Q&A With Mark Chambers, NYC’s Sustainability Director

Jeremy Lehrer

“New York City is on the front lines when it comes to a changing climate,” says Mark Chambers, director of NYC’s Mayor’s Office of Sustainability (MOS). With its use of renewable energy and public transit, bountiful urban farms, hyperefficient green buildings and high population density, New York is well equipped to move into a greener future—and Chambers is tasked with keeping its residents, businesses and visitors moving toward ever-more-sustainable practices.

To that end, the City aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent of 2005 levels by 2050; in June 2017, NYC committed to the principles of the Paris Agreement and then released a comprehensive plan detailing how it would achieve those targets.

Working with other City agencies and lawmakers, Chambers develops policy and infrastructure to accomplish these benchmarks while overseeing such projects as the 0x30 initiative to eliminate the City’s nonreusable waste by 2030; the creation of new bike lanes throughout the five boroughs; the installation of curbside electric-vehicle-charging stations; and projects like distributing more than 320,000 reusable water bottles to high school students. Chambers took a moment to discuss those efforts, and how visitors can contribute, with nycgo.com.

If you created a personal tour to help visitors understand sustainability in NYC, what would be at the top of your list?
Mark Chambers:
Governors Island. When you go there, you can start to have conversations by looking at the Billion Oyster Project, which helps you understand more of our situation as a coastal city. What does it mean to invest in what’s beneath the water as well as what’s next to it?

Governors Island also opens up discussions about urban agriculture, of which there’s an abundance on the island. There’s a Harbor School there that incorporates sustainability into the fabric of the educational environment, which I think is also part of leadership going into the future.

What are some of the key habits we can change to support the City’s sustainability efforts?
Plastic bags are a particular focus of mine, as are all other single-use plastics. They’re a very pernicious and habitual part of the urban environment that are not nearly as necessary as we believe they are. It’s very easy for cities across the world to shift more rapidly away from single-use plastics. At MOS, we are working on the policies that help them do that.

What are the most effective strategies for helping visitors and residents shift to better, more sustainable behaviors?
There’s a carrot-and-stick element of this. It is most helpful to be able to make change effortless. Telling people not to use plastic bags has to be coupled with providing reusable bags. If we tell people that it’s good for them to carry their own reusable water bottles and not use plastic bottles, then we should be distributing more of those reusable bottles so that they can change their habits easily—instead of just yelling at them about what they’re not allowed to do.

What’s an example of this in action?
One of the recent programs that we’re very proud of is Bring It, an ongoing partnership we’ve established with S’well water bottles. We distributed over 300,000 water bottles to every high school student in New York City. That’s banking on a future of decisions for those students by investing in them now and investing in behavior that can become part of their lifestyle going forward—and then supporting that with education as well.


What are obstacles you encounter in the course of your work?
We need to look at barriers to the success of our policies. You can walk the length of Broadway in Manhattan, and it’s difficult to get access to water [along the way] without having to buy it. For us, being able to couple these successful policies with actual physical support systems is a mark of progress. So we would like to have more water fountains, more accessible water fountains and more ability for people to use the tools that we’re providing them, like the water bottles.

What would be one of your biggest requests of people visiting NYC?
Every year I hike parts of the Appalachian Trail with my brother. One of the tenets of being a hiker is the idea of leaving no trace—the place that you came to is no worse off from you having been there. I think the same philosophy needs to apply to people visiting: being open to the idea that you should leave no trace when you travel somewhere is a great way to think about minimizing your impact and what you’re leaving behind—whether it’s through your decisions about reusable bottles or bags or other everyday behavior. It should be something that you’re packing into your philosophy when you’re packing your suitcase to come here.