Sustainability | Ecotrope

NYC Sustainability Chief Reflects On Portland

Ecotrope | Dec. 5, 2012 10:51 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:28 p.m.

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David Bragdon left his position as Metro president in 2010 to take a job as Mayor Michael Bloomberg's director of long-term planning and sustainability.

David Bragdon left his position as Metro president in 2010 to take a job as Mayor Michael Bloomberg's director of long-term planning and sustainability.

Former Metro president David Bragdon left Portland in 2010 to take a job as New York City’s sustainability chief.

Then, in October, he got a new job managing the restoration of Jamaica Bay, 10,000 acres of land that’s jointly owned by the city of New York and the National Park Service.

He’s back in town and giving a talk tonight at a Climate Solutions event.

But he took a few minutes today to talk about the differences between sustainability policies in New York and Portland.

He noted that New York has used more regulations to spur energy efficiency than Portland. Its environmental policies have been more data-driven while Portland’s are more sentimental.

And, he said, New York does a better job of developing investment tools to achieve sustainability goals and documenting progress toward those goals.

This isn’t the first time Bragdon, who grew up in New York, has compared the two cities. In the past, he’s given Portlanders points for being top-notch recyclers and storm water managers.

“New York under Bloomberg has been very much guided by data, and very much guided by where the biggest impact of private and public action can be. In Portland … it’s more sentimental.”

“Their manual for green streets was copied in part from things here,” he told Think Out Loud before he left Portland in 2010.

But he’s noted that New York has a superior public transit system and is greener in terms of energy use and carbon impacts per person.

“That’s largely a function of transportation and lifestyle produced by having that type of density,” he said.

He’s also flagged differences in the environmental movements in the two cities. As he told Sustainable Business Oregon in 2010:

“In Oregon, it springs more out of the 1970’s, more preservationist environmentalist origins. My sense is that in New York it springs as much from a desire for efficiency and use of resources and economic competitiveness. I think there’s an additional dimension to it. I think it’s a more subtle and sophisticated way of looking at sustainability in economic terms.”

Today, he said, New York City is making big push to address climate change through energy efficiency. The city has built efficiency measures into its building codes, encouraged financing mechanisms to help pay for efficiency upgrades, and it has required commercial building owners to measure and report the energy efficiency of their buildings.

Ava Abreu/Flickr

The city has even offered “energy-aligned lease language” to ensure the risks and benefits of energy efficiency projects are shared by the landlord and tenant.

“Energy efficiency is very much a major focus in New York,” he said.

Financing for efficiency projects that can later be repaid through energy savings has been a hard sell given the sad state of the economy, though.

“It’s a slow uptake,” Bragdon said. “Generally, building owners are hunkered down and wary about making capital investments.”

The city has more regulations spurring sustainability – through changes in building codes, construction codes, housing and zoning codes.


Unlike Portland, where measuring energy efficiency and reporting it is voluntary for commercial building owners, New York mandates it.

However, Bragdon said it’s still too early to tell whether the mandatory benchmarking and reporting have resulted in additional energy efficiency retrofits.

“But it’s drawing more landlords’ and building owners’ attention to the issue,” he said. “What this does is it raises the floor of how many people are aware of it.”

As more building owners disclose their energy use, it opens the door to customers who care about energy efficiency, Bradgon said. It also tells building owners where they can get the most bang for their buck in energy savings. Eventually, the city will make a call as to whether to set energy efficiency requirements for building owners to meet, but right now it’s just a reporting requirement.

“The whole point of benchmarking and reporting is to point the way to where improvements would be most opportune,” he said. “It’s not a heavy mandate in that you’re helping people identify their own self-interest.”

Bragdon said Portland’s 2040 plan for urban growth lays out how people want development to be without a clear financial mechanism to make it happen.

In New York, he said, there’s another layer of planning that addresses how to use investment tools along with regulations to achieve sustainability goals. There’s also an extensive effort to document the results.

“New York under Bloomberg has been very much guided by data, and very much guided by where the biggest impact of private and public action can be,” he said. “In Portland … it’s more sentimental.”

Ok, now it’s your turn: How do you think New York and Portland compare on sustainability?

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