PlanNYC 2030: What makes a Community Sustainable?


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.

  • someguy

    Great analysis. However:

    “They are not really talking at all about how to build small scale human-based systems that are the foundation of truly sustainable communities.”

    And if they were talking about it, with that kind of wonky language in particular, they would be greeted with blank stares, don’t you think?

    Also, as for the fact that it’s only concerned with infrastructure, I would think they had to draw the line of their scope somewhere. Infrastructure is something tangible and easy to talk about in plain terms that in general the city can affect pretty easily. They’ve already probably bitten off more than they can chew. I wonder how much of PlaNYC will end up being anything more than a nice exercise in letting a cabal of academics run wild with worthy but unrealizable planning ideas?

    Not trying to be pessimistic – I happen to think it’s an incredibly important effort – but just trying to help keep that realism in our enviro-progressive den here =)

  • mfs

    some of the best infrastructure we have in the City is widespread and small-scale, like traffic lights, corner trash cans, sidewalks, public mailboxes, etc. I hope that their definition of infrastructure doesn’t preclude this kinds of devices, and hence precludes any livable streets goals.

  • That was my conclusion as well someguy and mfs. We need to make sure from the ground level that the infrastructure will not just be efficient nominally, but really encourage more sustainable lifestyles. The role of non-profits and community groups to shape the infrastructure is just as important as building it in the first place. And perhaps there needs to be more of an effort to consider the softer sides of building a sustainable community. That combination of improving lifestyles and infrastructure would be very powerful.

  • One key to sustainablility that is usually overlooked is giving people the ability to downshift economically by choosing to work and consume less. This is a bit off-topic, but since we are talking about sustainable lifestyles, here are a few excerpts from a booklet about this:

    Currently, the economy must grow in tandem with increased productivity, regardless of how much people actually want to consume. Because of improved technology, the average American worker can produce about 2.3% more each year, which adds up to an eight-fold increase in a century.

    To stabilize world climate, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% during this century, and there is little or no chance of doing this if per capita output grows eight-fold during this century.

    We must slow growth by giving people the option of using increased productivity to reduce their work hours.

    A survey by the Center for the New American Dream found that half of all Americans with full-time jobs would prefer to work a four-day week at 80% of their current pay.

    Yet most Americans today have no choice of work hours. The economist Juliet Schor has found that, if the average American male worker reduced his hours by 20%, he would reduce his earnings by 50%, because part-time workers have lower wages and fewer benefits.

    To give workers the opportunity to choose their hours, we need to:
    -End Discrimination Against Part-Time Workers
    -Create More High-Quality Part-Time Jobs

    You can read this four-page booklet at


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