The Big (Green) Apple

NYC Accelerates Quest to Be Most Sustainable City in the World

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Mark Chambers is director of sustainability for the city of New York.

Posted: Wednesday, August 15, 2018 5:00 pm

New York City is sometimes called the Capital of the World, the City of Dreams, or the Big Apple, but officials in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s sustainability office would like the city to be known as something else: no less than the most resilient, equitable and sustainable city in the world.

And, they have a plan to make that happen.

One New York: The Plan for a Strong and Just City (OneNYC) is New York’s strategic plan to foster growth, equity, sustainability, resiliency, diversity and inclusivity. Drafted in 2015, it was the first resilience strategy released by any city in partnership with 100 Resilient Cities, the Rockefeller Foundation’s effort to help cities around the world face the environmental, social and economic challenges of the 21st century.

In its recently released 2018 progress report, the mayor’s office highlighted several milestones the initiative has already achieved:

“Three years after the release of our OneNYC strategy, New York City is thriving as we are creating the fairest big city in America. Jobs are at record highs across the five boroughs. Crime is lower than it’s been since the 1950s. The air and surrounding waterways are cleaner than they’ve been in decades. Our neighborhoods are safer, more affordable, and more environmentally just. And we have raised the bar on climate leadership by taking the fight straight to the fossil fuel companies that have created the climate crisis.”

The report notes that all OneNYC initiatives have been launched and are under way; more than 80 percent of the strategy’s indicators are stable or improving; and 86 percent of the 564 milestones set for the end of 2017 have been achieved or are nearing completion.

Population and Economic Growth

New York City’s population is growing faster today than it has in more than 50 years, recently surpassing 8.6 million people, said Mark Chambers, director of the mayor’s Office of Sustainability. But it isn’t the growing numbers that concern city officials, he said. “What we’re more concerned with is how do we make New York a city where everyone who lives here can thrive? How can we make sure that New York is for all New Yorkers?” This concern for equity and inclusion is a common thread throughout the OneNYC plan, Chambers said.

Despite adding more than 500,000 residents since 2010, the city’s unemployment rate of 4.2 percent is at an all-time low, leading the city to shift its focus toward strategies that combat inequality and develop higher paying jobs and small business opportunities. Following its 2017 New York Works plan, the city is implementing 25 initiatives to create 100,000 jobs with good wages in the next 10 years.

The city’s Small Business Services (SBS) department recently awarded more than $8.5 million in multi-year Neighborhood 360° grants in six neighborhoods, including downtown Flushing, downtown Staten Island, East Harlem, East New York, Inwood, and Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. The funds will provide supplementary sanitation, business assistance and retention, merchant organizing, wayfinding, beautification, business district marketing and holiday lighting.

But, New York’s unprecedented growth is creating some challenges, including a shortage of affordable housing and increasing stress on the city’s infrastructure.

Housing New York 2.0, released in 2017, lays out new tools and programs to build and preserve affordable homes for 300,000 units — up from the previously announced goal of 200,000 units,” according to the OneNYC 2018 progress report.

Last year, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and Housing Development Corporation (HDC) financed 24,293 affordable apartments and homes, the highest overall production since 1989, and have financed more than 87,500 new or preserved affordable units since 2014. The New York Land Opportunity Program (NYLOP), launched in 2017, is a partnership between the city and several faith-based nonprofits working to develop affordable or supportive housing on underutilized land. NYLOP provides free assistance, including access to lawyers and architects, and helps identify and select experienced developers as joint venture partners, according to the report.

Transportation infrastructure has also suffered from record growth, increased tourism and aging systems. “Sidewalks are overflowing, subways are less reliable, and our streets and bike lanes are congested during rush hour,” the OneNYC report notes. The plan calls for doubling bicycling in the city by 2020, and Chambers said the mayor has proposed regulations that will explicitly permit New Yorkers to operate pedal-assist electric bikes in the city.

The city also agreed to make a $2.5 billion investment in the MTA’s $33.2 billion Capital Plan to maintain and improve New York’s subways and buses through 2019. And, in 2017, the city launched NYC Ferry, an expansion of the East River Ferry system that links traditionally underserved communities in areas where jobs and housing are rapidly growing. It carried 3 million riders in its first year of operation.

In an acknowledgement that digital infrastructure is just as important as concrete and steel, the city has a goal of ensuring every New Yorker has access to affordable high-speed internet by 2025. While all the technology is in place throughout the city, the costs of equipment and broadband service is a barrier in many poor neighborhoods. The NYC Connected program is a series of initiatives that provide computer technology and education to underserved areas of the city, particularly in schools, libraries, public housing facilities, senior centers and community centers.

Social Justice and Equity

New York’s focus on creating jobs, increasing income, and providing affordable housing has helped the city stay on pace toward its commitment to lift 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty or near poverty by 2025. As of 2016, U.S. Census data showed the city’s poverty rate had fallen to 19.5 percent from 20.6 percent in 2014, meaning 141,000 fewer people were living in or near poverty that year. Since then, the city estimates wage increases, including an increase to a $15 minimum wage, will have moved 519,000 people out of poverty or near poverty by the end of this year.

Closing gaps in access to quality education, healthcare, nutritious foods, social and environmental services, and reforming the criminal justice system to provide all New Yorkers with fair and equal treatment under the law are all key goals of the OneNYC plan.

Since 2014, the city has tripled the number of children enrolled in free, full-day pre-kindergarten programs. Building on the success of a Pre-K for All program launched that year, which provided free pre-school for 4-year-olds, the city has launched 3-K for All — free, full-day early childhood education for every three-year-old in the city, according to the OneNYC progress report. Other programs, including one that supports breastfeeding and best practices in maternity care, are helping lower the city’s infant mortality rate from 4.3 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 2015 to a target of 3.7 by 2040. The latest data indicate the number declined to 4.1 in 2016.

Crime rates in New York City are down significantly, and the de Blasio administration credits “a broad, unified strategy” that emphasizes “legitimacy, fairness, trust, cooperation, and visible accountability” while reducing unnecessary enforcement and incarceration. The city implemented the Gun Violence Crisis Management System to reduce shootings in the city’s most violent precincts. Teams of “violence interrupters” — described as “credible messengers who have turned their own lives around” — work to deescalate disputes and connect high-risk individuals with resources that can include job training, employment opportunities, mental health counseling and legal services. The results, according to the OneNYC report:

“Between 2014 and 2017, major index crimes in NYC were down 10 percent, homicides were down 13 percent, and shooting incidents were down 33 percent. The city ended 2017 with 290 murders — a historic low not seen since 1951. New York had a murder rate of 3.4 per 100,000 residents compared with other American cities, including four of the country’s largest: 7 murders per 100,000 in Los Angeles, 13 in Houston, 20 in Philadelphia, and 24 in Chicago. The city also recorded 790 shooting incidents in 2017 — another historic low — compared to 1,172 in 2014.”

At the same time, the city plans to close its notorious Rikers Island jail complex and continue to shrink its jail population by eliminating unnecessary incarcerations and focusing more resources on helping former inmates effectively reenter society and find meaningful work, among other programs. Between 2014 and 2017, New York City’s average daily jail population fell 15 percent — from 10,910 to 9,226, according to the OneNYC progress report. The city’s goal is to reach an average daily jail population of 7,000 by 2022, and to house the inmates in smaller, safer facilities once Rikers is closed.

Environmental Sustainability

In 2015, New York City committed to becoming “the most sustainable big city in the world and a global leader in the fight against climate change,” according to its OneNYC plan. To achieve this goal, Chambers said the city expects to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 and reach net-zero waste by 2030, relative to 2005 levels. The plan also aspires to having the cleanest air of any U.S. city and ensuring that all New Yorkers live within walking distance of a park.

Chambers said the emissions reduction goal is the main driver of his office’s policy work. “It also outlines the manner in which our office will support the city’s work around transportation, around waste and around energy, both regulatory as well as localized distributed generation within the city,” he said.

It’s a big job. So far, the city has invested nearly $500 million to improve energy efficiency in its public and private buildings, which Chambers said account for the lion’s share of the city’s emissions. There are more than a million buildings in New York, totaling more than 5 billion square feet of space. City officials estimate 90 percent of those buildings will still be around in 2050, so it stands to reason that existing buildings will need to get a lot more efficient, and many will need to switch to renewable energy sources for this plan to work.

To date, emissions in the city are down 15 percent below 2005 levels, Chambers said. “We’ve got a long way to go, but we are aggressively moving to implement policies that will be game changers in our ability to accelerate that progress.” He said Mayor de Blasio has proposed new regulations that, by 2030, will cap the amount of fossil fuel energy the city’s largest buildings can consume, along with funding, financing and other assistance to help them with the retrofits.

Last year, after President Donald Trump announced he would pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Mayor de Blasio signed an executive order committing the city to uphold the principles of the Paris accord, with the goal of limiting the earth’s rise in average temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Chambers said the city’s 1.5°C Plan accelerated the already aggressive implementation timelines established in the OneNYC plan.

“I think it’s extremely important for us to be able to move despite federal inaction,” Chambers said. “We’re working with other cities to create global protocols for carbon neutrality; we’re working internally to push for advanced building codes… and we’re tackling this from a lot of different angles so we can move the needle quickly.”

To reach its waste reduction goals, Chambers said the city is ramping up curbside recycling and now provides curbside collection of organics to more than 3.3 million residents, the largest such program in the country. In 2016, the city brought recycling to all public housing residents. A 2017 study found that New Yorkers are now producing less waste at home than ever before. The city is now focusing on developing a new waste collection plan for the commercial sector.

New York’s air is now cleaner than it’s been in 50 years, according to the OneNYC report, which credits new city and state rules that reduce emissions from heating oils, among other initiatives. It notes that some of the largest improvements in air quality have occurred in the city’s historically polluted areas and in low-income neighborhoods. Despite these gains, New York still ranks fifth in air quality among major U.S. cities and is working on a variety of projects to improve on that ranking, including adding new regulations to limit particulate emissions from previously uncontrolled sectors, such as charbroilers and wood- and coal-fired ovens in restaurants.

The city operates one of the largest alternative fuel fleets in the world, with more than 18,000 electric, solar, hybrid electric, natural gas or biodiesel vehicles. Chambers said the city has committed to installing 50 fast-charging electric vehicle hubs throughout the city over the next two years, in hopes that, by 2025, more than 20 percent of new vehicle registrations in the city will be for electric vehicles. Its Hunts Point Clean Truck Program provides financial incentives for private trucking companies to replace older trucks with cleaner vehicles. So far, 550 truck replacements have been funded.

New York City’s Central Park is among the most famous public green spaces in the world, but it is virtually out of reach for many residents in the city, and in 2015 only 79.5 percent of New Yorkers lived within walking distance of a park. NYC Parks plans to increase that to 85 percent by 2030, and to invest in improvements to parks in underserved areas of the city. Since 2014, the Community Parks Initiative has spent more than $300 million on improvements to “high-need neighborhood parks and playgrounds located in growing, high poverty neighborhoods,” according to the OneNYC progress report.

At the same time, the parks department has planted more than 620,000 trees and 5 million flowers throughout the city, bringing its total tree inventory to an estimated 2.5 million. With the help of 2,241 volunteers the department surveyed and mapped 666,134 street trees — which citizens can view on the interactive NYC Parks Street Tree Map. Chambers said a public/private partnership, MillionTrees NYC, recently achieved its goal of planting 1 million new trees in the city over the past 10 years.


Finally, in response to devastating hurricanes, extreme heat and other effects of climate change in recent years, the city of New York is aggressively investing in preparedness and resiliency and is asking the courts to require oil companies to help pay it. In January, the city filed a lawsuit against the five largest fossil fuel companies — BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Royal Dutch Shell — to recover the billions needed to fund climate change resiliency measures, including physical infrastructure like coastal protections, upgraded water and sewer infrastructure, and heat mitigation measures, among others.

Chambers said the city is also planning to divest some $5 billion of the city’s pension funds from investments in fossil fuels by 2022, and they are encouraging other cities to do the same. “We really want to send a signal to the market that fossil fuels are of the past and that we are moving forward. We think it makes financial sense, because it’s too risky to stay invested in fossil fuels,” he said.

The OneNYC plan calls for increasing the capacity of emergency shelters to 120,000 people (currently at 38,000); investing more than $37 million to strengthen the resiliency of small businesses; and “upgrading physical systems in 1- to 4-family homes and multifamily buildings; changing zoning and land use policy; working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to produce more accurate maps; and educating building owners about climate risk and mitigation options,” according to the OneNYC progress report.

Chambers said the city has invested more than $20 billion to repair, rebuild and strengthen areas of the city that were devastated by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Projects have included interim flood protection measures, hundreds of home elevations and the complete restoration of the 5.5-mile Rockaway Boardwalk in Queens, which was just completed in 2017.

“The boardwalk, as well as the berms that go alongside it, do a lot to manage the storm surges throughout the Rockaways,” Chambers said, “and this is a classic example of the kinds of rebuilding that’s necessary to protect the vulnerable parts of the city. A lot of the work is centered around larger infrastructure projects that provide the kind of coastal resilience that will help the city mitigate storm surges as well as sea-level rise over time,” he added.

Sustainable City Network will host a free 1-hour webinar on Thursday, Aug. 23, featuring Mark Chambers, who will provide an overview of New York City's sustainability initiatives. Register or download the recorded webcast at

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