On a Sunday afternoon in 2007, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his sweeping agenda for a “greener, greater” New York City by 2030, called PlaNYC. Staged at the Museum of Natural History on Earth Day, the press conference was celebratory but sober. From the podium Bloomberg argued that the city needed to move swiftly to address climate change. If the federal government wouldn’t take the lead, then Bloomberg would forge his own path. “If we don’t act now, when?” he urged. The document he presented contained 127 initiatives to create more parks, more mass transit, more energy efficiency, and lower greenhouse-gas emissions. It also set goals for improving water and energy infrastructure to foster growth.
At his press conference, Bloomberg acknowledged, as few American leaders have, that development is fundamentally linked with environmental health. “You can’t formulate a land-use plan without thinking about transportation and you can’t think about transportation without thinking about air quality. You can’t think about air quality without thinking about energy and you certainly can’t think about energy—or any of this—without thinking about global warming,” he said. Bloomberg’s plan gained nationwide attention for the power of its vision: an ecologically sentient city.
And crucially, according to Thomas Angotti, professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College, with PlaNYC, Bloomberg achieved a monumental success—generating public awareness about climate change and the ability to address it on the local level. “It just wasn’t a topic before,” says Angotti. “PlaNYC broke the taboo against talking about long-term environmental issues in the city.”
Bloomberg’s initiatives have led to government buildings cutting energy use with more insulation and updated lighting systems. The municipal auto fleet burns less fuel. Many building owners have replaced dirty number 6 heating oil with cleaner natural gas. Toxic former industrial sites have been decontaminated. The city has planted hundreds of thousands of trees, painted bike lanes on more than 300 miles of streets, and installed public plazas at intersections formerly jammed with cars. And at of the end of 2013, the city had cut its greenhouse-gas emissions by 19 percent, two-thirds of the way to PlaNYC’s goal of a 30 percent reduction by 2030.
Yet while the residents of Bloomberg’s “first environmentally sustainable 21st-century city,” as he called New York on that Earth Day in 2007, may see less pollution and waste, that doesn’t mean PlaNYC has been good for the environment. A closer look shows a plan that structurally saddles other people in other places with the detritus of the city’s unequal and high-consuming class structure, aggravating the environmental instability we all fear.
The mayor’s office drafted PlaNYC in response to the City Planning Department’s projections of almost 1 million new residents by 2030. By then Bloomberg was already in the midst of a major rezoning of former industrial areas prime for redevelopment. Among them are Long Island City in Queens, the Atlantic Yards and the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront in Brooklyn, and the Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s west side. The mayor saw these locations, long the home of light manufacturing and other industrial uses, not as part of the city’s diversified economy but as properties whose value wasn’t being maximized.
Under Bloomberg, the zoning department rescinded these areas’ industrial status, replacing it with what’s called mixed-use. This designation allows residential and commercial tenants to move in. In these types of “underdeveloped” neighborhoods with assets like nearby mass transit and riverfront views, this creates an incentive for real-estate speculation and a surge in land values. This in turn drives out manufacturing and affordable housing. Industrial firms and existing residents can theoretically stay but they must pay exponentially higher rents—a process many urban dwellers have become overly familiar with in the last 25 years, gentrification. Profit margins can be astronomical if developers clearing old factories and warehouses build high-end residential and commercial space, which is exactly what developers in these neighborhoods have done.
Mostly, PlaNYC and the rezoning of the city run parallel just as the freshly painted bike lanes follow alongside the curbs outside new luxury waterfront towers. But there are times when these agendas overlap because at the core of PlaNYC is Bloomberg’s desire to prepare the city for a million newcomers, which means to build.
PlaNYC’s brownfield initiative has been a gift to developers. An important provision in PlaNYC was to detox all industrially polluted land, known as brownfields, for the explicit purpose of real-estate development. The program gives financial incentives to property owners who cleanse plots and, crucially, it indemnifies them from future liability due to persistent contamination. One such site in Williamsburg is at 250 North 10th Street. Like the majority of the new residential construction in the neighborhood, it is a large high-end condo building. Among its 200-plus units are studio apartments that rent for $2,900 per month and two bedrooms that go for over $6,600 monthly. While not all new buildings are this upscale, many of them are.
As the factories disappear so too do some of the last remaining middle-class jobs, contributing to the city’s increasing income polarization. According to a report by New York University’s Furman Center, which researches urban affairs, between 1990 and 2012, as the number of middle-income earners in New York shrank, workers at the high and low ends have expanded. This, of course, is a national trend but it is more pronounced in New York City where total income has become even more concentrated among the biggest earners. In 2012, the top 5 percent of city residents received 28 percent of its income—nationally it’s 22 percent—while the city’s big middle received just 13 percent. Amid all this, median wages have fallen for all but the most highly skilled jobs in the city.
Development that is ecologically sound lets people live near work, meaning everyone from the janitor to the CEO. From 2007 to 2013 the Bloomberg Administration completed 55 neighborhood rezonings, none of which took this point seriously. The architect, author, and urban-planning scholar Michael Sorkin has written that Bloomberg’s approach is a “particularly narrow, highly quantitative version of planning—one that wields the power to zone as its principal instrument and considers an increase in both the amount and ease of development as its main motives.”
Angotti from Hunter College has a similar take on the rezoning. While he’s pleased about some aspects of PlaNYC, he views it as a greenwashing of Bloomberg’s development strategies. “It framed them in a new way, in a different way, dressing them up in green,” he says.
In late 2013, just before leaving office, the Bloomberg Administration issued a greenhouse-gas inventory touting the fall in emissions under PlaNYC. It reports that the city had achieved two-thirds of its greenhouse-gas emissions cut and had done so years ahead of schedule. While the report credits PlaNYC’s measures like energy-use monitoring and efficiency retrofits, it states that almost 60 percent of the reductions came from city power plants shifting from coal to natural gas.
And while the report touts the lower carbon-dioxide emissions from natural gas, it omits the fact that much of New York City’s supply is derived from fracking. The highly polluting extraction method involves blasting water mixed with chemicals and salt-laden sand into the earth to pry out gas locked in shale formations. While gas produces less carbon, millions of gallons a day of fresh water are corrupted, while all those chemicals—many of which are currently unregulated—despoil the environment and water supplies in ways that Bloomberg himself is acutely aware of. The former mayor has long opposed fracking in upstate New York, citing reports that the toxic process could contaminate the city’s drinking water. Apparently, Bloomberg was OK with New Yorkers consuming fracked gas as long as it’s from out of state.
A major infrastructure project conducted on Bloomberg’s watch was also omitted from PlaNYC’s 2013 inventory: a pipeline that delivers fracked gas directly from Pennsylvania’s contentious Marcellus shale straight into the Meatpacking District. According to one report, the supply fuels 2 million homes in Manhattan.
While clearing the air in NYC, Bloomberg’s pipeline displaces emissions and water pollution to ecosystems and residents in Pennsylvania and other fracking hubs. Building further infrastructure for gas directs money, engineering, planning, and innovation away from far cleaner technologies like solar (being used successfully by Germany) and wind (Denmark) and locks the city into a fossil-fuel future.
The dislocation of the ill effects of gas drilling mirrors the larger dislocation Bloomberg’s rezoning has visited on the city. With greater wealth comes greater waste—the world’s richest consume and discard the majority of its resources. A city populated by the well-heeled who sully the air far less than people living in car-dependent cities like Houston and Los Angeles doesn’t mean the environment benefits: Rich people do. Minimal local manufacturing and less coal burning at city plants don’t mean the climate impacts from production and consumption disappear.
In 2005, not long before she died, Jane Jacobs wrote an open letter to Bloomberg about the “destructive consequences, packaged very sneakily with visually tiresome, unimaginative and imitative luxury project towers” along the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront. She said, “How weird, and how sad, that New York, which has demonstrated successes enlightening to so much of the world, seems unable to learn lessons it needs for itself.” She was right.
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