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Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.Torchlight

In Dreams Begin Accountability

By: Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.

May 02, 2007

In the Italian Renaissance, the Ideal City, or Citta Ideale, was a utopian vision of urban life, with blue skies, no traffic, litter-free streets, and spotless marble walls. The only thing missing was people. Today, we have Mayor Bloomberg's urban vision, PlaNYC: A Greener, Greater New York. He sees a city filled with people, 9,000,000 of them by the year 2030. They will live, work and play in buildings that no longer emit 79% of the City's carbon dioxide inventory. This city will reduce its contribution to global warming by 30%. It will adequately house everyone, maybe even on cleaned-up brownfields. There will be one million more trees around town and many fewer vehicles in Manhattan south of 86th Street. The Mayor's plan makes many promises and his Citta Ideale is to be the product of over one hundred separate initiatives.

In the Mayor's words "This Plan is an attempt to sustain our city's success and our momentum forward... In it we have sought to solve a series of distinct challenges." He deserves applause for putting real time and effort into this plan and for unequivocally committing his administration to the long-haul fight against climate change. As a coastal city with vast tracts of infrastructure, real estate and human capital vulnerable to the severe storms and flooding that scientists associate with climate change, this commitment is more than good citizenship; it's good sense. By creating PlaNYC, both as a tool for mobilizing public support and as a way to jump-start an ambitious agenda, he has earned our praise. His oratorical challenge, "If we don't act now, when? And if we don't act, who will?" was meant to be stirring, and it is.

The deep seriousness implied in this call to action and to engaging in the tasks before us demand a sustained public exploration of the structure and the details of Bloomberg's plan. And this exploration should have as its goal support of the good, improvement of the iffy, and deletion of some non-starters. Of course, the execution of PlaNYC, starting with its Earth Day launch, will take place in the contested and conflict -laden arena known as City and State politics. It also starts out with a term-limited Bloomberg administration that has fewer than 1,000 days left in office. These are givens, but they must not be used as excuses for failed execution of the Plan's broad outlines.

Over the coming months, we will visit and revisit PlaNYC, its content and its trajectory. Here, let's consider its structure and identify certain key themes. It's apparent structure can be taken as either the PlaNYC Report's six chapter headings: Land, Water, Transportation, Energy, Air and Climate Change or as the 127 bulleted initiatives listed in the Mayor's press release. What matters, from the perspective of understanding PlaNYC as a plan, is the fact, as expressed in the Mayor's own terms, that these are "distinct challenges" and "separate initiatives". To speak metaphorically, what we have here is a field strewn with Big Apple seeds that might grow into sturdy, fruit-bearing trees. Doubtless, some of these Big Apple seeds will take root and flourish others won't. But which ones will bear fruit and will they meet PlaNYC's lofty goals? It's too soon to say but it's not to soon to start asking. When we look at this field of opportunity, do we see a robust plan, one designed to effectively meet its sustainability goals or is it just a rag-tag heap of hopes? I have difficulty sensing a strategy in this PlaNYC and this troubles me.

Consider the acreage in PlaNYC's Land, Energy and Climate Change chapters. Starting from the last chapter on climate change — using the year 2005 a baseline — its explicit goal is to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 30% by the year 2030. This translates into an annual reduction of 33.6 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, with another 15.6 million tons of "avoided" emissions because nearly one million new residents will live in this sustainable metropolis. Meeting the 30% reduction target will require major improvements in NYC's electric energy supply to save 10.8 million metric tons of CO2 emissions and improvements in the energy efficiency of buildings will save another 16.7 million metric tons. So far, so good.

Turning to the Energy chapter, which contains the bulk of the initiatives to transform the City's built environment, we find an array of innovative ideas on energy planning, demand reduction, new clean supply, and the electricity delivery infrastructure. Some of the ideas in this array can be carried out directly by City government, for instance cutting its own energy consumption and committing 10% of its own annual energy bill to investments in energy-saving City operations. The Mayor deserves applause for his announced intention to amend the City Charter, thereby ensuring that this commitment will live on past his tenure in office. In addition, changes to the City's energy and building code are recommended. But reading the fine print uncovers an acknowledgement that the soon-to-be-completed overhaul of the local building code "While the new code will include a number of green elements - including rebates for some green building features.... more can be done." And here the vision for our Citta Ideale starts to blur.

Since any Building Code revisions will take place on a three-year cycle, progress in further greening it must be carried over onto the wish list for New York's next Mayor. For now, this cycle, in combination with the Plan's prose style, makes it hard to understand exactly what the Mayor promises to do and how he will do it. To cite just one ambiguous mouthful, "In many cases, such as the energy upgrades for large commercial buildings, we will incent behavior to encourage early adoption and then mandate compliance by 2015." Does this mean that we can expect Mayor Bloomberg to rapidly roll-out an energy upgrade incentive program and then, some time before he leaves office on December 31, 2009, do whatever it takes to have new legislation on the City's books with phase-ins that run to 2015?

There are other shadowy areas too. PlaNYC 2030 is virtually silent about the role for Local Law 86 that applies to the government's own buildings, in accelerating the CO2-reduction learning curve, for government, business and labor alike. Does this mean that the City's existing green building law is a dead end? This Energy chapter also proposes the creation of an Energy Efficiency Authority that would be responsible for meeting the plan's electricity demand reduction targets. Empowering this Authority requires action by the State legislature and governor, and this would be no small achievement. (A future Torchlight will revisit this issue.)

Working our way back, we finally arrive at the first chapter on Land. It launches the Mayor's vision for creating homes for nearly one million more New Yorkers by 2030 and exhorts us to "weigh the consequences of carbon emissions, air quality and energy efficiency when we decide the patterns that will shape our city over the next coming decades." That's it, so far, for a plan able to integrate carbon dioxide cuts and smart energy efficiency into its sweeping housing goal.

The point of this close consideration of these particular elements of the Mayor's proposal is not to take issue with them. Rather, it is to understand that meeting or eventually exceeding the 30% carbon dioxide reduction goal will require more than good intentions and dozens of Big Apple seeds. It will require hard work and a willingness to struggle in the technical and political arenas over setting standards for New York City's built environment. It will require mandates and money. It will require legislation, regulation, funding, effective sticks and imaginative carrots, and it will require follow through. It will need a public that supports this agenda and demands even more. It will gain strength from a mass media that reports on more than the slugfests. It will require accountability.

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