Central to the City’s sustainability efforts is PlaNYC, the monumental program linking hundreds of greening initiatives across City operations. Yet how sustainable is PlaNYC itself? As a project of the Mayor’s Office, it was created almost completely by government agency staff and consultants. The public wasn’t involved in creating the plan, so no grassroots constituency or broad public support ever developed around it. The limitation of this strategy was quickly revealed when in 2007 PlaNYC aimed to stabilize mass transit funding and reduce traffic congestion by setting up fees for driving into Manhattan’s business districts. Vehement opposition quickly overwhelmed the initiative. Now, in its 2011 update, PlaNYC officials claim a strong commitment to public engagement. It’s not just pleasant rhetoric: building public support for PlaNYC before the 2013 Mayoral election may be the single most important initiative of them all.

In tough economic times, even the most sensible long-term priorities are at risk from budget cuts, especially for a Mayoral project like PlaNYC, without a permanent official role in City government. Unless the next Mayor has a strong sustainability commitment or constituency, the project is likely to fall from its current high priority. PlaNYC could quickly become a shadow of its former self.

One proposal to assure that PlaNYC continues would amend the City Charter to make PlaNYC into a permanent civic body run jointly by the Mayor and other elected officials, while developing a public planning process to guide its implementation, but logical reasons to support PlaNYC don’t offer strong enough motivation to work. Financial incentives, either through future savings or avoiding future costs, seem to work better. From the failure of the 2007 congestion pricing campaign, we’ve learned that the carrot of secure mass transit funding was too abstract and impersonal to trigger broad public support, but the stick of paying higher fees killed support. On the other hand, some sustainability programs that promise future savings are finding customers. Con Edison is offering free energy efficiency assessments, and 70% off retail price for upgrades. Government incentives now pay as much as 80% of the cost of solar power systems. If participation in even these programs depends on hefty incentives, ad campaigns, and the hard work of salaried outreach staff, is it realistic to expect New Yorkers to spontaneously self-organize neighborhood greening projects through PlaNYC’s new Change By Us social media platform?

Study existing neighborhood sustainability organizing movements.

Are there social movements whose narratives or techniques might support PlaNYC? Sustainable Flatbush and the Lower East Side Ecology Center, neighborhood environmental groups cited in PlaNYC, are good models but depend on dedicated staff and funding. Some groups are great at bringing together volunteers, like 350.org for climate change activists and United for Action for opponents of natural gas hydrofracking, but are too narrow in their appeal and lack a local focus. Groups affiliated with the environmental justice movement focus on providing low-income and minority communities with equal protection from environmental burdens, but lack broad appeal. All of these groups have some but not all of the features necessary.

Transition and Bright Neighbor may be better social organizing models for New York City. Started in Britain just a few years ago, the Transition method of grassroots organizing is now being used in hundreds of communities around the world. Volunteer-led talks or documentary screenings show how current economic worries, higher energy prices and climate change are all connected. Volunteers set up local brainstorming sessions, where neighbors meet, envision how their community can become more resilient and sustainable in the future, and create local projects to implement that vision.

Bright Neighbor, a Portland, Oregon software platform for neighborhood sustainability, combines community involvement and online social tools to enable users to get to know their neighbors, build neighborhood and block-by-block barter networks and food systems, inventory skills and items for trade, pay or free, set up ride sharing, and plant neighborhood fruit and nut trees. The network has been deployed in 95 Portland neighborhoods. Portland Mayor Sam Adams calls Bright Neighbor an important city partner, and founder Randy White calls it a training program for communities.

PlaNYC 3.0 – a laboratory for social movements

We must raise public participation in PlaNYC before the 2013 election to ensure that the City’s sustainability projects are themselves sustainable. PlaNYC could gain a vast amount of leverage by recruiting the City’s vast number of civic groups, but that won’t happen by good intentions alone: the City needs to provide financial support for public engagement. If just 1% of the City’s green business, social sciences and marketing experts started thinking about the City’s sustainability initiatives, who knows what innovation could result! Citizens who recognize what’s at stake can develop entrepreneurial ways for civic groups to profit from promoting sustainability and better narratives and organizing tools to make PlaNYC a permanent part of the City’s culture. It’s time for that 1% to step forward, and convene the laboratories for social movements that PlaNYC will need not just to thrive, but to expand.

Next steps: open source brainstorming

Beyond Oil NYC proposes to collaboratively organize a series of multidisciplinary group discussions using the World Cafe method of conducting meetings. The topics to be explored can include: ways for nonprofits and civic groups to produce valuable goods or services while promoting sustainability initiatives; ways to promote sustainability at the community level; or other questions that come up. The goal is to expand the sustainability discussion using decentralized, open-source, non-hierarchical but efficient methods.

Introduction to the World Cafe method

After welcomes and introductions, groups of any size break up into small groups sitting around tables for a round of 20 minutes. Each round is prefaced with a question for the context and purpose of the setting. One member of the group volunteers to be the reporter, and take notes of the table’s responses to the question. At the end of the 20 minute round, the reporters from each table take turns sharing their small group’s deliberations with the larger group. If there is a second round, everyone except the reporter would then go to another table and the process repeats. After the meeting, notes are summarized and shared via email with all participants.

The notes from each meeting will be posted on www.BeyondOilNYC.org and other sites so the combined insights of many diverse NYC groups and networks will be conveniently available.

Your group or network is invited to participate.

Any group or network interested in collaborating with Beyond Oil NYC can host a World Cafe meeting, by finding a venue with tables and chairs suitable for 20 – 200 participants, and putting the invitation out to its members or email contacts.

If your organization would like to host or co-sponsor a World Cafe meeting, or if you would like to suggest additional ways to organize meetings or coordinate information sharing, please contact Beyond Oil NYC.


By Dan Miner, Beyond Oil NYC

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