No Opting Out: An Interview with Mark Chambers

In the fall, the Urban Design Forum will launch Cooperative Works, an initiative exploring how New York City can advance economic justice in its coronavirus recovery. In partnership with Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives J. Phillip Thompson and the Mayor’s Office of M/WBE, our Fellows will conduct research on how to create economic opportunity for MWBEs and employee-owned businesses through climate investment, leveraging the new market for building energy retrofits created by Local Law 97.
Leading up to the program, we are pleased to publish a series of interviews with leaders in sustainability in the built environment, inclusive economic development, and racial justice. In our interview with Mark Chambers, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, we discuss the City’s efforts to implement Local Law 97, expanding the tent of climate resistance, and prioritizing environmental justice communities in the vision for a greener future.


Daniel McPhee: How has your background in architecture has informed your leadership at the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability?

Mark Chambers: Being an architect, I look at the work we do through the lens of the built environment. I’m able to visualize exactly what tools the city can use to improve that environment for all New Yorkers and for our planet.

But it’s not just as a designer that I come to this conversation. I come to it as a public servant, as a parent and as a partner, too. So with that perspective, it’s also important to be able to think through what this moment needs. People do not live single-issue lives, so we cannot tackle the climate crisis without addressing systemic racism and inequality in the United States and around the world.

For me, being able to think about how we design the future that we all deserve, is part of the architectural skill set. This lens is critical to how I view problem-solving, whether it’s three-dimensionally or with policy and legislation.

DM: You mentioned the current moment. How has the pandemic impacted your approach to climate policy?

MC: It has underscored the fact that social justice and climate justice are intertwined. If we’re not effectively confronting social justice and equity, then we’re going to be climbing up a larger hill of impacts in the face of a changing climate. Whether that is extreme heat, rising waters, or the chaos in between them, we have to be able to recognize that these things are fundamentally intertwined. That means we have to draw better connections between social infrastructure and our ability to respond effectively to climate change.

For example, policies that enable universal Pre-Kindergarten are not separate from our work around climate change. Universal Pre-K creates stability for families and opportunities for a larger workforce to bend their skillsets towards climate resistance. It’s not just tree huggers like me that we need in that resistance; people who are working in finance, food systems, health systems, and transportation all have a role to play in this climate fight.

DM: How do we ensure that New York City continues to move towards its climate goals in the midst of a difficult public health and economic crisis like the one we’re experiencing now?

MC: It’s not easy. And I’ll be honest: the health crisis has not just exposed significant disparities, but it has also given us a good look at where our points of failure are. We have to acknowledge that and start to address it, but we also have to do it in a climate that fundamentally has less available cash at hand. For me, it has been important to lean into the COVID response to give ourselves insights into how to become better at climate adaptation response.

I’ll give you an example of that. One challenge that is particularly pernicious right now is how our city deals with extreme heat. It is a constant and silent killer, and it’s amplified by the fact that we now have a pandemic where people can’t congregate. So if you’re in an apartment and you don’t have air conditioning, you can’t go to a cooling center where you might have been able to get some relief.

“For me, it has been important to lean into the COVID response to give ourselves insights into how to become better at climate adaptation response.”

The City met this challenge in a number of different ways. We directed our resources towards pursuing a program that distributes free air conditioners to low-income seniors. We’ve distributed about 30,000 air conditioners so far and working towards a total of 74,000.

Simultaneously, we recognized that people will have additional electricity bills from running an air conditioner. To address that, we submitted, and won, a petition to the Public Service Commission at the state to get electric bill discounts for low-income New Yorkers as well. This program allows for us to have immediate, direct impact, and also consider and alleviate the cost burden.

This effort has also been really critical for our team of climate specialists, designers, architects and planners to be closer to the populations we’re serving by actually being on the phone with the public and making sure that we’re understanding the critical points where our policy meets New Yorkers in their daily lives. That’s invaluable.

DM: I know that it’s a little early to be thinking about recovery. But it’s clear that a lot of the communities that are most vulnerable to climate change are the ones that were historically redlined, that were slated for urban renewal, and that are today some of the hardest hit neighborhoods by the pandemic. And these are also neighborhoods that don’t typically get the same access to investment in green infrastructure, for instance. Over these next few months, how are you thinking about directing any kind of infrastructure investment into every neighborhood in New York, not just the ones that have traditionally seen the most investment?

MC: We have a responsibility to make sure we’re distributing as many resources across the city as possible, and we have to prioritize communities that are particularly impacted, whether it’s by COVID or by systematic and historical racism and policies that have created fundamental obstacles to these communities being able to thrive. That’s part of our job, too. We have to acknowledge that the status quo is not equal.

We have to seek out ways to directly target services that don’t just meet immediate needs, but also build capacity. A big piece of this is developing small businesses and making sure we’re prioritizing minority and women owned businesses, whether it’s around retrofits or distributed energy or solar installation. This way, we get people services that help them while also building businesses that come from those communities and help them to thrive.

Investment in retrofits should expand beyond the City’s largest building in Midtown Manhattan. Image credit: Samuel Lahoz/Urban Design Forum.

When it comes to prioritizing these communities within Local Law 97, our building retrofit mandate, my office has been tasked with developing a proposal for a carbon trading platform for the city. As one pathway to compliance with bringing your building carbon down to the caps, there may be a system that would allow for buildings that may not be able to meet the caps to purchase the capacity of retrofits elsewhere. There would be some prioritization in this market for low- and moderate-income areas, and environmental justice areas, to provide clear opportunities for investment in retrofits in those neighborhoods.

This would economically benefit the system as a whole, but it also makes sure that in those neighborhoods people are benefiting from those investments physically, environmentally, and financially. If we get this right, and if we make sure that we’re clear on what the bottom line needs to be—which is net benefit to those communities—then we actually may have a best-in-class model for creating an economic platform for carbon trading.

DM: I’d love to talk a little bit more about Local Law 97. Our project is really focused on what you’re just describing: how do we make sure that the economic benefits of that scale of climate investment serve minority owned businesses, workers of color and some of the most deeply impacted communities? How can we trigger that investment being shifted to MWBEs in particular?

MC: Absolutely. That’s one of the chief drivers for how we structured the law. Being able to focus on business development for minority and women owned businesses is critical. Job training is also critical.

We have a direct intervention point with this market through the NYC Accelerator, which provides free technical assistance to building owners to connect them to all the services they would need in order to retrofit their buildings. How do they know what they need to do? How do they find contractors? How do they prioritize different investments? How do they find incentives or capital? It’s a free $30 million program that’s relaunching this year, and the goal is to assist about 5,000 buildings. That program gives us opportunities to connect with building owners as well as businesses and job training in the retrofit market.

We have a partnership with CUNY Building Performance lab, which has a goal of training and placing about 250 CUNY STEM students in internships and jobs that will address the growing demand that we’ve created by instituting this carbon cap across the city. We also work with public housing partners like Green City Force. They capitalize on the amazing skills and talents of NYCHA residents and employ them to assist with the retrofitting and work that’s happening throughout the NYCHA property. We’re also actively engaging with the trades to make sure they are prepared and building capacity as well.

Through these types of programs, with additional capacity and potentially funding, we’re able to create a market not just for the work, but for the workers.

The role of data will also be critical to showcase specific buildings or areas that need to work. We can try to use public disclosure responsibilities to activate the data in a way that might create more opportunities for people to mine it and figure out how they can provide those services to those building owners.

DM: How has the launch of Local Law 97 been shaped, slowed, or challenged by the pandemic?

MC: The pandemic has given us a bit of a pause to evaluate what we had planned in terms of community engagement and whether what we had planned on doing is the most effective strategy. We’ve always thought that the community engagement process relied on these large roundtable meetings at City Hall where we get really clear indication of how stakeholders think we can best implement these regulations and rulemaking. All these things that are still happening for Local Law 97. But I’m a parent, and it’s not easy to go to meetings that are at 6pm at night. What I’ve learned over the last several months is that there are opportunities within the confines of digital engagement that may be more convenient for more stakeholders to directly engage with the Mayor’s Office.

For us, we’re committed to utilizing that to engage more clearly and more directly. I mentioned that we’re doing the carbon trading study. There’s a plan for a larger engagement around the environmental justice communities. Normally, it would have been one of those big meetings. Now, we’re looking at several meetings over time, which may garner even more debate, dialogue, and intel for us. That’s something I’m really excited about.

We are not pushing back deadlines. We are doing everything we can to meet the moment of this climate emergency and give New Yorkers the clear direction that this crisis preceded the current crisis, and it will follow it. We need to make sure that we’re staying on task. The climate crisis is not taking a day off, so we’re not either.

DM: I’d love to talk about some of the other aspects of the Climate Mobilization Act and some of your other recent policies. I know that the City recently put into place some new regulations about sustainable roofs, enacted new energy code, and is working to foster innovative solutions for building energy efficiency. What’s next on your agenda for the built environment?

MC: We’ve been building these puzzle pieces that help unpack and repack our built environment. You have the roof optimization component where new buildings now have to have green roofs. You have this building retrofit law where buildings have to meet emissions caps. And then you have the energy code, which backs all of that up and makes sure that we’re changing the lexicon of how people are putting these buildings together. I’m excited that all of these things are also moving towards a point where we are considering larger amounts of electrification.

“The climate crisis is not taking a day off, so we’re not either.”

Fundamentally, we’re going to be in a place where people are reconsidering the currency of this conversation. That currency will be electrons in the future. How do you move electrons around? How do you utilize the few that you are able to get to do X, Y, and Z? How do you then monetize or transfer those to electric vehicles or to battery storage to use them when you want to? We’re working on how we can bring more renewables in to the city. Being able to paint a picture of New York’s future where we are electrified is really exciting.

We want people to be able to see the benefits—for example, they can see the fact that if you have an electrified environment, that impacts air quality. If we can do that in a way that is more just and more thoughtful about prioritizing the communities that have been held back, I think that the legacy of our work will be transformative.

DM: We’re going to have a cohort of fantastic emerging designers, engineers, workforce development specialists, and more. What’s your advice to them?

MC: First of all, there’s no room on the sidelines. No one gets to opt out, no one gets to say, “This is not for me.”

As a designer, I think you have a fundamental responsibility to demystify the world for everyone who is not a designer—and to do that in a way that’s beautiful and accessible. That responsibility has to be taken seriously. We have to embolden young people and folks who have not necessarily considered themselves a part of climate resistance to understand that they are exactly who we need right now. We are trying to grow the tent in a way that provides more inroads to this work for folks who have either been pushed outside of it or felt excluded, or had not realized how valuable their skill set is. Whatever your skills are, whatever your passions are, whatever you have within your capacity to bring to this fight, we need it. And we need it right now.

We’re living in a moment where there are statues to our painful history being torn down in the streets. We’re witnessing a shift in what we always thought was possible. Why should that be limited to just the built environment or inanimate objects like statues? It should be about us, too. Let’s make a shift that discovers a little bit more about what’s possible, and let’s do that in service of each other.

Mark Chambers is the Director of Sustainability for Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City of New York. In this role, he leads the development of policies, implementation, and advocacy programs that enhance the near-term and long-term sustainability of New York City’s energy, waste, transportation, and buildings sectors. An urbanist and licensed architect, Mark has dedicated his career to working on high-performance design, zero waste policy and City scale building energy efficiency, with a focus on equitable economic growth, public engagement and promoting transparency through data and innovation.

Header image credit: George Piazza/Urban Design Forum