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Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.Torchlight

Reimagining The Middle Distance

By: Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.

May 16, 2011

Starting from the truism that an era's portrait of the future reflects its own image, Laurie Kerr modestly proposed at the final panel in the series Reimagining the Metropolis that we aspire to a clear picture in the 'middle distance'. Twenty years is a workable time frame for making plans and public policies according to Ms Kerr because it allows us to imagine a future we can get to with the tools we already have. She's on to something. As a staff member of the Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability and contributor to PlaNYC 2030, her observation serves as a frame for reflecting on where we are and where we could go with the campaign to make high performance building New York City's new normal.

My purpose here is to use Kerr's metric of the 'middle distance' for looking back and peering ahead. Five years ago, the Sallan Foundation in close partnership with Eva Hanhardt (then of the Municipal Arts Society, now of Pratt Institute) and Chris Garvin (Cook + Fox and Terrapin Bright Green), organized a four-part forum on high performance building in New York. Last year, we decided to find out what's changed and where we could be going in another four-part series, Reimagining the Metropolis: New York City's Green Building Revolution. The White Paper that summarizes all eight panels has been posted for download. I hope you will find it a resource for your endeavors and a stimulus to your thinking about sustainable cities.

At the time of our first series, 2005–2006, PlaNYC was just a gleam in Mayor Bloomberg's eye and the Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability had not been established or codified by passage of a local law. The number of high performance buildings hovered at the poster-child level. Projects were seen as exotic and expensive, erected and occupied by a coterie of committed greenies. With the economy booming and spiraling energy consumption habits undisturbed except for the occasional electric system blackout, the need to do something about ever-rising operating expenses, peak load management of the power grid or paying, some day, for more capacity did not keep planners or the public awake at night. In so far as these issues were part of the public agenda or part of market decisions, high hopes were pinned to federal and international action on climate change.

That was then. The world of 2010–2011, the time of Reimagining the Metropolis, was unforeseen in 2005 and different indeed. PlaNYC of 2007, with its emphasis on integrated, systemic urban planning and its commitment to cutting the City's carbon footprint 30% by 2030 was evolving into version 2.0. Numerous laws had been enacted to make it a sticky plan than could not be easily ignored or overlooked by future municipal administrations. The Greener Greater Building laws of 2009 imposed explicit disclosure and building standard requirements on new and renovated real property.

During this same period, the local and national economies cratered into the Great Recession from which we are still trying to dig our way out and faith in the efficacy of government action has shriveled along with tax receipts. Yet, PlaNYC 2030 remains celebrated in some quarters, if ignored in others. In fact, with the death of prospects for near term federal climate and energy policy and the international failure to reauthorize the Kyoto climate treaty, action at the urban scale has emerged as the most salient sustainability arena. Organizations like C40 and its recent merger with the Clinton Climate Initiative suggest that the world's big cities could be the locus of climate action and planning for the 'middle distance'.

According to Laurie Kerr, buildings are the source of 75% of New York City's carbon footprint. Of this, fuel oil makes up 60% of their greenhouse gas emissions and electricity 40%. By committing to shrink New York's total carbon footprint 30% by 2030, the City can effectively and efficiently plan over the middle distance to reduce buildings' fuel emissions by 36% and electricity related emissions by 24%. Over two decades, buildings should be expected to reduce their energy appetite and shift to cleaner electric power generation. At the same time, owners, managers and occupants should be expected to get up to speed on energy smart building operations and maintenance. From the vantage of where we are now, is this achievable or are we just looking in the mirror? I think we can do it while finding the means to measure our progress, learn from our mistakes and correct our course. That would be more than middling good.

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