NYC Mayor Adams Powerfully Organized All Star Environmental Leadership Team
In his short time in office, Mayor Erik Adams had to deal with the deaths of two police officers, a baby shot in the head, a woman who was pushed to death in the subway and a snowstorm on Saturday. He has been a visible, reassuring and energetic presence throughout the city, providing leadership as well as clarity. Last week, he took time to announce his all star environmental leadership team amid the many emergencies in the city. Now, I must admit that I am biased as two of the three individuals the mayor appointed to lead the environment program at Columbia University are also part of the masters programs I direct. Rohit Aggarwala is the city’s new environmental chief. Kizzy Charles-Guzman is the new director of environmental justice. Both are dedicated, experienced public servants who are both world-class experts in their fields. Their high ideals and sound morals are evident in their willingness to mentor and teach the next generation of sustainability professionals.
The third member in the leadership team does not teach at Columbia, but he did earn an undergraduate degree there. The mayors Press releaseHe provided his background and observed that:
Vincent Sapienza has spent his entire career working to improve and protect New York City’s water infrastructure. Sapienza was a senior member of DEP, serving as the Bureau of Wastewater Treatment’s chief from 2009 to 2014. He then headed the Bureau of Engineering, Design and Construction from 2015 through 2016, and finally as the Bureau of Commissioner for the past five.
It is remarkable that Mr. Sapienza gave up his position as DEP Commissioner to become COO and moved from CEO to COO in order to create an integrated and unified environmental management system. This is a testament to his commitment to his mission and the persuasiveness Adams and his team.
Rit Aggarwala was a key figure in the development PlaNYC 2030, the groundbreaking sustainability plan of the Bloomberg Administration. He is a scholar with a practical and deep understanding of politics, management, and environmental policy. Kizzy Charles-Guzman is a long-standing advocate for community-based environmental justice. He was once the Environmental Coordinator for the well-known environmental advocacy group WEACT for Environmental Justice. These choices were not made lightly. According to a statement, I was not the only one who applauded them. Website WEACTs:
Peggy Shepard (Co-Founder & Executive Director, WE ACT for Environmental Justice) said that Mayor Eric Adams made bold commitments to implement the recommendations in New York City’s first Environmental Justice for All Report. We also thank the Mayor for appointing RohitT. Aggarwala and Vincent Sapienza to the team, which has the expertise and experience needed to take meaningful action in the areas of climate and environmental justice. All of you are very welcome.
As crucial as this team is to the city’s environmental future, so are the structural changes Aggarwalas appointment in the role of the city’s Chief Climate Officer. This means that all environmental programs within city government are under his control. This starts with the consolidation of various climate, environmental justice, and resilience units located throughout the Mayorality. These will now be integrated into the overall city’s environmental protection program. This consolidation is a strong indicator that Mayor Adams cares about business and wants to do more than make symbolic statements about climate justice and climate change. He intends to actually take action.
One area that was not mentioned by the mayor was the city’s current efforts to decarbonize their buildings and vehicles. I hope that these efforts will have at least some dotted line connection with the new chief climate officer of the city. With more than 300,000 employees and over 30,000 vehicles, and over 4,000 buildings, the city government could join the federal government to insist that procurement processes follow green principles. It should also insist that city structures be retrofitted whenever possible to conserve energy and convert to renewable energy.
New York’s transition to environmental sustainability will take many years and present significant operational and financial challenges for our government. We also have to address the issue of flood control, as well as the cost of retrofitting many of our old buildings. We were concerned about shoreline flooding after Hurricane Sandy. This is a natural response for a city that has 600 miles of coastline. We came up with a number of solutions to protect the shore, and also tried to create green infrastructure to absorb rainwater and other stressors to our sewer system. We experienced a month of heavy rain in the summer 2021. The city’s permeable surfaces were flooded with water. When it rained at five inches an hour, there was nowhere for the water to go. Basements were flooded. People were trapped in basement apartments and died. That was the day that we discovered the limits of green infrastructure. We should not only use nature’s systems to absorb excess water, but we must do more.
The kind of extreme weather that occurred last summer is not something that our infrastructure is capable of handling. It is clear that we will continue to see extreme weather events such as the flooding that we experienced in the summer 2021 before global warming can be controlled. We must adapt our infrastructure to these new circumstances. It’s been over 100 years since we faced a problem of this magnitude. New York City’s water system was another costly and difficult challenge. New York used to have clean and plentiful groundwater sources. However, the city developed very quickly and we had to build and finance public reservoirs as well as water mains. The first water system was created at Bryant Park. This reservoir became the NY Public Library’s main branch. As development continued, the water system moved to the north and now lies on land owned in the Croton or Delaware watersheds. New York City enforcement officers spend $300 million annually to protect our water supply. This system is one of the major responsibilities of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection. It is funded through water use fees, which are set by the Water Board.. It is possible that a similar structure or system of funding will be required in order to build a system for flood control in New York City.. Although no one is very excited about paying more taxes, they are not excited about flooding basements and subways. The problem is that it is much easier to generate revenue for a specific need like clean water than to pay for holding tanks that flood. predictedIt might not happen often enough to justify the expense.
The city’s new environmental management system will allow it to have the organizational capacity and ability to develop a strategy for addressing extreme weather conditions, as well as the ability to find financing options and the engineering capacity at DEP to manage and analyze the construction and operation of any infrastructure the city decides. The city’s old, less organized structure couldn’t handle such a complex problem. This structure can.
Last but not the least, the elevated issue of environmental justice and creation of a direct reporting link from Kizzy Charles Guzman and Rit Aggarwala means issues of community impact are being carefully considered when making decisions about environmental infrastructure sitting and outcomes. New York City is on the path to becoming an environmentally sustainable city. This new team and organizational design give reason to believe that the Adams Administration could accelerate the path to sustainability.