Sunday, May 15, 2005

Can Cities Affect Global Warming and Sustainability?

After my recent post on global warming and cities, I was chatting with someone in a meeting the other day about New York City's need for a policy on global warming -- which does not currently exist -- and they replied,
“It would be ridiculous for New York City to have a policy on global warming -- New York isn't going to go out and fix the global warming problem by itself!”.
This conversation was particularly topical to my life both inside and outside of this blog, because this week New York City signed up to the Kyoto Protocols!  Why this is not a front-page article, I don't know.  This article in the New York Times profiles the other 131 mayors across the country that have signed their cities up to attempt to meet the Kyoto protocols on greenhouse gas emissions.  One of the verifying sentences in the article from a global warming expert, however, goes unchallenged:
Nathan Mantua, assistant director of the Center for Science in the Earth System at the University of Washington, which estimates the impact of global warming on the Northwest, said the coalition's efforts were laudable, but probably of limited global impact.  “It is clearly a politically significant step in the right direction,” Dr. Mantua said. “It may be an environmentally significant step for air quality in the cities that are going to do this, but for the global warming problem it is a baby step.”
I find both quotes wrong but interesting.  Let's stay with the example of New York City, and just to supply some facts for argument, today I'll focus simply on economics.  New York City is a powerhouse of economic production, and therefore also consumption of goods, services, energy and resources; and the City of New York -- the municipal  government -- has a huge ability to shape that market through regulation and innovation.

New York City's Economic Power

New York City has considerable economic power among nations.  New York City itself accounts for 4.6% of the United State's gross domestic product (GDP).  If New York City was a separate nation, it would be the thirteenth (13th) largest nation in the world, with a gross metro product (GMP) of $461 billion, only smaller than the G-8 countries and most of the BRIC nations (Brazil, India and China), but still larger than Russia, South Korea, the Netherlands and Australia.  In fact, five U.S. cities rank among the top 25 nations, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Washington, DC.

Comparing New York City within the United States, if New York City was a state, only four states in the U.S. would have larger gross state products (GSPs) -- California, Texas, Florida, and Illinois -- and New York City is still more productive than the rest of New York state.  New Haven, CT, (GMP of $80B) and Pittsburgh, PA (GMP $84B) are on par with the state of Nevada (GSP $82B).  Taken together, metro areas in the U.S. account for nearly 85% of all employment, labor income and gross domestic product.  (National and state figures from the 2002 U.S. Conference of Mayors, full report is here.)

New York City is also one of the dominant nodes of a global system of cities.  The April 18th, 2005 issue of Fortune again reports that New York State and City are home to more of the Fortune 500 (54 companies) and Fortune 1000 (90 companies) than any other state or city.  Finally, I haven't found figures yet, but I would be willing to wager that a substantial portion of the world's capital is headquartered or managed from New York City.  These two academic projects at Loughborough University and the Brookings Institution, respectively, study the relationship between globalization and cities, and the role of international centers of finance in controlling the world economy.

City of New York's Regulatory and Innovative Power

The municipal government itself is a huge consumer of goods and services within the area.  According to the Independent Budget Office of the City of New York, the latest budget presented by the mayor projects roughly $52-56 billion in expenditures, roughly 10% of the New York City's GMP.  The vast majority of those expenditures will be in the New York City area.  According to the City of New York's Energy Task Force (an excellent document in itself, found here):
“The City of New York owns more than 2,500 major building assets, containing over 200 million square feet, and leases an additional 22 million square feet of space.  These facilities are utilized by twenty different City agencies and range from brand new schools to the landmarked City Hall, courts, police precincts, correctional facilities, homeless shelters, hospitals, and recreation centers in parks.  The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is managed independently of the City and is the largest public housing agency in the nation. Its 181,000 dwelling units in 346 developments are located in 2,724 residential buildings.
In all, New York City, excluding NYCHA, holds more than 5,000 electricity accounts.... Together, the City of New York and NYCHA use more than 10% of the total energy consumed in the entire City. By expanding and improving their efforts to deploy distributed resources, City agencies can significantly reduce electric demand and energy usage in the City; reduce the burden on taxpayers; and have a distinct, if indirect, influence over practices in the private community in such areas as design, construction, operation, and energy policy choices.”
As an example of that last point, the City of New York can specify how buildings are built through its building codes.  See the NYC Department of Design and Construction's Office of Sustainable Design here.  Less direct, but certainly important ways that New York affects the development of buildings is through its byzantine system of property taxes and functional zoning.

Finally, the city's role as the provider of basic environmental necessities such as clean water, clear air, trash hauling and infrastructure is so obvious as almost to be forgotten.  There are, however, numerous opportunities to improve the quality and character of the infrastructure that we all take for granted, and implicitly, opportunities to improve the overall environmental impacts of cities.


Cities, especially New York, have an enormous ability to alter the environment -- as I've shown above -- but I do acknowledge the fundamental and difficult question of how we shape cities.  Cities are both a product of, and a fundamental driver of, human and social systems.  So how do we begin to move them towards sustainability when (a) as I wrote in a previous post, we don't know what sustainability is? and (b) cities seem to be embedded within everything else about our society and way of life?

One way to “get started on sustainability”, however, is to take stock of our capabilities to create the world and life that we desire.  Hence my affection for the blog title, and hence my interest in cities.  Cities are an immediate and tangible scale at which we can see how we can create and shape our interactions with the built environment, the natural environment, government, economics, society and ideas -- in short, cities are a microcosm of how we choose to live.  So this blog bounces back and forth between spelling out the forces shaping cities, and how searching out how we can shape cities to shape the world in which we live.

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