thoughts on our urban future

PlaNYC (1) – An Introduction

I first heard about PlaNYC from David Owen’s book “Green Metropolis” which I reviewed here.  I was particularly interested in it for the same reason that Owen highlights it in his book, which is to say, it showed after careful analysis that in 2005, 79% of the energy consumed in New York City was in buildings compared to the national average of 34%.  Although at first glance this seems high and terrible, the reason for this is due to New Yorkers using far less energy for transportation than most residents across the country.  When you remove or significantly reduce personal transportation from energy consumption models, you find that energy use in buildings shoots up to number one.  While this is significant information that tells you a lot about the importance of buildings in reducing emissions. I really want to tell you more about PlaNYC in general.  Because when I went to find out more about it because I was interested in buildings, what I actually found out is that it is a progressive bit of policy that we could all learn something from.

From the PlaNYC website:

In December 2006 Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg challenged New Yorkers to generate ideas for achieving 10 key goals for the city’s sustainable future.  New Yorkers in all 5 boroughs responded.  The result is the most sweeping plan to enhance New York’s urban environment in the city’s modern history. Focusing on the 5 key dimensions of the city’s environment – land, air, water, energy, and transportation – we have developed a plan that can become a model for cities in the 21st century. The combined impact of this plan will not only help ensure a higher quality of life for generations of New Yorkers to come; it will also contribute to a 30% reduction in global warming emissions.

Three of the five ‘key dimensions’ have subset topics to help focus policy initiatives which work out as the 10 key goals for the City.  They end up looking as follows:

  • Land: Housing, Open Space, Brownfields
  • Water: Water Quality, Water Network
  • Transportation: Congestion, State of Good Repair
  • Energy
  • Air Quality
  • Climate Change

In my next series of posts I will be looking in more detail at some of the ways that the Plan is being detailed and incorporated into New York City policy.  Some of the policies have been controversial, and some have resulted in heated local debates.  But what is exceptional about this plan, is that as far as I can tell, it is the most well articulated and focused future plan of any current global city, all of which are facing many of the same pressures and issues.  In the 2007 Inventory of NYC GHG emissions, they acknowledge their leading position and state that, “New York’s role as a leader among cities and a media center means that it can, and should, lead by example.”

This does not mean that they are getting everything right, or that they are even promoting the right way forward.  But it is a massive step for a city like New York to even commit to such an undertaking.  I will write more in future posts about how they are really using this program to structure their future looking policy decisions.  So far what I can say is that  I am impressed with how well articulated the plan is and also with how accessible it is.  This may be a significant example of a ‘top down’ policy approach, but it is very clear from the way the policy is presented and available that it depends on public and local engagement.

For me, living in the UK, it’s a stark contrast in governmental policy approaches to planning for the future of their urban environments.  It’s interesting though- can a city plan of this scale be seen as an example of localism?  On the one hand, it seems like it could be, because it is separate from the state and addressing issues that are pressing upon a specific and definable space.   But then if you consider that if New York City were a country, it would be ranked 95th in the world by population- larger than Switzerland, Israel, Denmark, or Ireland, which makes it more difficult to visualize as something ‘local’.  Certainly New York City could be broken down into any number of more localized districts and boroughs and neighborhoods which is an argument against localism, but it is a very small and distinct area compared to the metropolitan region, the state, the surrounding states, and the nation.  Perhaps there is something there about re-thinking scale when considering localism and understanding at what scale issues are actually considered local?

But I think that is probably a discussion for a different post.  In the meantime, if anyone knows of any other forward looking city plans that are as developed as PlaNYC, I would love to hear about it in the comments.  Next week I’ll be looking at the housing element of PlaNYC – why they feel it’s needed, what initiatives they are promoting, and examining some of the issues they has raised.

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  1. PlaNYC (2) – A response to future growth: Housing |
  2. PlaNYC (3) – Planning for urban futures: Transportation |

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