The TH Interview: Ariella Maron—The Greening of New York City



Love it or hate it, New York's 8.25 million people are some of the greenest citizens walking among us. Whether they know it or not, New Yorkers have significantly lighter footprints than the vast majority of Americans, and Mayor Bloomberg is trying to seal the deal by greening NYC's buildings, yellow taxis, black limos, public transit, and introducing a climate protection act and congestion charging (although it failed, despite notable support). This is all in preparation for an influx of new New Yorkers in the next twenty years.

Ariella Maron is Bloomberg's Deputy Director of Long Term Planning and Sustainability, which means it's her job to see that the city gets greened and that the journey is properly mapped. She spoke to us about the nitty gritty of PlaNYC 2030, and about New York's potential on the world stage. ::TreeHugger Radio

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download.

Special thanks goes to CraigMichaels, the organizer of the Sustainable Operations Summit, for arranging this interview.

(Full text after the jump)TreeHugger: Your department has just recently been made part of city law. You are entrenched, and sustainability reporting is now an integral and permanent part of New York's city government. Is that right?

Ariella Maron: That is right. On May 6th, Mayor Bloomberg signed into law what at the time was Intro 395, which makes sure that all the work we've done continues on. All future mayors are going to have to do an updated sustainability plan that looks at least 20 years out based on good data. Every year we're going to have to report on our progress in implementing our sustainability plans, as well as report on our performance. We'll ask: how sustainable is our city, what sustainability indicators are going to best show that progress? And we're going to report on those annually.

TH: Mayor Bloomberg has called his recent initiatives some of the most ambitious agendas of any city in the county. A major component of this is the PlaNYC 2030 initiative. Give us a bird's eye view of PlaNYC.

AM: PlaNYC is a long-term sustainability plan. It includes 127 initiatives on how we're going to achieve ten main goals, which include affordable housing, access to open space, cleaning up our brown fields, insuring proper transit infrastructure and shorter commutes, making sure we have clean, reliable energy, achieving the cleanest air quality of any big city, insuring our waterways are cleaner and our water network is secure so we have drinking water. Finally, the biggest one that we mention is reducing our greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2030.

All 127 initiatives are really interrelated. Most of them achieve more than just one of our sustainability goals, but virtually of all them contribute to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions—the 30% by 2030.

TH: Why 2030?

AM: It's interesting. This whole exercise actually started based on our Department of City Planning's population projections. We realized a little bit after the 2000 Census that New York for the first time ever hit a new population peak of 8.25 million people. The city has never had this many people. It had about eight million in the 1950s and 60s. But in the 70s and early 80s we lost about a million people.

As we've started to focus on improving the quality of life in New York—bringing down crime, improving the schools, etc.—the population has come back. The city has really grown and the quality of life game is built on that. More and more people came. When the projections came out that we were at the biggest we've been, we looked in the future and projected that by 2030 our population would hit 9.1 million.

This is after a first term that had many re-zonings which would make room for many of these people. Bloomberg, and at the time Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, said, 'how can we make sure all the infrastructure is in place to support this growth and keep those quality of life gains?'

This exercise started as a strategic land use plan, but it became very obvious that it had to be looked at more comprehensively. Many of the goals to achieve one thing, such as making sure we have enough energy, can't be achieved just by building new power plants. While you need to do that, you also need to focus on energy efficiency.

You can't just build an infrastructure for storm-water and water quality, you have to focus on water conservation and storm-water management. As we realized that we're looking long term, it inherently became a sustainability plan as all these built together.

TH: Cutting greenhouse gases 30% by 2030, how is that going to happen?

AM: We were held to a really rigorous standard where we couldn't set any goals that we couldn't achieve. Our plan to achieve that reduction is based on today's technologies and today's costs. We have a general wedge we put together on how we do it, but basically it's insuring that the growth that we do receive is guided towards transit, so we continue to be a very transit-oriented city.

Currently, 75% of New Yorkers live within walking distance of transit, 95% of all new New Yorkers will live within transit. That's number one. Number two is improving the efficiency of our energy supply. Number three, which is the largest component of our greenhouse gas emission reductions, is improving the efficiency of our buildings. About 79% of our greenhouse gas emissions actually come from energy use in our buildings.

Finally, we're going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through transportation--related initiatives: getting more people out of their cars and onto transit, or other sustainable modes like bikes and walking, and reducing congestion and idling.

TH: Are more people or fewer people riding public transit these days?

AM: There's more. Some of our transit lines are getting close to being at capacity. The strains on our transportation infrastructure is probably the most challenging thing that will impact our growth and our ability to continue to grow.

TH: Let's talk about air quality. Asthma is really high in New York—it seems like everybody's got asthma. What are you doing about air quality?

AM: Similar to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, a lot of things that achieve other goals in the plan also improve air quality. Number one, by reducing our electricity consumption and therefore reducing our demand and our need to rely on old, outdated, inefficient power plants, we're reducing pollution. It's those old inefficient plants that release the most emissions. By reducing our electricity demand and our reliance on older power plants, we're reducing emissions that way.

Number two, everything I mentioned about transportation—getting people out of their cars, stopping idling, more people taking transit—that will reduce emissions. There's a lot of overlap there.

But we're doing a few things specifically targeting air quality as well. Switching to cleaner burning fuels in terms of how we heat our buildings and create hot water will make a significant difference (number six oil is burned quite often in older boilers in New York and it's really dirty). Having trucks retrofitted so they're not polluting as much will make a big difference.

Even things related to open space and beautifying the city will help. Our million tree initiative will contribute to cleaning our air and filtering out some of the pollutants so they don't remain in the air where we breath them.

TH: What do you think are the biggest challenges you're facing right now to meet your goals in the 500-and-some-odd days left in Bloomberg's term?

AM: There are always challenges. I think the biggest challenge we've seen so far has been the state government. We've been disappointed on various levels, whether it's the slowness to change rules related to brownfields, whether it was the state assembly's refusal to vote on congestion pricing, whether it's the Public Service Commission taking a really long time to come up with the final recommendations on the energy portfolio standard proceedings (so we finally can have really ambitious and well thought out energy efficiency projects for New York City). I think that's been the greatest challenge for us.

TH: Are New Yorkers greener than other Americans?

AM: We are. We're inherently greener. Even before we came out with the sustainability plan. We're the most transit-oriented city. We have more people out of their cars taking transit or walking than anywhere else in the country. Our per capita greenhouse gas emissions are amongst the lowest in the country, if not the lowest. I think we're one-third of the national average in terms of greenhouse gas emissions per capita. We live in smaller buildings so there's less heating and air conditioning necessary. We share walls with people, which acts as extra insulation. We really are more efficient in so many ways.

TH: What's going on with taxi cabs in New York?

AM: Oh, it's such an exciting story. Because of rules that Mayor Bloomberg recommended and the Taxi & Limousine Commission voted on, our greenhouse gas emissions are going to be reduced by three quarters of a percent by changes to our yellow taxis and black car and limousines alone. They are going to be following regulations which will make them significantly more efficient.

Our yellow taxi cabs, all those cabs purchased after October 2008, are going to have to achieve at least 25 miles per gallon, which is double the efficiency of the existing Crown Victorias. The ones purchased after October 2009 will have to meet 30 miles per gallon. The same thing will hold through with a one year lag for the black cars and limousines. It's a huge story.

These taxi cabs just drive so many miles. The payback for having an efficient car is huge. The payback within one year is $10,000 a year in gas. That's not even including this year's gas rates, which are likely going to go high. It's a really, really exciting story and taxi cab drivers are excited about it. The existing hybrids already on the road in anticipation for these rules being in effect are doing really well on inspections. It's really inspiring. In that alone we've locked in three quarters of a percent of greenhouse gas emission reductions.

TH: Congestion pricing was something Bloomberg put forward very ambitiously, and it didn't make it. Where does it stand right now? What's its future?

AM: The idea wasn't originally his. A lot of people in the business community including the Partnership for New York and others had been pushing for this concept. When the administration went full forward, it really raised the dialog so that what used to be a word you barely said, "congestion pricing!" now is part of our dialog.

Issues around congestion have been brought to light. People are talking about it and realize we're in big trouble. Not only are our streets congested, we're losing billions and billions of dollars a year in our economy because of people being stuck in congestion. This also doesn't including money associated with health impacts from existing congestion and idling.

People also realize that we have no way to pay for our capital improvements to our transit system. All these expansions which we really need, there is not enough money for it. If you look at the MTA Capital Plan, there's a huge budget gap right there. Not only is the congestion a problem, but the fact that there is no money available for our transit needs is huge.

During this whole process to get congestion pricing passed (first by city council, which did pass it, and then at the state level) we've really raised this conversation. And the conversation is not going away. We still hear it. That's the first important point is the dialog.

The second thing is listening to all of our supporters, whether it's members of our Sustainability Advisory Board, or others who don't want to give up the fight. They're like, 'this isn't done, we're just starting.' We don't necessarily know what our next steps are. We're taking it all in and reflecting. There are others who are continuing the fight and help pick it up. We started dialogue that hasn't ended, no matter what the state assembly did or didn't do.

TH: Under the proposed plan, in simple terms, how would motorists pay?

AM: It would use the same technology that they use in London. It's a mixture of Eazy Pass technology and cameras that are able to take pictures of your license, for those who don't have Eazy Passes. People would be able to pay for it in various ways, from your cell phone or your computer. We weren't creating something new. It's something that's working very well in London. It would be following that model.

TH: What do you think is the highest potential that New York can aspire to, not even necessarily in this mayoral term, but further into the future?

AM: New York will be unstoppable. It's slightly a vague question; it depends in what you mean. Are we going to continue to be a financial capital of the world, will we beat London? We can do that as long as we invest in the infrastructure we need now, and we make sure our quality of life and our air quality and water quality is good, and the infrastructure is there, and business is able to succeed, and people are able to live there. Then we can achieve anything.

The most important thing we have to do is what we started in PlaNYC, and that's taking a long term view. Not just be happy that things are great now, but look at what's going to happen in the future. What will happen with our infrastructure and our environmental quality? What's climate change going to do? How do we protect ourselves against the impacts of climate change so we can continue to be competitive, so these changes don't stunt New York City's ability to grow? As long as we continue to take this long term view and look at the numbers and monitor progress, I don't think there's anything we can't do.

TH: How about in terms of the sustainability of the city itself?

AM: We're at the beginning of something really big. Because we're fortunate enough to already have the infrastructure in place to be even more transit oriented and walkable, and because we're already living in smaller buildings and have the potential to be more energy efficient, I think we're just at the beginning.

Our buildings are going to become significantly more energy efficient. Our energy supply is going to be cleaner and more distributed, and it's going to be where we need it. We're going to see more renewables, more clean on-site generation with micro turbines and fuel cells. I really think we're just at the beginning. Our buildings are going to work for us in so many ways, not just being more efficient but making electricity, managing our storm-water, collecting water, maybe even one day managing our waste. I think we're just at the beginning of something that is going to be huge. We've just solidified the foundation on which to grow.

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