Congested Coverage

Forget "congestion pricing," PlaNYC needs the press’s deep and sustained attention.

It’s been a little over a week since mayor Mike Bloomberg unveiled his twenty-five-year plan for climate change and development in New York City, dubbed PlaNYC. It is the most ambitious proposal of its kind anywhere in the world, according to many writers, placing 127 individual initiatives on the table under the categories of land, water, transportation, air quality, energy, and climate change. That’s a lot of work for the local press.

PlaNYC is an excellent illustration of what an environmentally responsible city of the future should look like. The overarching goal is to accommodate about 1 million more people by 2030 while cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent. Unlike many of the world’s politicians, Bloomberg has figured out that it’s going to take a billowing hodgepodge of solutions to bring a meaningful turnaround in the course of man-made climate change.

A thorough evaluation of everything that is in PlaNYC, however, will take some ink.

In the days after Bloomberg announced his plan at the American Museum of Natural History on Earth Day, April 22, metro desks around the region cranked out the obvious roundups of the event. Unfortunately, as New York Daily News columnist Errol Louis put it, “the public conversation about the plan is being hijacked by a single question—congestion pricing—that constitutes a tiny part of the big vision the mayor has laid out.” Indeed, the majority of news and opinion stories over the past week have fixated on Bowling Green’s plan to charge $8 to those drivers entering Manhattan below 86th Street during peak hours. It’s not hard to understand why this initiative has become so conspicuous—it is a big, but simple change, and one that will affect New Yorkers and commuters more quickly and more directly than other parts of PlaNYC.

But “congestion pricing” is not the crux of Bloomberg’s vision. It will help reduce citywide emissions, but more importantly, it will generate revenue for other initiatives that play a larger role in establishing the city’s green credentials. With that in mind, reporters (and their editors) need to wean themselves off the obvious points of contention in PlaNYC in order to deconstruct and evaluate the real meat of it.

The place to start is buildings, which emit 79 percent of New York City’s greenhouse gases (23 percent comes from transportation), and nearly half of all locally generated air pollution. There are fourteen initiatives listed under the “energy” chapter in PlaNYC and a reporter could choose any one for in-depth analysis. One example of what might result from such an endeavor appeared in the New York Observer, somewhat ironically, about two weeks before Bloomberg officially unveiled his plan. By 2030, the mayor expects 11 percent of new electricity in the city to come from clean “distributed generation.” DG, as it’s called, places small power sources closer to where electricity is used, rather than centralizing production in large, remote plants. An obstacle to this plan, according to the Observer, is resistance from Consolidated Edison, which runs the current power grid and stands to lose by allowing DG installations, such as microturbines. Would-be installers of DG systems fear that ConEd will do all it can to block them because onsite power generation may cause the utility to forfeit business. Microturbines, for example, are “minivan-sized” natural gas generators that can supply power to residential buildings. Even better, they can trap the heat they produce for use in the building’s water system. PlaNYC makes special note of such systems, called “combined heat and power,” or CHP.

Here’s the rub: New York City’s buildings department banned microturbines in 2005. According to the Observer, “it is not the developers or tenants or architects who are standing in the way, but instead regulators and the utility company, which cite safety and technical concerns.” Presently there are at least three Manhattan residences that “have these metal boxes at the tops of the buildings, worth between $50,000 and $100,000, completely idle and offline.” A buildings department task force is examining the microturbines question. It may be that they are not the best CHP solution on the market, but some independent reporting on this question would be useful. Furthermore, other energy plans, such as how the city can impose a greener building code on existing private structures, deserve even greater attention.

The point is that Bloomberg’s plan is complicated, with many moving parts, and the public desperately needs the city’s journalists to aggressively dissect the various components, such as clean DG, and tell us what it all means, what the pros and cons are, and what the likelihood is that any of this will actually come to pass.

Here’s another area that needs reporters to bore in: every article examining the “land” chapter of PlaNYC mentions the proposal to plant a million trees citywide. Like congestion pricing, it is one of the most conspicuous initiatives, and laudable in every way; but relatively speaking, it will have considerably less community impact than other projects in the plan. A recent piece in the Times was the rare exception on this topic, focusing instead on the reopening of the High Bridge, a footbridge which connects the Bronx to Manhattan over the Harlem River, and the McCarren Park swimming pool in Brooklyn, as well as the city’s low ratio of parks to people. “The most ambitious part of the initiative,” the article suggests, “may be in providing play space in areas with many children but few parks.” The Times reports that over half the city’s neighborhoods do not meet the city standard of an acre and a half of park space for every 1,000 people, and one playground for every 1,250 children. Bloomberg’s plan would reopen playgrounds that are now closed, rather than building a lot of new ones. As that happens, readers should hope for additional stories that describe, very specifically, the changing face of their neighborhoods.

One of PlaNYC’s biggest concerns is water. There’s plenty of it to drink, and the plan includes many improvements in the reservoir delivery system, but many of the city’s waterways, especially its numerous man-made canals, are still toxic and closed to recreation. One of the most problematic sources of this pollution is combined sewer overflows, or CSOs, that occur during heavy rain. Sixty percent of the city’s system captures sewage and rainwater in the same pipe, so big storms can push volume over capacity. One of PlaNYC’s solutions is to expand the Bluebelt program, currently in place on Staten Island, by which natural drainage corridors carry off storm water. A number of papers, especially the Staten Island Advance, have written about the program in the past, but as city hall considers expanding it to other boroughs, the time is ripe for more coverage.

Another water-related challenge for the city comes from man-made climate change. One of the greatest dangers that a warmer world presents to New York City is a massive storm surge along the coasts, whose destruction would be amplified by rising sea level. The Village Voice’s Wayne Barrett took a stab at this subject in March with a long article criticizing city hall’s refusal to rein in coastal development. Published before the full details of PlaNYC were available, the piece is an aggressive and at times overly dismissive critique of the city’s sustainability plans, but well worth the read. For no matter how successfully Bloomberg’s projects curb greenhouse gas emissions, some consequences of climate change are at this point unavoidable. “There are many reasons why the city is adaptation-averse, and, of course, they start with real estate interests,” Barrett writes. To support his point, he takes a map of the city’s biggest development projects and lays it over a 100-year floodplain map created by Federal Emergency Management Administration, showing that a lot of the work falls in the danger zone. According to Barrett, he didn’t have a scientist double-check this exercise, which makes it somewhat questionable. Nonetheless, the maps are a good example of the kind of innovative thinking that reporters should be employing to evaluate other PlaNYC initiatives.

Mayor Bloomberg and his staff have obviously devoted a tremendous amount of time and energy to producing this report. It is only reasonable to expect that editors and reporters will put as much effort into analyzing it, and explaining and monitoring the difficult political process of taking the proposal from the page to reality. As the press has pointed out, PlaNYC is “sweeping and contentious,” with many legal and financial barriers to hurdle. For that reason, it is important that the media closely track the progress of each proposal. The document’s 127 bullet-pointed initiatives are a treasure-trove for journalists. Nearly every one of them is worth a detailed story—the ideas are there, now comes the legwork.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.