claim to support environmental policies, but this doesn't translate into votes. Only 22% of survey respondents said that environmental concerns were a major factor in determining their votes in recent federal, state or local elections. Maybe Richard Nixon was right in thinking that there's no useful payback from expending political capital on environmental policies. Perhaps today's voters and editorial writers don't think that there are pressing local environmental issues that call for government action.

The NYLCV web site headlined a "New Poll Reveals Environmental Endorsement Carries Major Weight in Democratic Primary", and the League hosted a public forum after the November 2005 general election for City Council members seeking the Speaker's office. At that forum, the panelists were asked about their plans to manage the City's pressing and costly solid waste magagement needs. They all agreed that something must be done. According to a Pace University poll taken in October, schools/education, housing/affordable housing and the economy were their biggest concerns. Among voters' priorities, the environment did appear as #10 as "fixing the City's garbage problems in an environmentally friendly way."

These poll results are cause for optimism because they suggest opportunities to strengthen New York's green pulse, opportunities that flow directly from issues of perennial concern to many voters. Take trash. Trash costs money; the City spends $1 billion a year to dispose of its waste and businesses spend an additional $60 million every year for waste disposal. Meanwhile, the cost of recycling is dropping. A 2004 report by the City Comptroller found that recycling costs were falling below disposal costs. Significant increases in the City's recycling rate would be an excellent part of "fixing the City's garbage problem in an environmentally friendly way" but increased recycling is not part of the Mayor's current waste plan. This is a missed opportunity that urban environmental advocates and budget hawks should jointly seize to see that the City's Director of Recycling is given more clout to effectively expand the program.

Here are three more strategic recommendations that rely on building alliances of common interest. First, urban environmentalists, supporters and allies need to credibly and energetically link the demand for "affordable" housing with the environmental call for high performance, green building. In April 2005, the New York Times published a letter-to-the-editor, which praised the paper's editorial call for more affordable housing in the rezoning of a Brooklyn waterfront neighborhood. I wrote, "Rezoning Greenpoint and Williamsburg should also ensure that housing that is supposed to be affordable really is. This means putting a high performance template in place for producing buildings that use less heat and power. Reduced building demand means lower operating expenses which is a direct way to keep down owners' and residents' monthly bills year after year." Second, linking voters' concerns with schools and education by way of building high performance school facilities with good indoor air quality and no toxic materials could be another winner. Finally, voters' concern with the economy should be tied to stimulating market demand and "good jobs" growth that would emerge with an effective public commitment to a greener city.

This is more than an idle wish list. In October, the Mayor signed the High Performance Building Law, which was originally proposed by the City Council. The new law requires most City government and government funded construction and renovation to meet United States Green Building Council standards, or their equivalents. In 2006, the law's implementing regulations will be drafted by an as yet unidentified group of City agencies. Good regulations are a necessary element in executing good policy and the City has a real opportunity here to be a national leader. The public should be sure to take part in reviewing and commenting on the proposed rules. The second Bloomberg administration has at least two other opportunities to quicken the City's green pulse. Urban environmental advocates eagerly await the work product of the Sustainability Taskforce and the opportunities raised by the Mayor's Energy Task Force Report of 2004 in the field of energy demand reduction, distributed energy and clean alternatives need to be realized, but again sustained public alertness is needed. Stay tuned to see if our pulses are set racing at City Hall and in Albany.

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