Is the planet doomed?
In Ursula K. LeGuin’s fascinating series of “Hainish” novels, the earth’s future is described with the most chillingly brief offhandedness. Hundreds of years before the events these books relate, the home of the “Terrans” was irreversibly poisoned by war and greed. A remnant of the people survived, and went on, over the centuries, to become part of an interplanetary federation — but the Earth’s sad history remained as an object lesson in what can happen to a world whose inhabitants realize, too late, how much damage they’re capable of.
Current events might seem to justify that sort of fatalism. Last week, the IPCC issued its latest report, stating that global climate change is ongoing, irreversible and worse than we thought. As Arctic ice melts, the Russians are building up their Northern military presence, looking toward exploiting newly-accessible fossil fuels (Canada and the USA are also interested). Many of the lawmakers making up the new Republican majority in the US Congress are eager to drill, burn and deregulate. The new Chair of the Senate Environment Committee is Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe, one of Washington’s most outspoken climate change “skeptics.” Gas prices are down; sales of SUVs and trucks are up. The sky may, actually, be falling.
Meanwhile, though, urban populations are rising, all over the world — and that could possibly be good news. Studies confirm the intuition that city dwellers, who live in smaller spaces, and use more public transportation, have smaller carbon footprints than rural folk (and way smaller than suburbanites). If cities could invest in technology that would make urban life much more ecologically efficient, they could lead the way to a sustainability revolution that could, perhaps, stave off Ursula LeGuin’s dire prediction.
New York, New York, the town so nice they named it twice, is the grandest, richest, most arrogantly potent city in the world. What if New York City were to show the world the way forward — by devoting itself to becoming, as soon as may be, a Green city, creating absolutely the smallest possible environmental damage — even becoming a carbon-neutral city?
Here are ten feasible steps that New York City could take toward becoming a truly green city — while not just maintaining its economic vitality, but actually enhancing it:
1. Use tax policy to incentivize efficient land use.
2. Use the same tax policy to increase funding for public transportation, and make it free.
These first two are by far the most important; they would create the fertile ground in which all the other reforms could grow. But, tax policy is a wonky issue, and I don’t want to lose you — so we’ll come back to it after we’ve considered a few of the snazzier proposals.
3. Drastically reduce private automobile use.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of wandering around in New York after a heavy snowfall has rendered the streets impassable to cars, you’ve fantasized about how nice it would be if the city could always be that open and free. But… we could never actually do that… could we?
NYC’s public transportation system is really quite good, despite the many strikes against it (overcrowding, funding cuts, deteriorating infrastructure). Millions of New Yorkers (over 55% of households) live without private cars. Imagine the tons of fossil fuel New York City could avoid burning, if no private automobiles clogged its streets!
A congestion-pricing system, such as is used in London, was proposed by Mayor Bloomberg in 2007, and had a lot of support, though the state legislature failed to adopt it. It should. It would be a fine first step. Public transportation options could be beefed up, as the cost of driving in the city increased. The policy could begin in Manhattan, and gradually radiate into the Boroughs.
One of the many ways in which private autos are unwisely encouraged is the low price of parking. Motorists should have to pay the true market value of parking spaces. A demand-based, “smart parking” policy would dovetail with congestion pricing for bridge/tunnel entry points to efficiently begin lowering traffic volume. Prices could be gradually increased, until automobile traffic was drastically decreased. Walkable neighborhoods and all manner of “new urbanist” amenities could be created. Sidewalk green spaces could be expanded. Cross streets could be reduced to one vehicle lane, for emergency or delivery traffic; two lanes of every avenue could be reserved for bicycles.
4. Introduce a tradable credit system to incentivize innovation in green building design.
Last year, the Urban Green Council issued a detailed report on how to reduce New York City’s carbon footprint. Titled “90 by 50,” the report describes steps the city could take to reduce its carbon emissions by 90% by 2050. According to the UGC, 75% of New York City’s carbon emissions come from the building, maintaining, heating, cooling and powering of the city’s buildings. Therefore, creating green buildings, and retrofitting existing buildings to save as much energy as possible, has to play a giant role in any campaign toward a sustainable NYC.
The cost of the “90 by 50” effort was roughly estimated at $167 billion for the whole city, over a period of 35 years. That would seem to be rather a lot; NYC’s entire annual budget is in the neighborhood of $70 billion. Nevertheless: it must be done. Indeed, what is the alternative?
So, how about if we make it interesting? Set a per-square-foot carbon emissions target, well below the city’s current median level. Buildings whose emissions are below that level are issued credits they can sell. Until they retrofit to lower their carbon footprints, buildings with emissions above the target level must buy credits. When more buildings bring their emissions down below the target level, the value of credits will fall — and then the level should be lowered.
Designing a metric for this program would be challenging. It would have to equitably account for myriad ways of reducing carbon footprints: producing renewable energy; increasing green spaces; cutting carbon emissions during every stage of a building’s construction. However, all of those factors can be accurately stated in terms of carbon emissions — our climate-change bottom line. The larger challenge would be to ensure that the metrics would be designed in good faith, and not give easier times to various special interests.
Creating the building stock of a green New York City is a project for the entire city. Feasibly doing it should be a potent source of New York pride. Because the stakes are so high, and NYC is such a vast, visible test case, this should be a municipal policy, effective within the Five Boroughs — and New York City’s tradable carbon credits should not recognize offsets from other places.
What’s wrong with offsets? If it’s the whole world’s atmosphere, isn’t a ton of carbon a ton of carbon? Not necessarily — if our goal is to green our own huge, huffing-puffing city. Tradable carbon credits would be measured in terms of tons of carbon. The per-ton cost of reducing NYC emissions would be considerably higher than, say the cost of saving a ton of carbon by African charcoal producers, or Brazilian rainforest loggers. New Yorkers’ smart play would be to just buy the foreign offsets and continue business as usual at home. But, business as usual is exactly what New York City can’t afford. We should pay the costs, and enjoy the benefits, of our own tradable credit policy.
5. Use Our Kids’ Creative Energy to Market the Program
Kids are always the most fervent and instinctive environmentalists. They don’t need to be told that the natural world is beautiful and worth saving; they need no training to recoil from pollution and waste. Let’s explain the stakes and the strategies of the project to our third, fourth and fifth graders, and get them to create posters and videos on its behalf. Let’s utilize our children’s creativity to make the Green NYC Initiative at least as unavoidable as the latest blockbuster movie.
6. Involve public schools in “neighborhood adoption” programs.
It may have struck the reader by now that, given the reality on the ground, the project being considered is fantastically — maybe even ludicrously — optimistic. Involve our public schools? The deep dysfunction of New York City’s public education system is well-known. The City requires eighth graders to apply to high schools. Families compete intensely for admission to the successful upper echelon of public schools. The system leads inexorably to deep stratification — of school quality, and student success. The City University of New York (CUNY), which accepts all NYC high school graduates, reported in 2013 that 80% of its incoming class needed remedial instruction in reading, writing and math. At the bottom of the heap, forty schools in NYC have been designated as “Persistently Dangerous Schools.” Students have a legal right to transfer out of such a school if they wish, but not all do. The forty schools haven’t all closed; kids still attend them.
Many education reformers and activists, seeking ways to serve the needs of actual students (rather than the demands of standardized tests), focus on the alternative of project-based learning. They argue that many — indeed, most — students don’t retain the contextless facts that traditional education tries to pour into their empty heads. Meaningful learning has a better chance of happening, they suggest, if students can undertake projects that make sense to them. Meaningful learning projects happen in real places, not in school cubicles.
What has this to do with the greening of New York City? Possibly, quite a lot. It’s worth remembering that schools, even failing ones, exist in neighborhoods — and that in the final analysis, the environment isn’t so much where spotted owls live as where we live. The retrofitting of all those NYC buildings (to earn their carbon credits) will take not just a lot of work, but also a good deal of economic and logistical planning. Is that not work that bored, difficult, ill-served public school students could do, and benefit from doing? The average age of a New York City building, citywide, is 76 years! And there’s a strong correlation between advanced building age (and the corresponding energy wastage) and local levels of poverty: the colloquial term for this is “slums.”
The process of retrofitting buildings, insulating, installing windows, etc. is labor- and time-intensive. Often it will be happening in people’s homes; those who are doing the work could scarcely help but get to know the residents. It’s hard to imagine that such a people-intensive project, done for such good reasons (bolstered by a colorful, uplifting ad campaign created by children) could fail to yield very positive results. (Some of the value of carbon credits created by the students’ work could even be donated to school programs.) In a real sense, the greening of NYC would amount to a long-overdue setting-in-order of the City’s house.
7. Subsidize “fresh & healthy” food co-ops in “food desert” areas.
It’s well-known that various environmentally-influenced health problems are highly correlated with poverty. The list is long, including obesity, smoking, drug abuse, asthma and STDs. Another phenomenon that correlates with poor areas is “food deserts” — areas in which it’s quite easy to buy cigarettes, lottery tickets and energy drinks, but green vegetables and other healthy foods are expensive and scarce.
Higher-income New Yorkers (whose children attend that top ten percent of successful schools) can take advantage of a smorgasbord of healthy food options. Good restaurants are everywhere. Local food co-ops are prosperous and inviting; the Union Square Farmer’s Market is an oasis of culinary wonderfulness. However, these options are exclusive, both economically and spatially. Organic food stores, stocking local produce, present themselves as being “part of the solution” — and in some ways, they are — but they aren’t sited in poor neighborhoods. Not only that: folks who live in the food desert of East Harlem could, perhaps, hop on the Lex Ave subway and shop at the Union Square market — but by and large, they don’t.
It’s widely admitted that affordable housing isn’t provided by “the market” in New York (and many other cities) and must therefore be subsidized. Evidently the market doesn’t provide affordable healthy food in poor areas, either. Let’s make a public investment in food co-ops in the poorest neighborhoods. Wouldn’t that pay for itself in many ways? Local residents could work in the coop stores in exchange for lower food prices — and the stores could be advertised via our school-kid PR campaign!
8. Create a “Sister City” program to share and spread New York City’s best practices.
The greening of New York City will be an inclusive, organic, multilayered process. High school students will be able to proudly point out buildings they have helped to renovate. The whole campaign will have been promoted by kids’ efforts. Innovation and competition to create new kinds of green buildings will be exciting and newsworthy. The technologies, practices and procedures New York develops along the way will be available for use by any other city that’s willing. What better way to share the progress, then, than to partner up with other metropolises — less prosperous, perhaps, but faced with the same environmental challenges? The greening of nuestra hermana, Mexico City, perhaps?
9. Tax styrofoam containers, plastic utensils and plastic packaging.
Does anyone really believe these things aren’t too cheap? That they don’t entail huge external costs? That they’re desperately needed and no viable substitutes for them exist? Seriously. While we’re a it, other egregiously wasteful products could be targeted for Pigouvian tax treatment, such as non-rechargeable batteries and old-style incandescent light bulbs.
10. Identify and fund organic, natural solutions to flood control, such as oyster reefs.
New Yorkers have always loved their oysters. The delicious, slimy little creatures have been harvested and savored here for centuries. There’s a good reason for that: oysters like to live in the boundary zone where salt water and fresh water meet — and New York’s harbor offered a very large and accessible expanse of such waters. The gigantic reefs, slowly built by trillions of oysters, provided a highly effective natural seawall that protected the area from storm surges. Over the years, though, oyster-gobbling and harbor-dredging did away with the reefs. Eventually, water pollution rendered it impossible even to farm-raise oysters locally (but in recent years this industry has started to come back).
Wetlands also helped to stabilize the shorelines and mitigate erosion and storm damage; little by little, though, they were filled in and built on. In the Netherlands, a country experienced at storm-surge management, large tracts of valuable farmland was simply expropriated for use toward the general good of flood management. Some of this will undoubtedly need to be done along the shorelines of Brooklyn and Queens. A program is already under discussion to compensate homeowners for voluntarily moving out of these low-lying areas.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and as sea levels creep inexorably upward, New York City has no choice but to protect itself against increasingly severe storms and high waters. This represents a formidable engineering challenge, which will have many components. Existing buildings can be modified to make lower floors and underground areas waterproof; levees and floodgates can be built. It’s been prominently suggested, however, that efforts to renew the natural flood-protectors of wetlands and oyster reefs could play a vital role in the overall effort to preserve New York City in an era of rising seas and stronger storms.
1 & 2: What was that about Tax Policy?
We said above that the most important aspect of this entire program, the thing that would make every other part practicable, is to adopt a tax policy that would 1) Incentivize efficient land use and 2) Increase funding for public transportation, and make it free. Now, what sort of tax policy could be expected to do those things?
It would have to be quite different from what we have now. On these two pivotal issues — efficient land use and effectively funding public transportation — current tax policy pushes New York City in exactly the wrong directions.
The vastness and dynamism of New York City serves to obscure the fact that NYC is very significantly under-built. Citywide, the average building has only 51% of the indoor space that zoning allows on its site. In Manhattan’s Community District 5 — Midtown, the city’s highest-built area — 42.9% of sites have buildings that are less than half the allowable size (and 41.8% of the buildings in that district were built before 1940). Manhattan has 399 acres of privately-owned vacant land. Another 1,228 acres in Manhattan are all but vacant: they sport buildings whose assessed value is 20% or less of the value of the land they’re on. (Source: NYC Dept. of Finance Assessment Rolls)
Does it make any sense for the most expensive real estate in the United States to be so drastically underused? In terms of environmental sustainability, it’s clear that if people are not living and working in the densest, best-connected urban spaces, then they are doing so sprawled somewhere further out — using more roads, burning more gas, doing everything more wastefully, less synergistically. To see how this process Our tax system reinforces this behavior, by rewarding people for holding urban land as an investment, and by penalizing them for building. These bad incentives could be reversed by simply progressively decreasing the property tax applied to buildings, and increasing the tax on the land that lies beneath them.
Such a tax shift, in it’s unadulterated form, would have many benefits. Examples include drastically reducing urban sprawl and poverty. Normally, taxes are seen as an unfortunate necessity, a penalty that serves to reduce our supply of the things we want. This is not true of a tax on land value, however, because land value is not produced by the land’s owner; it is produced by the surrounding community, and public investment in making that site safe, efficient and desirable. A tax on land value simply recovers those community-created values.
Building a house on a nice little piece of land somewhere is still something that normal people can more or less accomplish on their own. This leads us to think of real estate as just one sort of thing: a building on a piece of land. In cities, however, because of the size and great risk of development, the real estate business divides into two essentially antithetical parts: the developers, who design, construct and operate buildings — and the land speculators. The latter group just holds sites. Perhaps they hold them entirely idle. More often, though, they put them to some minimal use, enough to pay the property tax (since there is little or no valuable structure on the site, the conventional property tax is, relatively, very low). A surface parking lot is ideal for this; so is a fast-food franchise.
Funding Transit: the Henry George Theorem
To sum up a long story, then: we could stimulate efficient land use in cities by taking the community-created rental value of land out of speculator’s hands, and using it for public revenue. This was the proposal made by the American economist Henry George in his 1879 worldwide bestseller, Progress and Poverty. In recent years, this principle has been affirmed by such prominent economists as Joseph Stiglitz, Richard Arnott and William Vickrey, in what they call the Henry George Theorem. In essence, this theorem holds that public investment is reflected in land values — and that to the extent that local public investment is efficient, its cost can be completely paid by a levy on local land rents: no other revenue source is necessary.
This principle is perfectly obvious in the case of one vitally important fixture of urban life — which is, moreover, crucial to environmental sustainability: public transportation. The effect of high-quality public transportation on land value is well-known — so much so that “near trans” is a standard rent-justifying item in rental ads.
New York City’s transportation system is huge. Five and a half million people ride the subway on an average weekday. The MTA’s annual cost of collecting fares is approximately $810 million per year (its major operating cost, of course, is wages; it only spends some $530 million per year on electric power).
The Henry George Theorem implies that were the MTA funded by the land value that its service creates, there would be enough revenue to not only operate it, but to eliminate fares. (After all, someone who commutes to work every day pays over $1,300 per year in subway fares. That is part of what people are willing to pay to live in New York — so we know that eliminating the transit fare would raise land rents by that amount!)
The Tax Shift would Support Green Buildings
The property tax on buildings is a significant part of their annual cost; therefore it influences what gets built, the economic viability of various developments. It’s one big reason why “affordable housing” is seen as chronically unprofitable — and why new developments tend to be so big, and so luxuriously high-priced.
It’s generally true that tall buildings tend to be more energy-efficient than small, sprawled-out buildings surrounded by lots of pavement. It doesn’t follow, however, that a skyscraper like 432 Park Avenue, with its 10×10 foot windows on every wall, are bastions of sustainability.
Our proposal to set up a tradable-credit system to create green buildings would dovetail perfectly with the shift to land value taxation. The tax shift would remove taxation from buildings. The tradable credit system would effectively retain the taxation of buildings, to the extent that they failed to reduce their carbon footprint. Thus, not only would wasteful, inefficient buildings be taxed, but they would be taxed in an environment in which efficient buildings were simultaneously being un-taxed! If the city were to simultaneously adopt land value taxation and tradable credits for green buildings, their beneficial effects would reinforce each other.
What Are We Waiting For?
Climate change isn’t a “maybe.” It’s here. But the steps outlined are a win for everybody. There’s a tax-shift advocacy group that says, “New York City: the best place in the world — but it could be a whole lot better!” This town has the wealth, the spirit and the chutzpah to show the entire world how a prosperous and sustainable 21st-century city is done: without federal help, without, possibly, even Andrew Cuomo’s permission. So let’s get started. The alternative isn’t good.