For David Bragdon, Director of Long-Term Planning & Sustainability in the Mayor’s Office in New York City, planning for the future also requires a plan for today. Our Portland fans might remember Bragdon as the former President of Metro. Today, Bragdon is focused on shaping a greener, more prosperous and more livable New York for its 8.4 million inhabitants. Backing up the City’s visionary plan for this endeavor — PlaNYC — are over 400 individual milestones and 130+ initiatives that will ensure progress towards audacious goals Bragdon and his team fully intend to meet. In this Green Line Series Interview, learn more about the ground-breaking PlanNYC and get David’s advice on the keys to your organization accomplishing its own audacious undertakings.
GG: You’re an expat Portlander. It’s pretty clear that New York is a significantly different scale to work at. Are there similarities between the two?
David Bragdon: I think the cities require very different approaches. A lot of the effort here in New York relates to energy efficiency — particularly in buildings both public and private — and reducing energy demand. There is a good deal of emphasis on building and zoning codes. In Portland, I worked much more on park issues and nature preservation. So the portfolio and priorities are very different.
GG: In New York, do you find the size and the scale a challenge that requires intense negotiations? Or do they present opportunities to make a greater impact?DB: The scale of New York is an advantage. A city of 8.4 million can make a pretty big impact. Reducing energy consumption in the buildings in New York alone will make a significant impact at the national level. More importantly, New York City is a market leader, as far as the real estate and financial sectors are concerned. In both of those sectors, New York is the dominant player in the country. So, piloting new techniques here can potentially have an effect that is duplicated elsewhere.
GG: Can you talk about the PlaNYC? What is it and how does sustainability fit into the puzzle?
DB: PlaNYC is a series of interconnected strategies to make New York City a greener and better place for the year 2030. There are aspirational goals that form the foundation, but it includes 132 very specific, tangible initiatives that the City is undertaking. Examples of those initiatives are the creation of more pedestrian plazas in neighborhoods, creating more playgrounds, planting a million trees, improving the energy efficiency of our buildings through the code system and rezoning areas of the City around subway stations to enable more density around those areas. It’s a combination of long term goals and short term actions to put the city on the path towards accomplishing those goals.
GG: Is this something other cities are doing?
DB: One of the reasons I was attracted to come to New York is the combination of vision and action that is more present here than anywhere else. Portland has a vision for 2040, but doesn’t necessarily have the financing tools to actually get to where they want to go on that path. Whereas, New York has a long-term goal, but also very specific things it can accomplish in the short term — especially in terms of financial investment in that vision.
GG: What role does the private sector play in realizing that vision?
DB: The private sector here is very engaged around energy efficiency. And there is a lot of activity in the real estate and financial industries. Industry is looking for ways to be more competitive and sustainability investments are a big piece of that. The private sector in New York is very constructively engaged in sustainability issues. Whereas, in many cities, industry takes an adversarial view of government.
GG: Can you give us an example of what those public/private partnerships look like?
DB: One example is that we’re working with banks on financing energy efficiency. Private capital is being matched with public capital to fund energy efficiency retrofits. Working alongside the private banking sector, we’re using federal dollars to provide credit enhancements to private dollars.
GG: To those that say that New York City is not a sustainable city, what is your response?
DB: The average per capita energy usage of New Yorkers is far below the American average. New Yorkers walk more, drive less and use less energy overall. An urban lifestyle is generally far more sustainable than a suburban lifestyle. And since New York is the most urban city in the country, it’s one of the most sustainable cities in the country on that note.
A lot of rankings are very subjective — they don’t take into account external factors like where the electricity supply is coming from. So a city that uses a lot of electricity that is generated by hydropower might rank higher than a city that actually is conserving far more electricity, but sources that energy from a coal plant. Which is better? It’s sometimes hard to say. But a lot of things are based on geographical advantages. The availability of hydro nearby or a moderate climate that doesn’t require citizens to use AC all summer, those are facts of geography, not policy choices somebody made. Often there are too many complexities to factor in to really compare apples to apples.
GG: How important do you think the aspect of identity is? San Franciscans and Portlanders like to consider themselves greenies and they are very proud of that. Does the same need to be true for New Yorkers in order to drive behavior change?
DB: No. I think the value proposition for New Yorkers is embedded in quality of life. So, things like the ability to get around safely on a bike or the ability to walk to a park within 10 minutes of your house. Those are the real manifestations that make sense to people, as opposed to an ego boost about being on a green list in some magazine. What we’re trying to do is provide services that are good for the environment and that make this a good place to live.
GG: PlaNYC is a huge endeavor that tackles some major issues across such a wide array of areas. What advice would you offer to our readers who want to take on big challenges around sustainability that sometimes seem overwhelming to execute?
DB: What I think PlaNYC does really well is base action on a measured diagnostic of what the real problems are. It is very specific about what actions can be taken to affect each issue. I would urge any municipality or organization working to improve itself to be very clear about what problem(s) you’re trying to solve and then be very strategic about the tools you choose use to do so. Plan for tomorrow by taking action today.
David Bragdon is the Director of Long-Term Planning & Sustainability in the Mayor’s Office in New York City. He will be a featured speaker at the inaugural GoGreen NYC, September 19, 2012 at the Times Center. For more information or to register, visit: newyork.gogreenconference.net.