New York City’s Gradual Transition to a Sustainable City – State of the Planet

Cities evolve, and great cities are constantly changing. Change comes because of new technologies that bring about economic, cultural, and social change. New York City began as a trading outpost—sending furs, food, and other natural resources to Europe. The port of New York was ideal for the ships of its time, and once we built the Erie Canal, we became the center for shipping goods and resources from all over the American Northeast and Midwest. The city built the facilities required for shipping and recovered fees from shippers. New York became the commercial capital of America. Eventually, New York became a manufacturing center, making clothing, bikes, appliances, and even automobiles. By 1950, most of the clothing worn in America was made in New York City. But then manufacturing changed, and our small vertical factories were unable to compete with larger, horizontal factories, foreign labor was cheaper, and our docks were too small to accommodate containerized shipping. We lost a million residents, many, many jobs, and people thought the city was in a death spiral.

It didn’t work out that way. The factories became artist studios, loft homes, and galleries, and the economy shifted from manufacturing to services. SoHo attracted high-end retail, and the Village became a magnet for tourists. The High Line, the old train track that carried raw materials and finished goods to and from factories to the ships, became a park that raised the value of the land around it. Finance, media, fashion, education, wellness, health care, tourism, e-commerce, and countless new industries replaced the old.

Today, we are in the midst of another transition—to a city that is environmentally sustainable. Our mass transit system already ensures that we can move millions of people a day without gridlock and without the internal combustion engine. Our water system brings fresh, clean water from upstate to the five boroughs. Businesses are being developed to share and charge electric vehicles. Parks are being built for recreation, contemplation, and to absorb rain from extreme weather events. Parks like the High Line and Central Park are public-private partnerships, the old Freshkills Landfill on Staten Island is now a park, and we even have a sandy beach on the west side of Manhattan.

Our local regulatory structure is pushing large building owners to decarbonize their energy use and make it more efficient. Our electric utilities are struggling but slowly replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. Some of our early attempts at siting wind power in the ocean are proving less cost-effective than we hoped, but new technologies are being developed every day, and I have a great deal of confidence that just like computers and smartphones got better and cheaper, the same cost curves are being seen with renewable energy and battery technology. Whenever I hear that the grid can’t handle the power needs and some of the early technologies are not living up to their promise, I keep thinking of all the young people who have never owned a landline, are not connected to cable TV, and are largely using wireless internet to communicate and connect. I remember VCRs and cassette tapes: those technologies are long gone. Predicting the energy future is impossible due to the development of new technology.

In addition to the source of energy, the real low-hanging fruit of urban sustainability is energy efficiency. Unlike other parts of America, New York City’s transportation system produces fewer greenhouse gasses than our buildings. Most of our transportation is via mass transit or by foot. Unless political hacks like the Governor of New Jersey manage to upend it, New York City will soon benefit from the impact of congestion pricing—both reducing traffic in our central business district and providing a new revenue stream to help modernize our mass transit system and make it more attractive to riders.

While most of the land in the five boroughs sits beneath single-family homes, most of the people in New York live in multi-family dwellings. Apartments tend to be more energy efficient than single-family homes because they share walls, ceilings, and floors. But many of New York City’s buildings are old and incredibly energy inefficient. Those of us living on the upper floors of century-old apartments heated by steam radiators turn off many of them and still need to open the windows to reduce the heat. The many regulations in place to make our buildings more energy efficient and to transition from fossil fuels will take a generation to be implemented. But progress is slowly being made. Technologies like heat pumps are being encouraged by the government, and private manufacturers are improving them—making them less expensive, smaller, and easier to install. According to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA):

“For the first time, heat pumps – electrically powered and highly efficient devices that deliver heating and cooling – topped gas-powered furnaces in total units sold in the U.S. Americans bought more than 4.3 million heat pump units in 2022, compared to roughly 3.9 million natural gas furnaces[1]. Modern cold-climate heat pumps are a smarter, more efficient, and environmentally friendly option to keep homes comfortable without using fossil fuels. Heat pumps work by extracting heat from the air, ground, or water and transferring it inside a building for heating and outside for cooling.”

Moreover, last week, nine states, including New York, signed an agreement to encourage the use of heat pumps. According to Justine Calma, reporting in The Verge:

The memorandum of understanding (MOU) sets a 2030 target for heat pumps to make up 65 of residential heating, cooling, and water heating equipment sales. By 2040, the goal is for heat pumps to account for 90 percent of the HVAC and water heating market. Heat pumps are more energy efficient alternatives to traditional heating and cooling systems. And because they’re electric, they can feasibly run on renewables like wind and solar once there’s more clean energy coursing through power grids. The states on board with the agreement include: California, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Rhode Island.”

Progress will not be instantaneous, but like New York City’s other transitions, the new gradually replaces the old. Creative adaptations and constant movement eventually result in changes you can see.

Of course, we can’t really become a sustainable city unless we do something constructive and creative with our garbage. Small steps are underway, and I believe larger steps will follow. In the next year, New York City’s Sanitation Department will be collecting food waste to be recycled as fertilizer and gas energy. Commercial food waste has been recycled for a decade, and now, household food waste will also be collected and put to work. My own view is that recycling is an intermediate step on the path to a circular economy—where everything we consume is repurposed for reuse. Household waste sorting has never worked too well, and I think we will eventually build waste-factories that use robots and artificial intelligence to sort and mine waste. Currently, New York spends over a billion dollars a year to ship and either dump or burn garbage. What if this cost became a revenue stream due to our ability to take natural resources from our waste stream and sell them? Today, we mine the earth for resources. In the future, we will be able to obtain the same resources from our waste stream. A city like New York has the volume of waste and the capital budget needed to build these waste mining facilities at scale. Hopefully, this will be done in partnership with private firms that will make money from New York’s garbage.

When New York City nearly went bankrupt in the 1970s, our business establishment, unions, and elected leaders joined together and built the city that came back strong over the past half-century. New York’s energy, creativity, and sheer brainpower are unparalleled. New Yorkers are pragmatic and, by necessity, aware of their surroundings. They don’t need to be told twice that five inches of rain in an hour is an impact of climate change. Everyone who looks at the future knows that we need to bring environmental considerations into routine organizational management. New York’s business leadership, unions, institutions, and people understand climate change and the need to simultaneously pursue economic growth and environmental protection. They know that a sustainable city is attractive, exciting, and capable of winning the global competition for talent and business. We can build that city while creating new businesses, making money, and being a model for cities all over the world.

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Steve Cohen