NYC Mayor de Blasio's Environmental Record So Far: A Good Start, but Big Challenges Ahead
During his first fifteen months at the helm of the nation's largest city, Mayor Bill de Blasio signaled that his Administration will be reaching for significant heights in environmental achievement, continuing and expanding on the progress on sustainability issues that was begun by former Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
De Blasio filled top environmental posts with experienced leaders who have demonstrated commitments to sustainability.
And, on several key issues, the Mayor and his commissioners began moving the de Blasio environmental agenda forward.
Of course, like the start of many mayoral terms, Mayor de Blasio's activities thus far largely set the table for actions still to come.
And, in 2015, the Mayor is facing some big environmental challenges. This year and next are going to be harder.
We should get a better idea as to what the de Blasio administration hopes to achieve when the mayor releases his comprehensive sustainability plan by April 22.
In this blog, we recap the first fifteen months of Mayor Bill de Blasio's environmental track record and highlight key issues we're watching as the Mayor gears up for Earth Day 2015.
Above: Mayor Bill de Blasio, speaking at Earth Day ceremonies last year in Union Square, has signaled his intent to continue and expand upon former Mayor Mike Bloomberg's sustainability accomplishments. The release of de Blasio's forthcoming sustainability plan, expected by April 22nd, should provide important benchmarks for assessing the success of the new mayor's environmental initiatives.
-The Mayor's Top Appointments
While Mayor de Blasio didn't set any records for the speed at which he made his top environmental appointments, the overall quality of personnel he eventually tapped for key positions is impressive. Here are four of his selections:
Now running the Sanitation Department is Kathryn Garicia. Previously, a respected senior official at the Department of Environmental Protection, Commissioner Garcia announced on her first day at Sanitation that she saw her Department as a vehicle for advancing sustainability and that she wanted to "take this agency to the forefront of the nation in terms of composting."
At the Parks Department, Mayor de Blasio appointed Mitchell Silver. Years ago, Commissioner Silver worked in the City Planning Department and the Manhattan Borough President's office, where he advanced projects like the beautiful Harlem on the River. More recently, he was Planning Director for Raleigh, N.C. and president of the American Planning Association.
As Commissioner at the Department of Environmental Protection, the Mayor named Emily Lloyd. Emily served in that same role under former Mayor Bloomberg, was Sanitation Commissioner under Mayor David Dinkins and also headed the Prospect Park Alliance. She's a dedicated veteran who has returned to one of the toughest posts in New York City government.
In November 2014, Mayor de Blasio named Nilda Mesa to the important new position of Director of Sustainability. Nilda's sterling environmental credentials include service in the California Attorney General's office, President Clinton's Council on Environmental Quality, the Defense Department (as Air Force Assistant Deputy for Environment), and as Director of Sustainability at Columbia University.
-De Blasio's Record in the City Council and as Mayoral Candidate
Environmental matters were not a major focus of Bill de Blasio during his tenure in the City Council (or as Public Advocate). But on several occasions when he did wade into these waters, he took a leadership position on the right side of the debate.
For example, in 2007, he stood up with parents from Brooklyn in an effort to end the Department of Education's wasteful practice of using hundreds of thousands of polystyrene foam food trays every day in its school lunch program. And, in 2008, he was a lead sponsor of legislation, passed by the City Council, to jumpstart the recycling of electronic waste in New York City -- a groundbreaking move that subsequently led to a statewide e-waste recycling program.
Environmental issues (with the exception of the animal rights issue/carriage horse controversy) didn't figure prominently in Bill de Blasio's mayoral race either.
Nevertheless, the Mayor's campaign literature in 2013 included an extensive outline of proposed environmental measures in a "Framework" and "Vision for a Sustainable City" "Sustainability," the de Blasio document said, "offers tremendous opportunities to improve public health and our environment, deliver real savings and efficiency for taxpayers, and open new doors to good-paying jobs particularly for low-income New Yorkers." There are a number of interesting proposals buried in this publication (on file at NRDC).
-The Mayor's Public Pronouncements on the Environment since January 2014
During his inaugural address on January 1, 2014, Mayor de Blasio -- whose relations with former Mayor Bloomberg have not been close -- nevertheless gave Bloomberg a shout-out in one area: his accomplishments on the issue of sustainability. De Blasio told the former Mayor: "Your passion on issues such as environmental protection and public health has built a noble legacy."
In February 2014, at the City Hall press conference appointing his environmental protection commissioner, Mayor de Blasio reaffirmed his own commitment to these issues: "We have," he said "the potential to be the most sustainable big city in the world."
And on April 22, 2014, Mayor de Blasio spoke in Union Square Park at the main Earth Day New York celebration. He announced that he was going to work with the City Council to strengthen New York's outdated air pollution control code (the Council is expected to pass that legislation later this month). And he ended his remarks with a passionate call to action: "Every citizen has to demand to policymakers constant improvement in our efforts for cleaner air and cleaner water, our efforts to fight global warming.....This is about our survival, and it's time for us to do things in some new ways."
-De Blasio Administration's Environmental Advances in his first Fifteen Months
Ultimately, elected officials are judged based primarily on what they have and have not accomplished.
During his first fifteen months -- a period in which some feared that New York City's commitment to sustainability would be lost - Mayor de Blasio gave New Yorkers who care about such issues as climate change, waste disposal, and green space for all several reasons to cheer.
Here are a few of the de Blasio Administration's early accomplishments:
- Pledging 80% Greenhouse Gas Reductions by 2050 -- Probably the biggest step the Mayor took on the sustainability path since taking office was the September 2014 release of his "One City, Built to Last" plan, which pledges to cut the city's carbon emissions 80% by 2050 (from 2005 levels). The new plan, buttressed by City Council legislation that institutionalized this goal, aims to secure reductions by scaling up energy efficiency and solar deployment in public and private buildings, the major source of the city's greenhouse gas emissions. New York City has thus become the nation's largest jurisdiction to commit to such a bold climate policy.
- Committing to Make Clean Energy Opportunities Accessible to All Income Groups - A key part of the city's "One City, Built to Last" plan is its goal of increasing building efficiency and solar power in multi-family affordable housing. High energy costs hit lower income residents especially hard, and the de Blasio Administration has pledged to focus on energy enhancements that will protect against rising utility bills.
- Moving to Keep Food and Yard Waste Out of Landfills - Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia promised to expand the city's pilot programs for curbside collection of organics (food scraps and ultimately yard waste), with the goal of having curbside organics collection citywide within five years. If successfully implemented, this would advance sustainability and curb climate-altering methane emissions from the single largest portion of the municipal waste stream.
- Requiring Restaurants to Phase-Out Polystyrene Foam Food and Beverage Containers - Commissioner Garcia's decision in December 2014 to ban restaurants and other food service establishments from using polystyrene foam food and beverage containers will remove one of the most problematic constituents of city trash and pave the way for more environmentally friendly substitutes. Polystyrene foam packing "peanuts" are also included in this ban, which takes effect July 1, 2015.
- Advancing Construction of Modern, Marine Transfer Stations for Waste-Handling - The de Blasio Administration has advanced implementation of the city's 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan, including construction of the controversial, but equitable, 91st Street Marine Transfer Station on Manhattan's Upper East Side. And, as it moves forward with this necessary waterfront project, the Administration is wisely considering the option of re-locating the truck ramp one block to the north, to move traffic and exhaust away from the center of the Asphalt Green ball field and playground complex.
- Increasing Funds for Neighborhood Parks and Playgrounds - In October 2014, the Mayor and Parks Commissioner Silver announced a new funding program to help improve neglected city parks in all five boroughs. The first installment of this equitable parks funding initiative is sending $130 million in capital dollars to 35 community parks (plus $36 million for green infrastructure projects at these sites) in fiscal year '15. This initiative is showing how multiple sustainability goals can be merged -- the effort is incorporating "green infrastructure" features into park designs, using green spaces to help absorb stormwater runoff before it overwhelms city sewers and triggers flooding and sewage overflows.
- Implementing "Vision Zero" Program to Enhance Pedestrian Safety - In one of the Administration's most successful sustainability efforts to date, the Mayor and Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, in partnership with the City Council, advanced a Swedish-modeled Vision Zero program - a variety of traffic-calming measures designed to cut traffic-related deaths in New York City. Largely as a result, New York City pedestrian fatalities fell to a record low in 2014.
Support for Wholesale Farmer's Market in the Bronx - A permanent wholesale farmers market in Hunts Point may be the single most important step New York can take to fix our broken regional food system. It would allow more regional farmers to sell healthy food into New York City and increase access in all our communities. Mayor de Blasio recently signaled his support for the market and indicated that the city would supply the land necessary to build this important food hub. And with Governor Cuomo also supporting the market as well this long overdue and critical piece of infrastructure may finally become a reality.
The environmental highlight ofâ Mayor Bill de Blasio's first 15 months in office was his pledge to cut global warming emissions 80 per cent by 2050. Now comes the hard part -- advancing specific strategies to achieve measurable progress. Solar projects, like the one pictured above, are part of the solution.
-The Challenges Ahead
There are many big issues on the city's environmental agenda. Here are just a few of the top challenges that the de Blasio Administration will need to address in its forthcoming PlaNYC report:
1) Moving Away from Fossil Fuels --
The Mayor demonstrated his commitment to pushing New York City to the vanguard on this issue when he made the 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 announcement last year. Now, he needs to ensure the effective implementation of measures to accomplish that objective. Initiatives that attack market barriers to increased efficiency, accelerate electric vehicle deployment and promote clean energy ideas like shared solar power are among the specifics that should be spelled out in the forthcoming PlaNYC to ensure that the city is on a path to achieve the hoped-for reductions. And programs to scale up energy efficiency in multi-family affordable housing should also be included, since they will help reduce energy costs for New Yorkers who need help the most.
2) Securing a Long Term Funding Source for Public Transportation --
New York can't be a leader in sustainability if its public transit system and its roads and bridges are chronically underfunded. The non-profit group Move NY has crafted a common-sense transportation financing plan that would help solve this problem -- equalizing tolls on the region's bridges and using time-of-day pricing to discourage peak hour traffic congestion. The plan--conceived of by legendary former Traffic Commissioner Sam Schwartz-- would generate 1.5 billion dollars in annual revenue and dedicate this bucket of funds entirely to investments in subways, buses, commuter rail, roads and bridges. Of course, Mayor de Blasio would need help from Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature to advance this innovative strategy. But it's hard to identify a single measure that could do more to make New York's entire transportation system more equitable.
3) Protecting Our Water and Water Rate-Payers --
Water rates are regressive and keeping New York City's annual rate increases in the range of 2 to 3 per cent while continuing to invest in the city's aging water infrastructure and safeguarding our irreplaceable upstate reservoirs and their watersheds won't be easy. One sensible reform to the water rate structure would be to adopt tiered water rates; under this approach there would be a higher per gallon water charge to the largest users, incentivizing conservation, while allowing most residential users to pay lower rates. A second reform would pull the costs for managing stormwater runoff out of the water rate fee, allocating those costs instead based on the amount of impervious surface on a parcel. Again, this would help lower costs for residential customers, while owners of large impervious sites would be given the opportunity for a discounted fee if they use sidewalk gardens and other green infrastructure to capture stormwater from their property before it drains into city sewers. The new sustainability plan should begin the process of reforming the water rate structure and protecting the city's most vulnerable water-ratepayers.
4) Accelerating to a More Sustainable System for Trash-Handling --
Despite recent progress, the City's waste disposal system remains primarily dependent on out-of-state landfills and incinerators. These disposal routes are costly for taxpayers, waste valuable resources in our city's trash, and add to global warming emissions. Sanitation Department polies began to change at the end of the Bloomberg era and Mayor de Blasio's Sanitation Commissioner is advancing the transformation. The revised sustainability plan should encourage this 21st century approach and map out details for implementing such reforms as expanded composting for food scraps and yard waste, a fee to discourage single-use plastic bags, more efficient collections of residential recyclables and more rational policies for picking up and disposing of commercial waste.
5) Building a Healthier NYC Food Network --
The de Blasio Administration has rightly suggested that its approach to sustainability would be holistic. Logically, a holistic sustainability program would include a new emphasis of securing healthy foods for all New Yorkers. In addition to continued commitment to a wholesale farmers market, other planks in a sustainable food policy would employ the purchasing power of city agencies to procure sustainable local foods and the expansion of programs (like Health Bucks) that help lower-income shoppers to purchase fresh, healthy local foods.
6) Investing in Resiliency before the Next Super-Storm Hits --
The burning of fossil fuels is warming our planet. One of many consequences will be more frequent and intense storms that pound our shorelines. City officials have been preparing, but the pace of resiliency actions needs to accelerate and more funding will need to be found. Among specific strategies that should be highlighted in the forthcoming PlaNYC report are the creation of a permanent, ongoing program for voluntary purchases of flood zone properties (with the lands converted to recreation and open space) and even more ambitious green measures that can capture stormwater and keep neighborhoods cool during summertime heat waves.
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The environmental records of many elected officials -- former Mayor Mike Bloomberg and former President Bill Clinton are just two examples -- have grown stronger with the amount of time they served in office. At this still early stage of Mayor de Blasio's first term, New Yorkers have reason to expect that the best of his sustainability accomplishments are yet to come.