It's unimaginable that a mayoral candidate wouldn't take issues like climate resilience seriously
When New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg steps down at the end of this year, he'll leave behind a city far greener than the one he inherited in 2002.
Fleets of bright blue rental bikes now zip along hundreds of miles of new bike lanes, while hybrid taxicabs cruise the streets. New parks and pedestrianised plazas have sprung up across the city, and more than 800,000 trees have been planted. Tough green-building codes have been implemented, and an ambitious new waste-management plan has been adopted. And in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Bloomberg has become one of America's most vocal advocates for climate action - while also rolling out a $20 billion flood-defence plan to shield New York from the rising oceans.
It's not all good news: Bloomberg's plan for a congestion charge in lower Manhattan fell flat, and New York is still recovering from Bloomberg's decision, early in his tenure, to suspend key recycling programs. On balance, though, Bloomberg's tenure at City Hall has been a triumph. "When it comes to the environment, no mayor of New York City in recent history has done more," declared Dan Hendrick, vice president of the New York League of Conservation Voters (NYLCV), earlier this summer, announcing the Mayor's receipt of the group's Lifetime Achievement Award. "There is no question that sustainability will be a cornerstone of the mayor's legacy."
Bloomberg's elevation to eco-sainthood happened almost by accident: when he was first elected, few expected the pro-business, billionaire Republican to become an environmental crusader. It was mid-way through Bloomberg's first term that things began to change, says Rohit Aggarwala, former head of Bloomberg's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. Data is everything to Bloomberg, Aggarwala explains, and when officials presented hard numbers showing the need for a coherent, long-term plan for handling energy, air, water and development issues, Bloomberg listened.
The result was PlaNYC, a roadmap - largely drafted by Aggarwala - that drew dozens of city agencies together to chart a greener future for the Big Apple. "I wasn't hired to be the environment guy," Aggarwala says. "I became the environment guy because that was the answer" to the problems New York faced.
Bloomberg's pragmatic, data-driven approach helped him convince business leaders that PlaNYC was critical to New York's economic future. With their support, and that of environmentalists and community leaders, the strategy became a runaway success: all but a handful of its 127 initiatives launched within a year, and most of its goals have been met on schedule - including some, such as the bike-share program, that had been written off as pipe dreams. "They were crazy ideas when we started," Aggarwala says. "We've pushed through far more than we'd ever dared to hope for."
The big question now, says Steven Cohen, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, is whether Bloomberg's successor will show the same kind of vision. "Bloomberg is the kind of mayor who cares about legacy issues, and what the city's going to be like in 20 years," Cohen says. "But most politicians tend to worry about the next election, not the next generation."
A case in point: last week's Republican and Democratic primary elections passed by with plenty of heated debate about policing, jobs and education, but barely a word said about New York's post-Bloomberg sustainability strategy. The winners of the vote - Democrat Bill De Blasio, the city's ombudsman, and Republican Joe Lhota, a former deputy mayor and MTA chief - pledged to continue Bloomberg's work, but haven't seemed eager to get into detailed discussions about green issues. (Neither campaign returned messages seeking interviews for this piece.)
That's left greens poring over the candidates' records in search of clues as to how they'd run the city. De Blasio, though running as a liberal, has a slightly mixed history: as a councilman he angered greens by opposing Bloomberg's planned congestion charge, and also raised eyebrows by campaigning for the construction of affordable housing next to the filthy Gowanus Canal, since designated a Superfund cleanup site. But De Blasio has also fought to reduce New York's Styrofoam use, spearheaded a citywide e-waste processing effort, and called for a Zero Waste program to recycle and compost the vast majority of the city's trash.
"I'm cautiously optimistic that a De Blasio administration, given its progressive campaigning, will build on the Bloomberg legacy," says Eddie Bautista, an environmental justice advocate who until 2010 served as chief of Bloomberg's Office of City Legislative Affairs.
It's harder to be upbeat about Lhota, Bautista says. The Republican disappointed greens by refusing to back a congestion charge, and also by opposing the construction of an Upper East Side waste-transportation seaport that would eliminate the need to truck rich people's trash through poorer neighbourhoods. "He's pandering for votes, and that doesn't bode well for his environmental policies were he to be elected," says Bautista.
Still, Lhota's experience running the MTA suggests he's got the managerial and policy chops to succeed, says Hendrick of the NYLCV. "He's clearly thought about these things," he adds. "Nobody understands how important mass transit is to sustainability better than Joe Lhota."
In any case, Hendrick says, it's inconceivable that either De Blasio or Lhota would simply walk away from, or try to roll back, Bloomberg's good work. Part of the reason that sustainability hasn't cropped up more on the campaign trail is that voters now take candidates' support for sustainability as a given - in the post-Bloomberg, post-Sandy era, it's literally unimaginable that a mayoral candidate wouldn't take issues like clean energy, air quality and climate resilience seriously. "Hats off to Mayor Bloomberg for this one, because he's really integrated sustainability into the fabric of New York City government," says Hendrick. That institutional momentum, as much as the blue rental bikes and hybrid taxi-cabs, might prove to be Bloomberg's biggest gift to New York.
Ben Whitford is the Ecologist's US correspondent. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @ben_whitford