Take a Deep Breath

It’s hard to see how any city can thrive without clean air. And while New York City is still a long way from becoming the Beijing of the United States—the Chinese capital has had to spend $17 billion to get its air within a barely acceptable range for Olympic athletes—a new report from the American Lung Association places the city within the top 10 most polluted cities in the United States.

The association lists New York’s air quality as “dangerous,” with high ozone levels, and sees a resulting increase in risk for heart disease and lung cancer. And with the expected influx of one million new residents over the next 25 years, it’s clear that, without a focused and well-funded green strategy from City Hall, New York’s enviable quality-of-life gains—low crime rate, improving public schools, strong real estate market—will have to do battle with increased perceptions of the city as a health risk to oneself and one’s children.

Mayor Bloomberg has shown he understands the challenge; his plan to plant one million new trees in the city by 2017, which will help reduce ozone pollution, is one of several environmental proposals he has put forward. The mayor’s congestion pricing plan—had Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver not sabotaged it, in keeping with his remarkable legacy of always putting the interests of Shelly Silver ahead of the interests of the voters whom he represents—would have made a severe dent in pollution levels.

To see how smart policy can protect a natural resource, look no further than the city’s water. The ongoing aggressive strategy to encourage responsible and environmentally sound development around the Catskill and Delaware watersheds—where most of our water originates—resulted in a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency which exempts New York—for now—from being forced to build an $8 billion filtration plant. (The city is, however, spending over $1 billion on a filtration plant to protect water supplies from the Croton watershed.) There is no reason similar forward-looking strategies cannot be applied to air quality.

While Mr. Bloomberg’s head and heart are in the right place, the moment is ripe to appoint a “green czar” for New York — someone who would coordinate and promote green policies across city agencies, making sure that pollution-fighting measures such as congestion pricing, hybrid taxis and buses, and strict review of proposed power plants are constantly on the table. An environmental czar would recognize that environmental policy is multidimensional, and encompasses more than bike paths. The last thing we want is a rising pollution rate to drive away residents and business the way a rising crime rate used to. Who will be the Ray Kelly of the environment?

New York is blessed with a spectacular waterfront, a vast complex of waterways, magnificent green parks and open spaces. There’s no reason the city shouldn’t be an example to cities around the world in promoting environmental values. We’ll be watching to see which candidates planning to run for Mayor next year put forward a strong green platform.

Take a Deep Breath