Will New York City continue to have a green mayor?

Elections in New York are unpredictable; and primaries around here are even more difficult to forecast. Voter turnout is particularly difficult to model and makes pre-primary polls notoriously unreliable. Some of our municipal elections are inadvertently pure entertainment. Last time around we had one guy whose sole platform was that the rent was “just too damn high.” This time, we’ve got unethical, disgraced politicos vying for office like Client Number 9 - oops, I mean former Governor Eliot Spitzer — and the completely pathetic Carlos Danger — oops, I mean former Congressman Anthony Weiner. 

Chutzpah, a Yiddish word for supreme self confidence, nerve and gall only begins to capture the narcissistic hunger for attention that these two fellas seem to share. The fact that Weiner once led in the polls and Spitzer actually has a chance to become the city’s Comptroller is beyond comment.

The bottom line is that no one really knows if the green initiatives of the Bloomberg years, one of the most important accomplishments of his 12 years in office, will be continued.

Beneath the weirdness of it all, there are serious issues at stake. New York City’s $70 billion dollar annual budget makes it the largest local government in the United States. The city government’s delivery of vital services like police and fire protection, emergency response, housing, water supply, waste removal, education, transportation and social services, guarantee that its management has direct impact on millions of people.

Recently, the website Inhabitat New York City asked which of the candidates would be the greenest mayor:

Say what you want about iconoclast NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg — but no one can accuse him of being soft when it comes to the environment. The three-term billionaire technocrat scored numerous environmental victories during his 12 year tenure; from launching the nation’s largest urban public bike-share program to the creation of wildly popular and successful new green spaces like the High Line in Chelsea and the revitalization of derelict waterfront space at Brooklyn Bridge Park, from controversial health initiatives (like banning giant sodas), to the inspiringly ambitious environmental blueprint for New York: PlanNYC… So which of the current mayoral candidates stands a chance at capturing some of the green goodness that made us love Mike so?

They concluded that the top three Democratic candidates, de Blasio, Quinn and Thompson all seemed to be supportive of sustainability policies, and that Republican Joe Lhota may never talk about it, but having run the MTA knows something about mass transit. None of these candidates have made sustainability a center piece of their campaigns, but none of them have opposed the city’s sustainability initiatives.

The bottom line is that no one really knows if the green initiatives of the Bloomberg years, one of the most important accomplishments of his 12 years in office, will be continued. My own view is that they will continue, in part because the Bloomberg people were smart enough to make sure that many of them, like PlaNYC, are hardwired into the City Charter. The real issue is: will it remain a mayoral priority and will New York City continue to be a leader in sustainability planning and management? Sustainability programs could continue, but could be a lower priority, and a less important part of the next mayor’s agenda.

Bloomberg’s singular accomplishment as a sustainability advocate was his ability to integrate the goals of environmental protection with the goals of economic development. His view of parks, bikes, mass transit, energy efficiency, tree planting and other green initiatives was that they made the city a more desirable place to live, visit and do business. A clean and healthy environment was a key asset for the City in the global marketplace. His staff reached out to environmental groups and institutions and brought them into the city’s planning processes. More importantly, the views of advocates and experts had influence over city policies.

With his personal investment in the C40 global urban climate and sustainability initiative, Mayor Bloomberg communicated his own commitment to the issue of urban sustainability. Climate change, nutrition, control of secondary smoke and congestion pricing were major mayoral initiatives during the Bloomberg years. It was obvious to everyone that the mayor cared deeply about these issues. Along with crime, guns and education, he made sustainability one of a handful of priorities throughout his time in office.

In some ways it is reassuring that no one is making an issue of sustainability in the mayoral race, and a green voter can’t use a candidate’s views on sustainability as the basis for a choice. This may be an indication that the practice of sustainability has been accepted into the fabric of the city’s governance structure

A new mayor will want to take ownership of mayoral priorities and may downplay sustainability due to the “not invented by me” syndrome. However, the political dynamic of the sustainability issue may work to keep it as a top mayoral priority. By defining environmental quality as a key economic asset and not simply a frill to satisfy tree huggers, Bloomberg created a broad coalition behind sustainability that includes real estate developers, environmentalists and community groups. This coalition is a gift to the next mayor that only an idiot or a fool would refuse to accept. Of course, while New York’s mayors tend to be very smart, that does not mean they never act like idiots or fools. So anything is possible.

In some ways it is reassuring that no one is making an issue of sustainability in the mayoral race, and a green voter can’t use a candidate’s views on sustainability as the basis for a choice. This may be an indication that the practice of sustainability has been accepted into the fabric of the city’s governance structure and at its root is not a political issue. This is not to say that there are no political dimensions to the issue, or that it is beyond controversy. It is simply that the overall concern for environmental quality is no longer questioned. In that way, environment, as a political issue, may eventually act like crime and education. We may be concerned with stop and frisk or school test policies, but no one questions the importance of reducing crime and educating children. We may not want that waste facility located in our neighborhood, but no one denies the need for a modern waste management system.

The next mayor will face a set of predictable and unforeseen challenges. We know that the municipal unions have been waiting for Mayor Bloomberg to leave office to negotiate long expired contracts. A school system that educates over a million students will always generate tough problems, as will crime, homelessness, traffic, and the day-to-day interaction of millions of residents, workers and visitors. New York is the city that never sleeps and New York’s government is an exercise in constant crisis management. Sustainability provides a mayor with a way to be a change agent over the long term. It can provide New York’s mayor with a unifying theme that cuts across the city’s many communities and interest groups. The Bloomberg team figured that out. My guess is that our next mayor will do the same. A year from now we’ll start to know if I guessed right.

Steven Cohen is the executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. This post originally appeared here.

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