Sustainability Planning Lessons from New York and Mayor Bloomberg

by | Apr 19, 2010

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Politicians since Warren Harding have been vowing to “run government like a business,” usually with less success than advertised. Maybe the tired mantra should be retired—or updated to reflect the approach of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recognized that even though government is fundamentally different than the private sector, it can be run with a corporate managerial mindset. The best example of this may be the most ironic, to some: the New York Mayor’s groundbreaking approach to sustainability planning.

Three years ago on Earth Day, the Mayor launched PlaNYC, a comprehensive, long-term sustainability plan that has become recognized by other cities not only for its exceptional achievements, but for the innovative process with which it was developed. Mayor Bloomberg championed PlaNYC and shepherded its creation using pragmatic principles borrowed from the business world: an emphasis on innovation, a disciplined focus on goals and cost-benefit analysis, and a commitment to accountability made possible by tireless efforts to measure and analyze data. A new case study, PlaNYC: The Process Behind the Plan, shares the full story for local leaders eager to replicate New York’s success.

What has PlaNYC accomplished, exactly? First, a bit more detail about the plan itself. PlaNYC provides a vision for the future growth of New York City over the next 25 years: how to accommodate one million more people in an already dense city, while at the same time reducing the City’s greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent and improving its aging infrastructure. PlaNYC outlines 10 major goals, such as “Create homes for almost a million more New Yorkers, and make housing more affordable,” “Increase investment in critical backup systems for our water network,” and “Achieve the cleanest air of any big city.” To meet these 10 goals, the City outlined 127 separate initiatives. A plan with specific objectives like these—and even a mini implementation plan for each initiative—exists in stark contrast to other long-term city plans filled with more vague, aspirational language. Is it any wonder they end up collecting dust on a shelf?

In 2009, the City reported that two-thirds of PlaNYC’s initiatives were either on or ahead of schedule. As of April 2010, the City has scored a wide range of successes toward its goals, including the following:

  • 100,000 affordable housing units created or preserved
  • 319,054 trees planted and 113 schoolyards-to-playground sites opened
  • 200 miles of bicycle lanes installed and a bike-access law enacted
  • 86 energy-efficiency projects completed as part of plan to reduce City government energy use 30% by 2017
  • 25 percent of the yellow taxi fleet converted to hybrid vehicles
  • 9 percent decrease in citywide carbon emissions due to cleaner power generation and less sulfur hexafluoride release

Statistics like these hit newspapers each Earth Day because the City has committed to producing annual PlaNYC progress reports with sustainability indicators, as well as annual greenhouse gas emissions inventories. Detailed accountability to the public—as with corporations to shareholders—has been institutionalized.

At every step in the creation of PlaNYC, rigorous data collection and analysis was a key ingredient. From current and projected capacity of transit lines to asthma hospitalization rates by borough, thorough research and analysis pinpointed the City’s challenges and shaped the plan’s goals. Mayor Bloomberg set high standards for the initiatives and made it clear he wouldn’t allow pet projects or those that either failed to demonstrate adequate return on investment or strong focus on the overall goal. But the plan wasn’t only developed through analyzing the numbers—it was created with input from a diversity of stakeholders through the largest public outreach process undertaken in recent city history.

This process required a new level of coordination between City departments that didn’t previously exist. All too often in municipalities, as in any organization, projects and programs are siloed within departments that don’t communicate. To resolve this, the Mayor created the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, a central office to drive the creation of PlaNYC and manage collaboration between departments. Cooperation wasn’t optional, since Mayor Bloomberg made clear his personal commitment to the plan.

But Mayor Bloomberg took care not to over-manage the process from the top down. Instead, he hired the most talented staff he could find and encouraged a culture of innovation, empowering city staff to experiment with new ideas—and giving them permission to be bold and take risks. This is a major distinction to the business-as-usual approach so common in jurisdictions around the country.

The good news is that a culture of innovation isn’t unique to New York, and is taking root in cities from Cleveland and Chicago to Las Vegas and my own Albuquerque. We’re all sharing and implementing the best ideas wherever we can find them. The imperative is to deal with issues like climate change and energy independence now, and make our communities even better places to live for our children and grandchildren.

Martin J. Chavez is a three-term former mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and current Executive Director of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA, a membership organization of 630 U.S. local governments committed to climate protection and sustainable development.

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