Can Michael Bloomberg’s New York manifesto change the world?

Cities: Bloomberg 2, water, 2012The Guardian – by Beth Gardiner

From his high-profile smoking and transfat bans to the creation of new parks and bike lanes, Michael Bloomberg‘s 12 years as mayor were a time of innovation and change in New York. Besides such high-profile measures, there were also less visible efforts, like the drafting of a long-term resiliency plan for city.

Fresh out of office, the billionaire businessman, never short of ambition, has broadened his sights to the lives of city-dwellers around the world. With migration to cities increasing nearly everywhere, the data-driven Bloomberg believes improving conditions in big urban areas is the best way to make an impact on the largest number of people. Bloomberg is redeploying many top members of his mayoral team to Bloomberg Associates, a consultancy that will, free of charge, advise cities on how best to tackle their problems, adapting and applying the approaches he used to make New York greener and more livable.  

During his years in office, New York often played host to officials from around the world interested in borrowing Bloomberg’s ideas on issues such as cleaning up air pollution, preparing for the impacts of climate change, and pedestrianising major spaces like Times Square.

“Bloomberg’s clearly very proud of that, and sees his future as being a catalyst for positive change in cities,” says Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Centre for an Urban Future, a New York thinktank. “All of these initiatives are fairly modest in scale, but they really do add up, they really have results. And that’s something that will resonate with other city leaders.”

It is not just Bloomberg’s ideas but his fortune, and willingness to spend it, that make him so influential. In addition to US causes such as gun control, he has focused through his charity, Bloomberg Philanthropies, on extending his anti-tobacco efforts overseas, reducing traffic deaths in countries including China, India and Russia, and ending coal burning, among many other issues, spending $370m (£223m) in 2012.

Cities: Bloomberg 3, rio, 2012Michael Bloomberg (left), and Rio de Janeiro’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, during a visit to a favela in Rio, 2012. Photograph: Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

Rio de Janeiro’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, has worked closely with Bloomberg. He says Bloomberg’s example inspired him to expand Rio’s flood preparations, prioritise pedestrians and cyclists in a port revitalisation project, and create new green spaces in run-down areas. Paes also launched a non-emergency phone number modelled on Bloomberg’s 311 line, which residents can use to report problems and access many services. Rodrigo Rosa, a special adviser to Paes, says Rio had also looked to New York’s example as it designed its new “geek unit” of technical experts focused on using data to improve the city’s management, and its “hackathons” – two- or three-day events bringing specialists together to brainstorm solutions to knotty problems.

“Of course, cities are different, New York and Rio are different,” Rosa says. “But we have learned from their experience.”

Others may too, he says. Bloomberg’s team has said little about which cities it may advise but Rosa hopes they will give special attention to the needs of developing world metropolises. Central to all his efforts is a businessman’s focus on good management, data collection and bold new ideas. He is also likely to retain his trademark “bullpen” open-plan office layout, which he believes encourages the free flow of ideas as underlings work side by side with their bosses.

More than 180 European cities have registered to compete in Bloomberg’s 2013-2014 Mayors Challenge, each devising a new solution to a problem facing its residents. He has already reached out to many American cities, giving $23m to hire teams of advisers to help Atlanta, Chicago, Memphis, Louisville and New Orleans with efforts to cut homelessness, murders and gun violence, and make city services more accessible.

Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, used his team to streamline licensing procedures for small business, passing a bill in just four months to reduce such red tape by 60%. He is also pushing to make homes and apartment buildings more energy efficient, offering free energy audits and supplies, launching an information hotline and organising house parties to spread the word.

A focus on resilience

Having steered New York through the destruction of hurricane Sandy, one of the most important lessons Bloomberg may have to share is that preparing for big storms really does matter. Helping other cities to draft resiliency plans like the one Bloomberg’s team wrote after Sandy is likely to be a key part of his post-mayoral efforts. His $20bn blueprint recommended better protection for electrical infrastructure, helping property owners move critical equipment out of basements and creating a mix of barriers, levees, sand dunes and wetlands to limit the impact of floods. The details of resiliency measures elsewhere will vary depending on local conditions, and New York’s advice is likely be most useful to other coastal cities, says Alice Balbo, resilient cities programme manager at ICLEI Global, a Bonn-based group that helps local governments promote sustainability.

However, Bloomberg’s determination to push preparation for rising sea levels and volatile weather to the top of the political agenda may resonate more widely. “It’s not so much the specifics, but it’s the idea that a part of a city’s governance function is to take a long-term perspective,” says Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s Earth institute. “The idea is that climate adaptation is going to be a basic function of the city, as well as greenhouse gas reduction.”

Cities: Bloomberg 1, 2012The skyline of lower Manhattan, New York, as hurricane Sandy hits, in 2012. Photograph: Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

That belief was evident in PlaNYC, New York’s landmark 2007 sustainability blueprint, which laid out the environmental agenda that Bloomberg spent his remaining years in office implementing, including expanding public transport, improving buildings’ energy efficiency, replacing polluting school buses and ensuring that every New Yorker lives within 10 minutes’ walk of a park, among many other goals.

During the crafting of PlaNYC a steady stream of officials from other cities visited the mayor’s office, recalls Rohit Aggarwala, a Bloomberg official who now advises C40, a network of cities that share carbon-cutting ideas. “They were saying, ‘can you spend an hour or two with us to tell us how you got the plan done?'” The volume of requests became almost impossible to meet.

One issue with worldwide resonance is making buildings greener and Bloomberg’s “benchmarking” approach – requiring owners of large buildings to assess and report their energy use – has already been widely imitated in the US. It can reveal that a few buildings are responsible for a disproportionate share of carbon emissions and inform decisions on tackling them. A number of other cities, Bowles says, have really been looking to it as a fairly affordable way of kickstarting major investments in energy efficiency for older buildings.

Urbanites’ health is also central to building resilience and New York’s ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, its prohibition on transfats in restaurant cooking, and requirement that chain eateries include calorie counts on menus drew worldwide attention, as did his unsuccessful attempt to stop sales of supersized sugary drinks.

The biggest take-home message for those looking to implement similar public health measures? “He showed that initial public scepticism could be very quickly overcome, and that these kind of issues proved to be much more popular than a lot of people thought” they would be, Bowles says. “You’ll probably see more and more cities globally enact these kinds of public health campaigns.”

Paul Romer, director of New York University’s Marron Institute on Cities and the Urban Environment, says any city could adopt the central pillar of Bloomberg’s approach – letting data drive policy decisions.

Early on in New York, he says, the mayor made life expectancy a key metric. That led to a focus on preventable deaths, including a requirement that highrise apartment buildings have child window guards and changes to the intersections where many pedestrians had been injured by vehicles.

Every city in the world can benefit by copying this kind of data-driven discipline in management, Romer says – in areas including crime, public health, transport and climate adaptation. “It doesn’t require fancy algorithms or big data infrastructure. It does take a change in attitude.”

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