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Bloomberg's Hidden Legacy: Climate Change and the Future of New York City, Part 2

The pace was frantic. People were exhausted and cranky. Some spent nights in their offices. At times they felt they'd never get all the work done.

Katherine Bagley and Maria Gallucci

Nov 19, 2013

Global warming experts around the world say New York City's plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and safeguard itself from the perils of climate change are a model for other cities. But most Americans, including New Yorkers, know little or nothing about this achievement, or that it was driven by Michael Bloomberg, who next month ends his third term as New York's mayor. Bloomberg's Hidden Legacy: Climate Change and the Future of New York City helps fill that gap.

It is being published in five installments on our website (read Part 1), but we encourage our readers to download our ICN Books App and purchase a full copy of the e-book. The ICN Books version is enhanced with video, audio and other extras, and 70 percent of the purchase price comes back to us to support our ongoing work.

Chapter Three: Assemble the Team

An Essential Recruit 

Rohit Aggarwala knew next to nothing about the debate brimming in New York City over how to accommodate a million more New Yorkers by 2030. The 34-year-old transportation buff, who goes by Rit, was a rising star at the global consulting behemoth McKinsey & Company. He was working on a big project and starting the run to make partner.

Still, Aggarwala was intrigued by the call he got in March 2006 from Marc Ricks, a former McKinsey colleague who was now Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff's chief of staff. For more than six months, Doctoroff had been creating a strategic land use plan to accommodate the extra people. But the project had become so complex that he and Bloomberg decided it needed its own staff and office. Would Aggarwala consider leading the transportation piece of the plan, Ricks asked?

"As an intellectual challenge, what could be more appealing for somebody who was interested in transportation, who is from New York and loves New York?" Aggarwala said, looking back at the chain of events that pulled him into Bloomberg's fold.

Still, Aggarwala wasn't convinced the job was right for him. Joining the Bloomberg administration would put the brakes on his career at McKinsey. Plus, he'd worked in politics before, first as a transportation policy advisor to a Democratic assemblyman in Albany, and later in the U.S. Department of Transportation during the Clinton administration. "It's not the same as being at a consulting firm where you know that just by ... doing your job and working hard you will be successful," he said.

A few weeks later, Aggarwala met with Doctoroff and Ricks at New York's City Hall. He rattled off his concerns about the position. Were they willing to take on the unpopular initiatives needed to keep New York a livable, thriving city? Were they ready, for example, to consider the controversial idea of congestion pricing, where drivers would pay a fee to enter parts of Manhattan during rush hour? London had adopted such a plan in 2003, but Bloomberg had brushed off the idea for New York. 

"And Dan throws up his hands, and he says, 'We're already crunching the numbers!'" Aggarwala remembered. 

Aggarwala walked out of City Hall 90 percent sure he would take the job. Doctoroff and Ricks were sure of something else. Aggarwala was more than a transit wonk. He was well versed in project management and knew how to whittle down ideas and put them into practice. They decided to refine their offer: They wanted Aggarwala to take over from Doctoroff and lead the entire long-term planning office, not just its transportation component. 

In May, Aggarwala accepted the city's offer to head the newly created Office of Long-Term Planning. 

The Common Thread 

Before his official start date in June, Aggarwala began attending the Sunday strategy sessions Doctoroff was holding at City Hall. He brought himself up to speed on the progress city agencies had already made on the strategic land use plan, including an initiative to outfit nearly 200 schoolyards with jungle gyms, athletic courts, benches and trees.

Many of the yards were concrete lots that teachers used for parking. Turning them into welcoming spaces would benefit the kids and the neighborhoods while also improving air quality. Getting the education and parks departments to collaborate had been tough, though, because the agencies rarely worked together.

Aggarwala pored over long-term plans and sustainability agendas from other cities. He drew inspiration from climate action plans by Chicago and Portland, Ore., and from a London program to retrofit commercial buildings for energy efficiency. He was particularly impressed by Santa Monica's sustainability plan. The California city laid out eight broad goals, each with a set of indicators to gauge the impact of the various programs.

Aggarwala also studied regional climate change reports that had generally been ignored over the years, particularly those by researchers at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Columbia University and other regional universities. After work one day he caught a screening of "An Inconvenient Truth," the movie version of former Vice President Al Gore's campaign to educate the world about global warming. It had hit theaters a few months earlier, and the press and public were abuzz with chatter about it.

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