A Sustainable City for All

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“Superstorm Sandy” made it crystal clear that New York City’s status quo of vacillating between incremental environmental improvements and ignoring climate change has problematic consequences for all — especially for the least mobile and the least wealthy. It is going to be hotter. There will be more storms that will test our infrastructure more frequently and more severely than before. New and unexpected challenges, like invasive species and pandemic diseases, will continue to present themselves.

Despite this immense challenge, Mayor Michael Bloomberg leaves an undeniably substantial environmental legacy that is a foundation for climate adaptation and prevention. The next administration will need to have a thoughtful environmental policy that builds on past successes. Yet it is a challenge to formulate a distinct agenda that fits within a progressive governing narrative, provides a big enough break with past policies to satisfy a new mayor’s political needs, and is continuous enough with past efforts not to erode current progress. In a city that is host to a deep set of inequalities and already has the largest public transport network in the nation, the next environmental agenda must move beyond traditional policy debates.

Sustainability has become a popular frame for organizing an otherwise disparate number of progressive environmental, economic and social policies. It has several dimensions: preventing and adapting to climate change, reducing society’s ecological impact, reducing the inequality of how negative impacts are distributed, accounting fully for the economic impacts of our actions, and increasing the quality of life for all segments of society. There is no inherent reason that pursuit of the pure environmental dimensions of sustainability should be divorced from (let alone at the expense of) other dimensions. By linking environmental goals to a broader vision of sustainability, the next administration’s policies can move beyond just a cleaner, healthier city. An ideal sustainability agenda is rooted in the best of what New York offers — a robust public realm and mass transit system, dense living patterns, and the capacity for civic innovation — and uses it to address the most persistent challenges flowing from the city’s inequality.