Making New York the Most Sustainable Big City

Can New York actually become the most sustainable big city? Only with incentives plus policy mandates.

Dealing with Climate Change


With a Gross Metropolitan Product well over $1 trillion, New York City rivals the 12th largest national economy in the world.[1] From an operational standpoint, the city has an over-$82 billion dollar annual budget,[2] operates using over 70 city agencies and mayoral units, and is expected to serve 9 million residents by 2040.[3] The dense fabric composed of constant human activity and high volume of buildings have contributed to New York having a high carbon footprint –  a phenomenon known as the “urban heat island effect.” The City’s[4] sheer volume made it responsible for the emission of 58.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2007 – “equal to that produced by Ireland or Switzerland.”[5] Rising sea levels coupled with increased average temperatures (4.1° to 5.7°F) bode operational and budget concerns for the largest municipality in the U.S.


NYC’s Response to Global Warming


New York began directly addressing these challenges head-on in 2007 with the release of a landmark plan for growth and sustainability called PlaNYC by the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg (HBS MBA 1966). The plan presented over 100 goals and initiatives, such as investing tens of millions of dollars in green infrastructure along New York City streets.[6]


The impact of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 illuminated the need for current efforts to protect the coastline as well. Claiming 44 lives and $19 billion in damages and lost economic activity,[7] the major storm stood as a testament to climate change’s increase of extreme weather events. Thus, the City released PlaNYC: A Stronger, More Resilient New York in 2013 to account for the lessons learned from Sandy and document the City’s $20 billion plan[8] to rebuild the affected waterfront communities and adapt them for rising sea levels.


New Challenges


Under succeeding mayor Bill de Blasio, the City would continue the progress made under PlaNYC and add new dimensions while deepening commitments to sustainability such as the new 80×50 goal. With the revised title of OneNYC to reflect these enhanced goals, the operational challenges to scale the city for ambitious, sustainable practices came with new challenges and threats. The most notable goal was the city’s commitment to reduce GHGs by 80 percent compared to 2005 levels. While the City could work arduously on leading by example by retrofitting its own building stock, it is unclear how it would get private owners to comply with such urgency.


A City Council hearing in December 2015[9] illuminated the disbelief that the City was on a feasible track to reach its goals without legal enforcement. Citing the example of a March 2015 law requiring all new buildings in commercial areas in France to have partial covering by solar panels or a green roof,[10] one council member believed that New York should take more aggressive measures to ensure meeting its goals.




New York City must issue more drastic measures to enforce rather than merely incentivize building owner cooperation in order to make 80×50 a reality. Achieving citywide sustainability goals will require cooperation with the private, nonprofit and residential sectors. The City could enact regulations akin to Local Law 31 of 2016 on a citywide level, which mandates for new City construction to meet one of three standards that are similar or better than being “50 percent below the median energy intensity of similar buildings.”[11]


Incentives and educational resources must work in conjunction with legal regulations to move the city as a whole to the required pace of action. New York City’s Roadmap to 80 x 50 suggests similar strategies, but I argue that they are imperatives.


The City will undoubtedly need to work with its Legal Department and Corporation Counsel to ensure the legality of such measures within these sectors. It will also have to use its legislative affairs offices to target the state and federal governments to secure the legal power and additional funding for this multi-decade, multi-billion-dollar effort. But there simply is no easier way for New York to solidify its health and sustainability for generations to come. As the city prepares its infrastructure and economic conditions to meet the demand of a projected 9 million people by 2040, truly sustainable growth is the only way to proceed.


(892 words)

[1] OneNYC 2016: Progress Report (p. 17, Rep.). (n.d.). The City of New York.


[2] Office of Management of Budget. (2016, April 26). The City of New York Executive Budget Fiscal Year 2017. Retrieved November 2, 2016, from


[3] One New York: The Plan for a Strong and Just City (p. 24, Rep.). (2015). The City of New York.


[4] References to “City” with a capital “C” refer to the municipal governing body of New York City, including city agencies and Mayoral offices.

[5] PlaNYC, 10.

[6] PlaNYC: A Greener, Greater New York. (2007, April 22). Retrieved November 2, 2016, from


[7] OneNYC: The Plan for a Strong and Just City. (2015, April 22). Retrieved November 1, 2016, from


[8] One New York: The Plan for a Strong and Just City. (2015). New York, NY: The City of New York.


[9] The New York City Council, Meeting Minutes: Monday, December 14, 2015. (2016, January 6). Retrieved November 1, 2016, from file:///Users/michaelalan/Downloads/Minutes (1).pdf


[10] Agence France-Presse. (2015, March 20). New French Law Calls for Green Roofs, Solar Panels. Retrieved November 01, 2016, from


[11] OneNYC 2016: Progress Report (p. 114, Rep.). (2016). New York, NY: The City of New York.



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Student comments on Making New York the Most Sustainable Big City

  1. Thank you for shedding light on this issue! As one of the largest cities in the world, NYC has the opportunity to be a true model for other cities looking to reform policies.

    To push your concerns about NYC’s energy consumption even further, there is research that shows that the impact of NYC’s energy consumption goes far beyond just NYC itself. In fact, research shows that “energy use from multiple urban areas collectively can warm the atmosphere remotely, thousands of miles away from the energy consumption regions. This is accomplished through atmospheric circulation change.” 6.7 terawatts of the 16 terawatts consumed in the world in 2006 was consumed in 86 metropolitan areas. Yet, areas thousands of miles away across the globe are impacted by energy use in metropolitan areas like New York City [1].

    I agree that NYC still has a long way to go though. In fact, the following Sustainable Cities index ( rated New York as the 26th most sustainable city. I was disappointed to see this. I also agree with you that both positive and negative incentives (via policy mandates) must be employed. In terms of your concern about how possible it is to engage private owners to retrofit, I would perhaps offer both positive incentives (tax credits) and negative incentives (mandates to retrofit by 2020 for example). I would also encourage new eco-friendly developers and architects to create new sustainable designs for NYC’s buildings. Perhaps the “winners” could receive some sort of tax incentive. I say this in hopes that we could encourage more creative solutions like the ones Germany employs with passive housing design. Passive housing is an architectural design that allows for very little energy use for heating and cooling. This requires that “the annual energy requirement per square meter for room heating must be reduced to less than 15 kilowatt hours, while the building must also be equipped with ultra-efficient ventilation and heat recovery systems” [2].

    I am interested to see how NYC continues to develop its sustainability plans, and to see how they measure the plan’s efficacy.

    [1] Guang Zhang, Ming Cai, Aixue Hu, “Energy consumption and the unexplained winter warming over northern Asia and North America,” Nature Climate Change,
    [2] “Low-Energy Houses and Passive Houses,”

  2. I think in many cases it can be most insightful to look at comparisons to see how the problem can be solved most effectively. For sustainable cities, we can look to Zurich, Switzerland – the world’s most sustainable city, according to Arcadis. [1] While there is much to learn from other cities, the reality of local politics and public sentiment must be considered. While we may have a lot to learn from our European friends, we must acknowledge the political reality in the United States and ways to bring awareness, which can force our politicians to drive change.


  3. Having lived in New York City through the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I learned firsthand just how impactful extreme weather and rising sea levels can be and appreciate you bringing this to light. I am glad to hear that PlaNYC is evolving from a reactive to a proactive policy in OneNYC. While examining best practices from other cities can be helpful, I am not as concerned as Jessie or GB with New York’s ranking by Arcadis. New York City has 8 most densely populated incorporated places in the US (and 11 of the top 12), including areas in New Jersey and Westchester that are considered part of the Metropolitan Statistical Area [1].

    Clearly, the challenges faced by such a densely populated location are unique. The 80×50 campaign creates concrete goals without having to compare progress to other cities. I agree with MAW that legal enforcement of mitigation policies is necessary. Hopefully policymakers in New York agree with us and enact the changes required to make New York City a vanguard of efficiency.

    [1] 2010 US Census.

  4. Michael Allen, thanks for the really interesting post. I was unaware of how much thought New York has put into this issue…it’s really great news. But I see now the problem is achieving the goals…and I think that builds on a conversation we started in TOM the other day. I see what you mean that there are parallels between this case and the air conditioner manufacturers convincing governments to adopt eco friendly policies. But I think that was actually a much easier issue to solve than what you have on your hands here. In the A/C case, it was actually a relatively straightforward technology switch, and the costs were actually not too much higher. I think it was kind of an “easy win” for governments. In the case of building efficiency, it’s super complex. I used to work for Johnson Controls, who did a retrofit of the Empire State building, saving 40% in energy costs annually [1] (also check out Fay’s post). That case was made much easier because there was one owner of the building — Tony Malkin. Most other commercial buildings have multiple — in some cases, hundreds — of different owners, making it really difficult to align incentives, and share the costs of upfront investment.

    So I agree with you and Jessie — it will definitely require both the “stick” of regulation, plus the “carrot” of tax breaks or other incentives. Perhaps also the city government could work with property owners to develop some kind of easy, scalable way to ensure the incentives are aligned, both on the benefit as well as the cost sides.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post!!


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