A Vision for 8 Million People: PLANYC 2030

PLANYC 2030: Not just a walk in the park

TGEink ClassicIn 2007, the City, under the guidance of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, did something almost no other city has done: it assessed its future needs and started planning: setting goals, designing solutions, and implementing.  

Approximately 0.11% of the world’s population lives in the 5 boroughs of New York City.  The current population is projected to reach 10 million in the near future.  PlaNYC is an ambitious blueprint to keep New York clean, safe and prosperous. The flexibility of the plan means it can continue to provide guidance for New York’s future, despite radical and unexpected changes in the ensuing years. As numbers of people move to cities globally and as populations rises—reaching 7 billion on Halloween of 2011—larger and larger numbers of people are living in cities. The New York plan provides a model for long term adaptation in a rapidly changing technological world that must be very smart about resources used to preserve—or expand—prosperity. 

There are many things that make the plan unique, but most of all it is a plan for a very large population—8 million people—and the enormously complex city of New York. If they can do it, then there are lessons to be learned for organizations large and small. 


PlaNYC (Generally pronounced PLAN-Y-C), began by collecting data and analyzing the impact of future growth on the City’s assets and liabilities. Like a design for a building, it started by assessing function: what the plan should accomplish and what resources are available. The Plan includes a comprehensive analysis of ten major areas: housing, open space, brownfields, water quality, water network, traffic congestion, roads, energy, air quality and climate change.  

By outlining the state of the City’s infrastructure and resources, including an analysis of the needs of an economically and ethnographically diverse population, the plan lays a solid groundwork for future actions.  Decisions can be weighed against a standard, and measured in terms of how well specific agendas meet the overall future needs of New York City.  Just as important, by making the document publicly available and widely published, it has created a transparent mechanism to break silos, bringing together city Agencies, nonprofits, utilities, New York State, Federal Agencies, private capital and interest groups in the solving of problems that cross many boundaries. 


PlaNYC 2030 was recently updated with a report card:  PlaNYC 2011. What can be seen is that in the four years since the plan was set in motion, the city has done a lot and learned a lot.  Since energy is an over arching issue, we have focused on that section of the report, using it as a window into the plan’s evolution, and how well the City is meeting their objectives. By looking at the 14 points in PlaNYC 2030 and the 17 in PlaNYC 2011, a broad outline emerges.  Some early initiatives have fallen by the wayside, others are undergoing more planning and evaluation, and still others have been put in place. 

One of the first challenges the City confronted has been the limits of a City, within a State, within a Federal system, to control and regulate utilities and dictate their energy future. With a firm grasp of these realities, the City has turned to adapting existing facilities, building coalitions, fulfilling promises, learning from experience and watching the program be voluntarily adopted by institutions throughout the five boroughs.

The New Jersey Planning Process: A Study in Contrasts

In the same year, 2007, New Jersey’s Governor Jon S. Corzine’s Executive Order #54 mandated the stabilization of greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by 2020, and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 2006 levels by 2050.

This was much like deciding on a new building of a certain size and location, without the relevant data about how many would use it and what those people might need from the building, now and in the future. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), in concert with several other state agencies, was tasked with figuring that out.  The 12-18 month long process of hearings and evaluations, involving community groups, consultants, businesses and other interests, was a costly way to go about collecting data, and created confusion in the business community that needed to know how the plan would impact their future.  In some instances, the result was adoption of recommendations—some of which satisfied the needs of one interest group at the expense of another.  When Chris Christie was elected in 2010, the landscape changed—along with the people in power—and recommendations were abandoned, modified or enforced, creating further confusion for the business community. There is no plan in place to evaluate those changes against the long term economic needs of New Jersey.  


As Robert Burns wrote, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley”. One of the reasons that long term planning can be a challenge is that the modern world changes so fast, and what is known today may turn out to be only a part of the solution later. By starting with data and goals, PlaNYC 2030 has shown itself to be flexible enough to adapt to realities as they emerge.  The original plan called for new power plants to meet growing demand and as a response to the power failure in Western Queens in 2006. However, the current plan abandons that approach, citing the lack of land suitable and zoned for such development, as well as an unfavorable regulatory landscape. The Tsunami in Japan made the closing of Indian Point Nuclear Power station more likely, and the City found that there are grid vulnerabilities which effect how much energy can be imported from out of state.  As a result, the plan has shifted to strategies that get more from existing resources in the short term, while working toward longer term expansion. The main thrusts are re-powering existing plants, empowering and promoting smart grids:

  • Repowering: replacing old equipment with newer and more efficient equipment. Newer equipment can use cleaner fuels, use current fuels more efficiently, and generate less pollution. 
  • Smart Grids: a hyper-connected grid that can do many things: make utilities more efficient (see “Connecting the Dots” in this Magazine), and give consumers immediate use and price information so that they can change their habits.  Utilities are experimenting with two-way technologies that allow the utility to set thermostats a degree or two up or down to balance loads during peak periods. For large commercial buildings, such arrangements include price incentives and negotiating the temperature ranges so that personnel rarely notice the difference.  A degree or two can make a significant difference to a utility. 
  • Distributed Energy: Being an advocate of distributed energy (DE), the City is building new cogeneration plants at Rikers Island and the new Police Academy in Queens. These projects will create 15 MW by reusing waste heat from energy generation and other activities.  

Having a goal for energy—reliable power for New York as well as data to put that into context—PlaNYC has the flexibility to adopt or integrate new strategies as those options become more viable.

  • Coalitions: System wide problems need system wide solutions. The transparency provided by PlaNYC 2030 has made coalition building—always a marathon, never a sprint—achieve successes by working with existing groups as well as building new advisory groups and interagency tasks forces. Since there is a clearly defined agenda supported by the Mayor’s office, recommendations presented by such groups get a hearing at the decision making level.  One example is the way the City has approached building codes:
  • Building Codes: According to the Plan, nearly 75% of the city’s carbon emissions come from buildings.  However, the City (like most public entities) has outmoded building codes that cross many agencies: utilities, zoning, public safety and land use for starters. Regulations have evolved over literally hundreds of years. In some cases, agencies are required by law to enforce standards written in the eighteenth century when coal or heating oil kept New Yorkers warm in winter, let them swelter in summer, and didn’t have to deal with a city of millions connecting to an internet. In addition, buildings engage a range of professional skills—engineers, architects, interior designers, electricians, plumbers, site engineers—each with their own set of licensing requirements, agency overseers and potential for liability.  What may be a good solution for an HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) contractor may not work well for an environmental remediation engineer, or vice versa.  Sorting through such a morass of interests is impossible without creating consensus amongst many different stakeholder groups, and using experts to provide practical insights into evolving practices. 

As a first small step, PlaNYC has listened to an alliance of 200 professionals, The Urban Green Council, which made 111 recommendations for revising the building codes of which 22 have been adopted. A Building Sustainability Board is developing guidelines for new technologies, and The City established a New York City Energy Planning Board, consisting of city and state utilities, and an Energy Policy Task Force, which is a mix of private groups. All are learning to work together, and have either submitted, or are in the process of submitting, recommendations. 
While progress takes time, the reality of a plan along with the transparency it provides, ensures that all stakeholders understand the goals, the makeup of the groups engaged in finding solutions, and have access to reports, recommendations and proposals.  

Keeping promises

Promises that are made and not kept devalue an entire initiative. Any plan, no matter how big and how ambitious, contains elements that are entirely under the purview of the plan designers. In PlaNYC, these included measuring building energy footprint and investing in efficiency.

  • Measuring: In PlaNYC 2030, the City promised to walk the walk, which included measuring all 2,700 government buildings and making that information public.  The City defined terms, codified procedures and developed comprehensive rules to be followed by city buildings. Based on this experience, the initiative is now extended to include 16,000 of the City’s largest buildings. 
  • Investing: The City promised to set aside 10% of the multi-million dollar City energy budget for energy efficiency programs, and fulfilled that promise, including $700 million which went to schools for energy efficiency. These efforts have kept the integrity of the Plan in place, and energized an otherwise skeptical public.
  • Lessons learned: As plans evolve, if the lessons learned are not captured in some form, the plan can either go off track, lose momentum, or fail to realize important gains that can lead to better outcomes. For PlaNYC 2030, a lot of information about energy use and efficiency, as well as what works, has been learned and reported in PlaNYC 2011, particularly in energy efficiency and renewable energy.
  • Energy Efficiency: The City found that 17% of energy savings from energy efficiency efforts in city buildings came from simply turning off lights and setting thermostats correctly.  When they found that agencies that do not pay their own electricity bills were less responsive than those that did pay their bills, they began developing mechanisms so that energy users would be incented to save energy. Along the way, they began a series of initiatives to make energy upgrades more attractive to building owners with tenants who pay energy bills.  
  • Renewable Energy: A poll showed that 60% of New Yorkers would pay more for energy from renewable sources, which can pave the way for more renewable projects inside or near the City. Since New York has little space for large solar or wind installations, the planners are looking at codes for wind on buildings, integrating wind from offshore, solar thermal (solar on rooftops for heating water) and other approaches. 

Learning how to adopt these new technologies, integrate agencies and motivate people is part of the evolving lessons learned.  PlaNYC 2011, in updating the 2007 plan, reflects a change in the way the city does business.  As silos break down and stakeholder groups find strength in coalitions, as new data is generated, and as the city progresses to more ways of solving complex problems, these lessons become important not just for the city but for others as well.


One of the stated goals of PlaNYC is to be a model for other entities, be they public or private. As the City finds ways to collect and analyze data, to explore new collaborations, and streamline procedures, it has become the largest laboratory for implementing broad social and economic change. Within the City, the Mayor’s challenge has been voluntarily adopted and there has been a concerted effort to make information available.

Voluntary Adoption

29 Hospitals and Universities accepted the Mayor’s challenge.  They created emissions inventories and action plans, and meet regularly to share information.  With around 75 campuses and as much as 80 million square feet (about 13% the size of the Manhattan land mass), this is a sizable commitment. Many have already met their 2030 goals, and are setting new ones. 


The City has engaged in a communications plan to ensure that other cities and states know what they are doing, and how they are doing it. Initiatives that have planted trees, expanded community gardens and increased urban open spaces, have made the city more attractive. Enhancing the brand of New York City brings with it enviable benefits in terms of real estate values, tourism, job growth and more. Solving all of the problems of a city as large as New York is a long journey.  But it is the future for New York and most of the rest of the people living in the world. Setting goals, measuring the success of those goals, and planning for the next steps is a process that can keep that journey on track for this and the next generation. 

For our scorecard on the progress from 2007 to 2011, see the magazine, Planning & Vision.