Institutionalizing Sustainability in New York City Government

by |May 28, 2019

One of my long-term research interests is to better understand the most effective way of building a concern for environmental sustainability into routine organizational life. In single organizations, one of the key questions is: Do we create a separate organizational unit for environmental sustainability or do we integrate it into other parts of the organization? There is also an issue of who sustainability reports to―the head of facilities? The chief operating officer? The chief financial officer? Recently, a similar question has been raised for New York City government by Costa Constantinides, a city council representative from Queens who chairs the Council’s Environment Committee. Constantinides may be better known for his work on the city’s Green New Deal and its pathbreaking Climate Mobilization Act. Writing about that law this past April, I noted:

“The goal of the bill is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050. While in most parts of the United States transportation is the source of most greenhouse gases, in New York City buildings are our main source of emissions. Last week, by a vote of 45-2 the New York City Council enacted the Climate Mobilization Act, a new law that targets greenhouse gas emissions from large buildings.”

A concern of Council member Constantinides is that since the city’s term-limited mayor will be replaced in January of 2021 by someone else, how do we assure that sustainability policy will continue to be implemented? Both Mayor Bloomberg and de Blasio shared a deep concern for climate change and environmental sustainability and both set up units within the Office of the Mayor to implement sustainability policy planning and implementation. Even though some of these units are now required under the city’s charter, Constantinides believes that a separate agency would provide a deeper level of institutional permanence and clout. According to the city council press release announcing the bill:

“Constantinides’ bill merges the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability with the Office of Resiliency and Recovery, creating a single commissioner-led entity. Both offices have addressed many threats to New York City’s built environmental infrastructure, such as the estimated over one-foot sea level rise by 2050. The demands of fighting the effects of climate change have only increased, however, as 2018 was the fourth-hottest year on record amid startling international and federal environmental reports.

With an absence of federal leadership on climate change, it’s on New York City to craft sensible environmental policies. The Department of Sustainability would execute those policies as the coordinator between various city agencies responsible for resiliency, recovery, and other measures. DOS would also set interim and long-term goals by 2050 on sustainability measures such as greenhouse gas emissions, sea level rise, tree populations, and renewable energy generation. The commissioner must also provide annual updates no later than April 22 on how those indicators are being addressed.”

The annual report on Earth Day is a cute touch, but the organizational proposal is a more serious matter. In New York City government’s mayoral-dominated power structure, new initiatives tend to be housed in the mayor’s office to ensure visibility and protection. While the city council today has more influence than it once did, the mayor still holds most of the cards when it comes to city financial resources and policy in New York. However, at a certain point a function becomes routine and it requires the permanence of a city agency and some insulation from the whims of any particular mayor. While it is unlikely the next mayor would be a climate denier, no one thought a reality show star could ever be president. A little distance from the center of power might make sense in this stage of the development of city sustainability policy.

In an interview with City and State reporter Jeff Coltin, Councilman Constantinides explained his emotional connection to environmental sustainability:

“My son’s asthmatic. Every morning when I wake up I have to give him a vitamin, a pill, an allergy medication, something to settle his stomach because he just took that stuff – then he gets to eat breakfast. He’s 8 years old, so it’s the usual fight in the morning getting ready for school, and then afterwards, before we leave for school, I have to put a nebulizer on his face and give him budesonide. And that’s just when he’s well. When he’s sick, you add on like three or four medications. I know my son is not unique in that way. There are children all over the city of New York who have that routine every single day, if not worse. We need to do better as a city. I represent a district that has 55 percent of the city’s power. We have all these power plants surrounding us, and the further west in the district, the closer to the power plants you go, the asthma rates spike. All this is personal to me, personal to my district. I know that we have to move to more renewable energy sources. We have to do better, not only for my son, but for all of our sons and daughters. That’s why I’m so passionate about this.”

City Hall, New York City (c) Aurelien Guichard via flickr.

Council member Constantinides is emerging as a dynamic force in the city’s effort to make the transition toward a sustainable city. I’m impressed that he is not only concentrating on the visible headline inducing policy proposals but has also focused his attention on the implementation and long-term management of these policies. Sustainability is a long-term issue that will require decades of persistence and creativity before it is achieved.  A city agency with close connections to the environmental community, academia and business could be very effective in facilitating this transition. It could build the expertise, trust and relationships that will help avoid empty symbolism and create measurable success.

Another advantage of moving a function from the mayor’s office is that it might have the effect of depoliticizing it and bringing it into the universe of standard city services such as sanitation, water supply and public safety. Just as government ensures the delivery of those services, so too would it be responsible for climate and sustainability services. The new agency could ensure that both the public and private sectors are doing everything they can to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and also that the city was increasing its resiliency and ability to adapt to the climate change already “baked into” our atmosphere. In addition, this department could ensure that the goals of the sustainability plan are being met: access to public space, effective mass transit, renewable energy, clean air and clean water. In the 21st century, these services are essential to our well-being, just as we still require public safety, education, social services and a range of other services now provided by government.

Today, Columbia’s Master of Public Administration program in Environmental Science and Policy will orient its class that will graduate in May of 2020. In the summer and fall I join four of my colleagues to teach a course that is a management simulation where we take a proposed environmental statute and plan its implementation. In the summer we work to understand the bill and communicate the environmental science needed to understand the environmental problem and solutions embedded in the bill. In the fall we imagine the statute has been enacted and we develop a plan to implement the bill; this includes a budget, organizational design, first year program implementation workplan and a performance management system. I’ve decided that the students enrolled in my group this summer and fall will work on the sustainability organizational bill proposed by Council member Constantinides. We will work to understand the proposal, examine its cost and feasibility, and also develop a plan for starting the new organization. I’m not sure if the proposed agency is politically realistic, but we hope to develop a plan to enhance its managerial feasibility.

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