As a lead-up to Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, Jan. 18-25, Masdar sponsored a blogging contest called “Engage: Cities and Sustainable Development.” The following post, a fictional piece set in 2050, was the winner.
By Tyler Caine
Associated Press – October 17th, 2050 – New York, NY
Yesterday afternoon, New York City’s administrators reported that the city has reached its goal of resource neutrality. This is a culmination of a multi-decade effort marred by numerous setbacks, including the Hurricane Katie in 2017 and Superstorm Heather in 2032. With less than two months before the end-of-the-year deadline, New York joins several international urban centers in completing the challenge set forth during the 2016 Sochi Accord. The Accord countered the once widely accepted practice of structuring cities as dense sinks of resources, requiring outlying rural and suburban land to survive.
The Big Apple was not the first city to achieve its dynamic equilibrium with the biosphere, but it is the largest in the United States. Contrary to early 21st century beliefs, post-industrial cities provided the flexibility necessary to become resource neutral. Several cities have already surpassed the goals of the Sochi Accord and achieved the coveted “Net Positive” rating from the USGBC’s LEED “Mid-Millennium” rating system.
New York’s Mayor, Sasha Rodriguez, commented on the city’s long road. “The beginnings of success came from acknowledging the city as a system of systems. There was no silver bullet, but the exponential leaps in efficiency came from helping multiple systems evolve together and letting them benefit from each other’s progress.”
Several technological advances also spurned advancement. The city migrated from exporting food waste to using it to produce energy that now powers hundreds of thousands of homes in the five boroughs. Additionally, the growth of 3-D printing now allows massive amounts of “resources” to never leave the island, with old products and packaging easily broken down and printed into new ones.
The mayor was quick to point out, “Hanging our hat on technology alone would never have gotten us here.” From the beginning of the century, the city has returned 35 percent of its vehicular street grid (which once comprised 25 percent of the city’s acreage) back to its citizens in the form of pedestrian plazas, alternative transit and green space. “[That] alone helped reduce heat island temperatures, deplete stormwater runoff and reduce emissions – all of which had positive energy repercussions.”
City Council Speaker Richard Kennedy was quick to admit that regulation played a subdued role. “We never wanted regulation to act as a ceiling, but rather as a foundation supporting innovation. Whether it was LED lighting, next-gen appliances, recycling, or standards of building envelopes, I think the times we used the regulatory path were more empowering than restrictive.”
So when asked whether laws or technology was the most important to the city’s progress, Mayor Rodriguez smiled and shook her head. “Neither actually. The biggest challenge was a cultural understanding of what we were trying to achieve and deciding to do it. Recycling laws don’t make people recycle. Bike lanes don’t make people ride. This administration, and previous administrations, merely facilitated options for urban evolution and the citizens of New York responded. Realizing that ‘sustainability’ was not a technological fix for a wasteful lifestyle was a conscious cultural choice. The results, well, they speak for themselves.”
Leaving with some encouraging words towards the prospects of future progress, Deputy Mayor Wesley Chang said, “Oh, we’re not at the end. The smaller cities started with a leg up, but there is still a lot out there to accomplish.” According to the administration, future efforts include more space for urban farming, completing the “Street CONNECT” renovation of the subway system and adding to the city’s coastline resiliency storm measures.
Tyler Caine is a LEED-accredited architect practicing in New York City as part of COOKFOX Architects. In addition to his own blog, InterconGreen.com, Caine’s writings have been featured on ArchDaily, Green Economy Post and the Sustainable Cities Collective.