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.