Thursday, December 21, 2006

New York still stands, and thinks to look ahead

Twenty-five years ago, New York was almost bankrupt. Robert Caro had written a book subtitled "The Fall of New York" and won a Pulitzer Prize for it. And the new movie "Escape from New York" was premised on the idea that by 1997, Manhattan would be abandoned and adaptively reused as a maximum-security prison.

In hindsight, New York didn't fall. In fact, the city is worth trillions of dollars and is basically ruling the planet. And so, flush with cash and ambition, the city is looking to the future with an optimism it hasn't had in decades.

The Bloomberg administration articulated that optimism last week with PLANYC 2030. The Plan anticipates that "our city will be getting bigger, our infrastructure older, and our environment more unpredictable" (the last is a reference to global warming, which could soon turn downtown New York into a Venice of the New World). These three broad issues are broken down into ten goals sorted under one-word headlines, which, for the sake of print design, all end in the letter "N" (for NYC, get it?).

Under the "OPENYC" initiative, the goals are to build housing for one million new residents, add transit capacity to serve them and improve travel times, and to insure than every New Yorker lives within a 10-minute walk from a park. Goals of the MAINTAINYC initiative deal with upgrading the city's water, transportation, and electicity infrastructure. And the four goals of GREENYC are to reduce climate-change pollutants by 30%, to have the cleanest air of any large American city, to clean all of New York's contaminated brownfields, and to open 90% of city waterways to recreation with natural area restoration and water quality improvements.

In spite of the references to "opening" and "maintaining" the city, every one of the ten goals involves making New York, and by extension, America, more sustainable. The plan claims that "New York is one of the most environmentally-efficient cities in the world." The world can disagree, but certainly NYC is the most efficient place to live in the United States. Imagine how much worse off we would be if New York's 8.5 million people - almost 3% of the nation's population - lived the same SUV-driving, McMansion-living lifestyle that the rest of America practices, instead of riding subways and living on an average of two-hundredths of an acre? If a million more people can live there instead of Peoria, the world will be in comparatively better shape.

Adding transit capacity and accessibility to parks have obvious environmental benefits. Upgrading water infrastructure will likely involve additional investments in protecting the city's upstream watersheds, and offers the possibility that New Yorkers might abandon the stunningly inefficient practice of importing water in plastic bottles from places like Fiji and Poland, Maine. The committment to transportation infrastructure might be a chance for the city to spread the gospel of congestion charging. And electrical infrastructure improvements will look toward cleaner power with better distribution, including buildings that generate their own electricity.

Even though the plan doesn't mince words about the problems that might face the city (flooding, blackouts, all-day rush hours), the overall tone is strikingly optimistic. These goals might be prerequisites for New York's continued dominance, but they also give good reason for the world to keep following New York's lead.

  • PLANYC2030 website
  • The Economist: The new New York
  • Streetsblog: Futurama 2030

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