Following Mike’s Lead

Published in City & State

Even the most ardent critics of former mayor Michael Bloomberg would concede that PlaNYC was a landmark moment for municipal environmentalism.

Unveiled in 2007, the initiative pushed for the planting of one million trees, increased bike lanes and pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, among other changes.

But despite his best efforts, Bloomberg did not entirely fulfill his dream of a gleaming green metropolis. His Manhattan congestion pricing plan met a painful death in Albany, where his brook-no-arguments style did not endear him to state legislators. Naysayers labeled it a regressive tax on the working class, though it would have been a valuable new source of revenue for the MTA, and also would have reduced carbon emissions. This stumble notwithstanding, PlaNYC receives praise from unlikely quarters.

“I tell people, ‘If you can’t stand Bloomberg, even a broken clock is right twice a day. If you don’t like anything else he did … you have to give the devil his due,’ ” said Eddie Bautista, Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and a former Bloomberg official.

Even current Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has certainly never been hesitant to criticize his predecessor, praised Bloomberg’s environmental efforts during his campaign.

“I think Bloomberg’s broad vision of the environment in New York City is something I agree with,” de Blasio said in an interview with The Nation.

Now mayor, De Blasio seems willing to keep the baby and throw out the bathwater when it comes to Bloomberg’s legacy on the environment. He established some ambitious objectives during his campaign with his program “A Framework for a Sustainable City,” including ending the use of Styrofoam by the city’s government and achieving zero waste.

De Blasio is also recycling some of Bloomberg’s staff. Emily Lloyd has returned as commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, the same role she served in under Bloomberg from 2005 to 2008. DEP COO Kathryn Garcia was appointed commissioner of the Department of Sanitation, and Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency architect Dan Zarrilli is now the director of the Office of Recovery and Resiliency.

One thing most activists agree on is that environmental justice is about to have its moment in the sun under de Blasio. His rhetoric on inequality and wealth discrepancy folds well into environmental causes such as broader access to green spaces and a waste management plan that alleviates the burden on low-income neighborhoods.

“There are encouraging signs that a focus on environmental and quality of life issues will continue even if the priorities won’t be identical to Mayor Bloomberg’s,” said Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney at the National Resources Defense Council. “It’s likely that environmental protection and sustainability issues will be reframed with a focus on advancing environmental programs that also address the administration’s equity concerns, and that’s fine. The important point is that the focus on sustainability that was begun by Mayor Bloomberg does not look like it will disappear.”

The environment might be a vague catch-all term, but one area of specific concern to coastal cities like New York is the flooding and unpredictable weather events that have been occurring with increasing frequency in recent years. In New York there is the added complication of the location of heavy industry along the waterfront, making those facilities particularly susceptible to flooding. A major criticism of the Bloomberg administration was its rezoning of waterfront areas for dense development—an approach which remains contentious.

“Williamsburg and Greenpoint are two prime examples: There’s a lot of construction on the waterfront— that’s not a bad thing,” said Roland Lewis, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance.

Lewis added, “There are some neighborhoods in Staten Island and elsewhere where it’s going to be very hard to maintain these neighborhoods in terms of sea level rise over the long term. Places like the Rockaways and Oakwood Beach. Building near the water, not on the water, is still something that’s viable to do, and we’re not against that.”

De Blasio has the opportunity to concentrate on attainable and measurable goals like increasing low recycling rates and improving sanitation. He also faces the near existential crisis, however, of rebuilding in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

Earlier this month, de Blasio announced changes to the Build It Back program, setting a clear target of starting construction on at least 500 homes and issuing 500 reimbursement checks by the end of this summer. He also called for better engagement with the community and a desire to cut through red tape between the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the city.

Also impacting New York City is Gov. Cuomo’s proposal to buy out homeowners living in areas of New York City particularly susceptible to future storms. That plan requires federal approval. Most activists support the idea, but they think all levles of goverment should take a smarter approach.

“It’s really a complicated mix of the desire to build a community back and the New York sprit of resiliency, but then there’s also climate change,” Bautista said. “And then you’ve got people—just because they’re homeowners doesn’t mean they’re rich: lower middle income families that own [houses] along the shoreline in Staten Island that can’t recoup the equity in their homes.”

“We really believe that all communities should be equipped and better able to handle extreme weather events,” says Emily Maxwell, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Urban Conservation Program. “And we would like to see the city pursue adaptation strategies that utilized nature and natural defenses or infrastructure, like natural shorelines and wetland barriers.”

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Filed under Climate Change, Environment, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Green Space, Mayor Bill de Blasio

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