NEW YORK–So ambitious was Mayor Michael Bloomberg's "PlaNYC" for America's lead city, first unveiled on Earth Day 2007, that it set a new standard for 21st century planning in U.S. cities.
But then came prolonged wrangling and eventual rejection by the state legislature of a salient feature of the plan– "congestion pricing" under which tolls would be imposed on private vehicles entering Manhattan's traffic-clogged business district during working hours. Outer borough and suburban opposition proved to be extreme.
Out of the limelight, however, two-thirds of PlaNYC's 127 recommended steps are reported to be on time or ahead of schedule. In the plan's public accounting, released each Earth Day, advances include a sharp increase in more clean-fuel taxis, $100 million yearly outlays for efficiency upgrades of government buildings, and first cutbacks in city-wide greenhouse gas emissions. Some 200,000 trees have been planted, 20 pilot projects begun to clean up city waterways, 79 new playgrounds constructed.
And in contrast to "here today, gone tomorrow" initiatives in many cities, a remarkably strong base for long-term progress appears to have been set. The City Council voted to make Bloomberg's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability a permanent part of city government. And that office is making waves. As an outside observer relates, it "beats up on the bureaucracy to stay focused. The approach is ruthless, and so is the mayor. Quarterly and annual targets are set. Commissioners and department heads are held strictly accountable."
Plus, interested–and influential–outside eyes are watching. A 15-member advisory board, with a cross-section of the city's top business, civic, labor, environmental, science and foundation leaders, not only helped shape PlaNYC in the first instance, but now watches over the process carefully as working groups meet regularly with city department leaders.
The venture has one other foundation, described by Rohit Aggarwala, director of the Long-Term Planning and Sustainability office. The Bloomberg administration, he notes, "came to environmentalism honestly." It needed a long-term strategy for a future with a projected 1 million more city residents by 2030–the equivalent, as one participant put it, of "cramming the entire cities of Boston and Miami into our relatively cramped boroughs." With a 20 percent population rise, it was feared New York simply wouldn't be able to handle added demand on its roads or current subways, or provide enough energy from its existing power plants. Major expansions would be mandatory.
"So we needed to think of efficiency as strategy," Aggarwala said. "That led to an overarching idea that long-range planning and sustainability are the same thing. Even planting 1 million trees–our analysis showed 7 percent higher value on a street with trees compared to one without. Even in the teeth of a recession, it still makes sense to plant trees."
Against that background, a recheck of PlaNYC's major features suggests a coordinated, timely–indeed compellingly necessary–effort for the city's economy and livability. A sampling: Putting all of New York's road and transit lines in good condition for the first time ever. Cleaning up all the city's power plants, and contaminated brownfields and creating room for 250,000 housing units. Putting recreation space in reach of all New Yorkers, opening 290 schoolyards as public playgrounds. Creating public plazas for every community (like this year's move to turn a large area encompassing Times Square into a pedestrian-only zone).
And because New York City is akin to an archipelago, sensitive to sea level rises, it's started a massive campaign of special inducements to building owners to energy retrofit their structures (source of 80 percent of the city's greenhouse gas emissions). The goal: 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.
Keeping movement on all these goals will be daunting. But the broad participation in assembling them, Bloomberg's insistence on tough accounting, the buy-in sought and received from the business and environmental communities, and the vision of a more sustainable and competitive city, augur well.
Even the congestion planning element, predicts Robert Yaro, president of New York's Regional Plan Assn. (RPA), will return–likely in a more sophisticated form, akin to systems in Singapore and Stockholm, with a high-tech monitoring system and pricing measures to really achieve greater reductions in the traffic that now strangles movement on Manhattan streets so many hours each day.
If there was a built-in weakness to PlaNYC, it was that it was formulated for New York City proper, not the entire 22.5 million person New York-Northern New Jersey-Connecticut citistate. But Yaro reports his organization and city staff are spending time conferring with the Long Island Regional Planning Council, Newark, Bridgeport, Stamford and other governments in the region.
So at least several of the larger regional constituencies, he says, are now developing their own sustainability plans. "But the fact New York went ahead, took the lead, makes a big difference," he adds.
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