PlanNYC 2030: What makes a Community Sustainable?

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A few weeks ago I attended the first of the Community Leader meetings for the PlanNYC 2030 Sustainability initiative. I thought Streetsblog readers might be interested in some reflections on this from a neighborhood environmentalist perspective.

All and all, I’m extremely happy that this initiative is moving forward and the city is starting to take a long term outlook and prioritize environmental sustainability. But there are some areas of concern on my part that I thought you would be interested to hear.

Jeffery Kay, the NYC Director of Operations, gave a 30 minute presentation by using mostly the same slides as the Mayor used last year out in Queens. As far as I can tell, there is not much new information, except some stuff that I got out of the Q&A. The point of the meeting was to somehow motivate "Community Leaders" to have meetings about the 10 goals within their own organizations and give them feedback. But aside from the current glossy spread, they provided no additional resources (despite some great background presentations tucked away on their website), background information or kits or anything that would help facilitate that or provide a neighborhood or block association with anything tangible. This was a real lost opportunity in my opinion, especially when they had gone to such lengths to just have just "community leaders" attend this event. They need to really engage and have hands-on discussions, tangible options for people to consider with regard to land use, transportation, street design, etc with community groups about building sustainable neighborhoods.

This meeting being in Harlem, many of the questions were about preserving the character of neighborhoods in the face of an onrush of gentrification. Some NYCHA tenant association leaders and other East Harlem neighborhood groups and community board members took offense to the idea that we need to go out of our way and spend lots of money to help fit in the million NEW people without figuring out how to improve the existing housing stock. The answers from the presenter were pretty weak. They seemed unprepared for that line of questioning even though the whole point of increasing housing supply is to make it more affordable for everyone and reduce the need of gentrification to spread. I added that they should make sure that the housing is mixed use and close to transit, retail & major employers.

There were three people who separately mentioned increasing the accessibility of biking and general agreement in the room to reduce the number of cars rolling through Northern Manhattan. Lots of people were advocating for more renewable energy sources and increased conservation efforts. It’s great to hear so many other people agree with those sentiments.

Overall I think the goals are very worthy and they need to iron out their presentation a bit, particularly to be more sensitive to the concerns of lower income and long time residents that see the million new New Yorkers as more threat than opportunity.

But there was one very worrisome comment that the presenter repeated a few times in response to questions from the audience about their 10 goals: "We’re just talking about infrastructure." And absolutely infrastructure is important and requires a great deal of thought, time and money to design & build well. But it repeats one of the worst mistakes of the Moses era – assuming that building more and "better" infrastructure is an end itself that will increase quality of life. The goals they set are more process than outcomes driven.

They are not really talking at all about how to build small scale human-based systems that are the foundation of truly sustainable communities. Green buildings are great, but if the people inside don’t separate their trash, turn off their lights, start riding bikes, walking to local destinations, etc. then the society is not necessarily working toward a sustainable future. Perhaps it is too ambitious for a central government to consider all the elements that make a community truly sustainable?

So while this effort is great in looking at how to make the city’s infrastructure sustainable, people should not be lulled into complacency that those smart folks at city hall are going to just "figure it all out" for us and produce a sustainable society. I think it will fall to community based organizations to continue all their good work in educating people about how they can make changes in their daily life and how they can help guide the city when it comes to their own neighborhood to have an impact on environmental issues.

You can send your views to the Plan NYC folks and tell them some of the small ideas you have as well as big ideas on what can make NYC more sustainable.

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