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Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.Torchlight

Waiting for Godot in NYC

By: Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.

November 29, 2006

Vladimir: Together again at last! We'll have to celebrate this.

NYC Mayor Bloomberg signed the green building law in October 2005 and announced his Sustainability Initiative in May 2006. In September he followed up by creating the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. With term limits, he's got just thirty-seven months to deliver on these promises, so let us anticipate the New Year by looking at what's been accomplished to date.

Estragon: Not now, not now.

Regrettably, little has been achieved. The Bloomberg administration is looking more like government by press release than governing with measurable goals and tangible outcomes.

What is it waiting for?
The Mayor's Office of Environmental Coordination — which reports to the same boss as the Sustainability Office — will be responsible for the NYC green building law that is supposed to go into effect January 1, 2007. Now it's clear that it won't go into effect on New Year Day because the administration hasn't adopted the regulations. Given the multi-billion dollar size of the City's capital budget, the law could be a real market mover and its impact on the City's own design and construction bureaucracy could be transforming and durable. Although there is anecdotal evidence that the City is doing more high performance building, and that's a good thing, it's not the arrival of Godot. It's nowhere near enough. Furthermore, as the only major green City policy that is a binding statute, Local Law 86 will endure beyond the limits of the Bloomberg Administration, but only if it's put into effect.

What about the Mayor's Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability? Its job is to coordinate and oversee "efforts to develop and implement a long-term strategic vision for the city's future development, as well as lead the city's ongoing efforts towards environmental sustainability." That's quite a mouthful, but absent local legislation over the next three years, the next Mayor could dissolve the Office.

This means that Administration inertia now would curdle into a permanent "F" on the scorecard of this modern-management and outcome-oriented administration. So too, inaction or its proxy, press releases and blue ribbon panels that lead nowhere, would mean losing the vision and energetic contribution of the Sustainability Advisory Board, a brain trust of savvy and dedicated environmental and community advocates, business and labor leaders, architects, and academics who meet regularly with staff in the Mayor's Office in an advisory role on urban sustainability. The same considerations apply to the Mayor's Office of Environmental Coordination, whose responsibilities for Local Law 86 and other major environmental responsibilities are defined by Executive Order, is no more inscribed in the permanent structure of City government.

What are we waiting for?
At the international scale, the November 2006 Kyoto Protocol meeting in Nairobi Kenya saw the emergence of a roundtable of state, regional and local governments to discuss sub-national initiatives to control greenhouse gases, but little progress was made on future climate controls by national governments. Federal action in the US on sustainability and climate change are long shots before we elect a new President. While New York State's new Governor, Eliot Spitzer, demonstrated both benchmark environmental leadership and accomplishment as Attorney General, often the City does not want the State to tell it what to do. As for the prospect of the State acting on green building codes and school construction standards, the City wields a local authority in these domains that it would not willingly cede to Albany. Yet, with the passage of time, buildings go up, NYC neighborhoods are rezoned and redeveloped, clamor persists for additional electricity, fuel consumption increases and a dense swarm of other decisions are made that commit capital and transform our urban fabric in a host of ways that will last for decades.

Vladimir: What do we do now?
Estragon: Wait.
Vladimir: Yes, but while waiting.

Unlike Beckett's tramps, we don't have much time to lose. It is clear that the sunk costs of inaction — in carrying on with business as usual "while waiting" to make NYC a successful model to the world of urban sustainability — will have irreversible consequences. One glance at the IPCC's model map of NYC in a climate warmed world makes it all too clear that these will not be positive consequences. A second glance at James Hansen's complete climate change slide show makes things even more graphic.

If the Mayor is encountering political resistance to his sustainability agenda, an agenda he spelled out in his September 2006 press release as "ensuring that economic growth and development today is compatible with the ability of our children and grandchildren to meet their needs in the future," and that aims "to integrate sustainability goals and practices into every aspect of that plan; and to make New York City government a 'green' organization", now is the time to mobilize the public. If he's struggling with technical or financial complexities, now's the time to explain them to the public. If there's some other reason why we're still waiting, we want to know and then figure out some effective and equitable solutions. At least Vladimir and Estragon could look forward to more of the same and not something much worse.

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