You may be surprised to learn that New York City is one of the most energy-efficient places in the United States, consuming a quarter of the national average in energy consumption and emitting a quarter of the national average of carbon dioxide, according to Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Also surprising is that large cities such as New York may be the future of sustainability in general. The tri-state area, which currently supports twenty million people, is the nation’s largest metropolitan area and one of several international mega-cities that have arisen in the last decade. Greater Tokyo tops that with thirty-five million inhabitants. And this trend will continue. By 2025, look for the next big thing – the rise of hyper-cities. Could all of this urban development potentially be better for the environment? With the rise of more densely populated urban areas, global sustainability has now become synonymous with urban sustainability. With intelligent planning, the more closely people live and work, the greater the potential for fuel efficiency and the ability to avoid sprawl and wasted resources. And New York City, under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, has taken its place as one of the national leaders in sustainability planning. At a recent panel discussion hosted by the Earth Institute, several local administrators and thinkers discussed what New York City has achieved and the challenges it yet faces. The panel, which included Steven Cohen, Executive Director of the Columbia University Earth Institute; Ester Fuchs, former Special Advisor to the Mayor; Cas Halloway, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection; William Solecki, Director of the CUNY Institute of Sustainable Cities; and David Bragdon, Director of the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability for the Mayor, discussed several successes and reasons for optimism. The Office of Sustainability, created under Mayor Bloomberg, is responsible for creating and implementing the city’s twenty-year plan for sustainability, PlaNYC, which was originally unveiled on Earth Day in 2007. Under the plan, a new solid waste-management plan was enacted, as well as a set of laws pertaining to benchmarking and increasing energy efficiency (Local Laws 84, 85, 87, 88). A change from #4 and #6 heating oil to #2 or natural gas is forthcoming to mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions. By rebalancing regulations and incentives for business, Bloomberg is encouraging cleaner industries like hi-tech and biotech. Sustainability is being factored into business planning more and more, such as in green leases. Future initiatives call for planting one million trees and converting an entire fleet of ten thousand taxis to fuel-efficient vehicles and hybrids. A new plan for waterfront development and usage was recently unveiled. Also in the plan, the NYC Department of Transportation focuses on the addition of bike racks and lanes to ease congestion. (Cooper-Hewitt co-presented a design competition in 2008 with the DOT, and the winning bike-rack design can be seen all around the city today.) Challenges for the future include stormwater management, air quality, traffic congestion, noise, and multi-agency coordination on sustainability efforts. Costs for water have risen 132% since 2002 in NYC. How is it possible to reconcile the opposing challenges of cleaning and filtering water for millions of city dwellers and reducing energy usage? This will be a key issue for the city’s future. Panelists commented more than once on the origins of culture change. Bloomberg’s own transition into being green was motivated in large part by cost factors. He was convinced by the data (not surprising, for him) that sustainability also meant good business. Grassroots efforts were also cited as being one of the most effective sources for change. Had it not been for President George W. Bush’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol in 2005, national leaders would not have been frustrated and motivated enough to band together (forming the C40) and take sustainability planning into their own hands. Government was also cited as a force for positive change in the context of regulations for businesses to give back to the cities that support them. The take-aways for me were a renewed sense of pride in the beautiful city in which I live and work and a commitment to learn more about how I can live more sustainably. The future may seem overwhelming, but each day brings multiple possibilities for choice. Even small changes make a difference, and can ultimately determine whether the promise of urban sustainability achieves its potential. Cooper-Hewitt and NYC Department of Transportation co-presenters of the 2008 CityRacks Design competition PlaNYC 2010 progress report Columbia University Earth Institute C40 Cities More information on projected population growth and its effects

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