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Opportunities and Challenges of a Sustainable City in the 21st Century – A Comparison of Hamburg and New York

The Brazilian architect and urban planner Jamie Lerner once said “The city is not a problem. It is a solution.” On December 1, at the German Center for Research and Innovation (GCRI) New York, representatives from government, commerce, and the media in Hamburg and New York City discussed the global trend of urbanization, its challenges, and what kinds of policies each city has developed to translate urban problems into sustainable solutions.

The existing and future role of climate change in creating urban development projects was also addressed. In New York, for example, city policies will be shaped by dramatic new weather patterns, such as increased rainfall and flooding, and potential heat waves lasting up to 60 days per year.

Wolfgang Schmidt, State Secretary to the Senate Chancellery and Hamburg’s Commissioner to the Federal Government, to the European Union and for Foreign Affairs, initiated the discussion by focusing on the green success of Hamburg, which was awarded the title “2011 European Green Capital” by the European Commission. According to Mr. Schmidt, when compared to 1990, CO2 emissions per person have been reduced by 15% in Hamburg. City policies have also managed to save 46,000 megawatts of energy annually. The port city boasts a newly established Renewable Energies Cluster, which now includes 600 companies, making Hamburg an attractive location for sustainability-minded investors. Mr. Schmidt emphasized that Hamburg, as one of Germany’s unique city states, has the legislative advantage of increased efficiency. Decisions on urban development and climate protection initiatives need only be reviewed by one office, rather than passing through local, city, and state factions.

New York City legislators, on the other hand, are required to include New York State in many of the decision-making processes. According to journalist Alex Marshall, who is a Senior Fellow at the Regional Plan Association, “The secret to a successful city is tied to its politics. And in the case of New York, Mayor Bloomberg has found ways to work with what he is given.”

Adam Freed, Deputy Director of NYC’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, stressed the importance of local legislation: “If you want to see climate-based policy in action, look to local and city governments.” He presented New York’s green initiative PlaNYC, which was established in 2007. Highlights of PlaNYC’s agenda include better air quality, clean drinking water, improved public health and increased safety. In a city that currently produces 40 billion tons of solid waste per year, lower waste production is high on the list of  priorities. Another goal of PlaNYC is to reduce overall emissions by 30% by 2030. The plan seeks to improve the quality of life for its citizens by providing access to affordable housing and city parks; for example, PlaNYC aims to ensure that every New Yorker lives within a 10-minute walk to a park.

The last speaker, Michael Kruklinski, Head of Corporate Development for Siemens Corporation USA, discussed the importance of public-private partnerships when working towards sustainability. He emphasized that governments and corporations should work together to achieve greater impact on pertinent environmental issues, such as industrial emissions.

The Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany New York, Busso von Alvensleben, delivered the opening address. Helga Flores Trejo of The Brookings Institution moderated the event, which was jointly organized by GCRI and the American Friends of Bucerius, in cooperation with the City of Hamburg.

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