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Alumni Spotlight
Rohit Aggarwala ‘89

CHIEF CLIMATE OFFICER AND COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION

Where are you from, and what brought you to Rome?

Well, I'm from New York City originally, and prior to going to Rome, I had been living in White Plains, New York, just north of New York City. My father spent his career at the United Nations, and for three years, he was managing a program that was funded by the Italian government, so they wanted the program to be run out of Rome. So he was temporarily attached to the world food program while he was running it, even though it was a UNDP project.

How long were you at St. Stephen's?

Three years.

And that was from ninth grade through eleventh grade?

That's correct.

Could you describe what your experience with St Stephen's was like, or maybe share what some of your favorite memories are?

Well, St. Stephen's was amazing. It was, in many respects, the defining experience of my entire educational career, the culture of the school being at once so broadminded and at the same time so rigorous, which was really exciting and very new. I had come out of a relatively traditional, high quality, but nonetheless, traditional public school experience in the United States, and even though I didn't do the IB, so much of what the IB requires and stands for permeates the school. So that was a significant part of the experience. And the school's innate multiculturalism was interesting. I grew up in a multicultural family and did a lot of traveling prior to that, but on an everyday basis, having something akin to the St Stephen's community is still relatively unique.

Yes, it's quite rare to have such diversity of backgrounds and lived experiences in one small school. Do you trace the roots of your career in environmental policy to your time at St. Stephen's, and if not, when did that passion develop for you?

Well, I started out as an Urbanist, and that's what led to me becoming an environmentalist. I was always interested in cities but living in a city like Rome and especially living in the center and going to school in the center of a city like Rome certainly made me think very differently about cities. So yes, I could certainly trace some of what I do to that experience. The core of everything I do is related to cities, while the environmental component of it really has to do with thinking about the long-term challenges that cities face and realizing fairly early on the relative importance of climate change to the future of all of the world's cities. I trace that awareness back to a course I took in college where I happened to take a class with one of the founders of climate change research; it was an elective to meet a [graduation] requirement. So I didn't seek it out as much as I was finding a class that I was somewhat interested in to deal with my science requirement, and I took a class that introduced me to climate change.

So, if you don't mind, let's backtrack a little bit: how did you become interested in urbanism? What led you to study that in college?

Well, some of it is simply the extent to which I grew up loving New York City as an experience. I did not like living in the suburbs, and what was especially amazing was moving to Rome at that age, to a safe city with good transit where you can have the city to yourself and be completely independent. To have that opportunity, at that age in a place like Rome, is just amazing, where you have 2000 years of history all jumbled together, and the kind of exploration that my friends and I were able to do together just made me really interested in what makes this all work. How and why is Rome different from New York and different from other cities I had been to; what makes cities unique? What makes them tick? All of those questions, I think in part, originated from wandering around different neighborhoods in the city.

That makes perfect sense. Rome and New York could not be more different in some ways. It must have been an interesting contrast to be immersed in as a teenager and see what did and did not work. Since you were, of course, recently appointed as the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, you have said that making progress on climate requires not only good policies but also incorporating resilience, decarbonization, and environmental justice into daily city operations. I wanted to ask you specifically about the environmental justice piece and how you're approaching that in New York because I think it's something our students would find particularly interesting.

Well, first of all, it's early days, and one of the things I think I certainly would not have appreciated when I was in high school is how much much effort has to go into figuring out what kinds of changes are going to be most effective when you're dealing with either a large organization or a large city. So we're still in the first hundred days of the Adams administration, so I wouldn't tell you that we have everything figured out by a long shot, but I think the overall approach is, number one, it's simply about being conscious. I mean, one of the biggest issues with environmental justice is the extent to which it stems from a long history of simply not being aware of it. Some of it intentional and a lot of it unintentional but a byproduct of deep issues in society, and so the first thing we can do and have to do is be cognizant of the neighborhoods where environmental justice issues are in the city.

It's also about making sure that, just as you would check yourself when you're making a decision to ask yourself, "Hey, wait, is this having a differential impact when it comes to gender, or does this have a differential impact when it comes to income," you also want to make sure that you're asking yourself with almost every decision you're making, "does this have a differential impact when it comes to environmental justice? How does this decision impact different neighborhoods?" Unfortunately, the reality is that one of the reasons that you have lots of so-called obnoxious uses in what we would call "environmental justice neighborhoods" has to do with property values because that's usually where you can find lower-cost property but getting the lowest price of the property for obnoxious use is not necessarily consistent with the right approach from the public's perspective. And so again, I think the first thing is a screen. The second thing is being more proactive, and I'm quite proud of the fact that it was Mayor Bloomberg who was the first mayor of New York who recognized environmental justice as an important way to look at policy. One of the things that he always did was to think about establishing citywide standards and efforts to bring the entire city up to certain standards. And what you inevitably do then is you focus on those areas that are falling behind.

For example, we had initiatives around trees, sidewalk trees, which are an important amenity. They're important for urban cooling, et cetera. We basically embarked on an effort to put sidewalk trees everywhere in New York where the geography could handle it. You know, there are lots of sidewalks in New York where the sidewalks are, in fact, hollow because there are subways underneath, there are cellars underneath whatever, so you can't put a tree everywhere. But we started doing maps to figure out where they were and where they were feasible. It's no surprise that there wasn't a very big sidewalk tree gap on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but there were lots of places in the South Bronx where nobody had ever put sidewalk trees in. And then there's a third approach, which is not so much about setting a standard but actually thinking about neighborhoods that have traditionally suffered and fallen behind. And there are many ways to address issues in those neighborhoods. Under the last mayor, there were efforts to target cooling infrastructure in neighborhoods that have traditionally suffered environmental injustice, and I think we'll see some of those kinds of things continue and get enhanced. Again, I think it starts with just knowing what we're talking about. And so there's an effort right now that the state of New York is doing that will identify what the "official EJ neighborhoods" are for the state, and the city will adopt those, and it's the kind of thing that just makes sure that you have the policy infrastructure to incorporate [these considerations] into every decision.

I love the sidewalk trees example because I think that's something especially our students will understand and relate to. These trees can make such a difference for cleaning the air and noise pollution, and so on. Now, is there a biggest environmental threat facing New York that you're focusing on and if so, do you feel like this is something New Yorkers are informed about and preparing for, and if not, why not?

Well, I think it's clear that the major environmental threat facing New York is climate change. There's no question that [this is the major threat] for most cities, maybe not for a handful that are in truly terrible shape with respect to air quality but in New York, where our air quality is not what it should be, it is still so much better than in most places, and our drinking water is fantastic. Here in New York City, we're a coastal city, we have more than 500 miles of coastline, and a huge portion of the city lives in areas that are low-lying and therefore subject to coastal flooding. We are coming up on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, which, as I think much of the world knows, flooded large parts of New York City and took out a power plant that served Manhattan below 34th street, leaving them for nearly a week without power and killed 40+ New Yorkers. Sandy demonstrated the risk that we face from sea level rise and greater storms which bring coastal flooding. Just last year, we suffered the after-effects of Hurricane Ida, which dumped historic levels of rainfall on us. We had nearly twice as much rain in one hour than we'd ever had before in the city's recorded history, and as you might imagine, none of our infrastructure was built for that. We had people who literally died in their homes because they live in basement apartments that were flooded in a matter of moments. So that's a huge challenge. And then, what is, to a certain extent, less visible is actually the biggest threat to New York's health, and lives from climate change is heat waves.

Heatwaves kill more New Yorkers than flooding, which is likely to be true going forward, even in a world where we have more frequent and more intense storm activity. We don't notice it as much because we don't think of it. It's not as visual, but we have seen the numbers going up over the last decade. It started a bit during the Bloomberg administration and got more attention during the de Blasio administration as the world became more aware of the rise in temperatures that was shaping summertime temperatures, and that's actually the biggest health risk to New Yorkers from climate change. And then there are also gonna be some challenges to our water supply. Our water supply will become more complicated. It's not an existential threat to the city, which some cities around the world are facing due to climate change, but it requires us to think differently about our long-term water supply.

So you have made comparisons between New York and other cities. One thing that comes up when I discuss urban sustainability with my students in my Core 9 class, for example, is that so many of these "green cities" around the world are in Europe. I always come across the same names, cities such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Berlin, and one thing I wonder is why is Europe so ahead of the curve on greening their cities? Why aren't the greenest cities in the world in the United States, and are there best practices that work in Europe and that U.S. Cities like New York can adopt?

Certainly, I think it's a combination of things. On the one hand, it has to do with the period in which many European cities urbanized. The modern, urban form of a place like Berlin or a place like Copenhagen really got put into place before the advent of the automobile, which is, of course, not true when you think about Houston or Phoenix or even the vast majority of the urbanization that has taken place in places like India, China, and Africa; Delhi, of course, is a city with a 3000-year history but frankly until the 1960s Delhi was a relatively small city, and so part of what you have is populations that grew very fast during a period when large portions of the population owned a car, and that shaped the urban landscape, and that's actually true about Rome because so much of Rome's growth over the last 50 years has been outside the GRA and it makes Rome actually a more auto-dependent city than New York, which is, for a European city kind of an embarrassment, to be honest. The second, which also relates to Rome, is just a relative lack of investment in transit. So New York's an outlier in the United States, having preserved and resurrected its transit system while many American cities got rid of theirs. Many Asian cities took a long time to have their transits systems expand in line with the population.

The other thing that has happened as you look at the cities of Asia particularly is that we see how a massive population growth led to planning that often underinvested in park space and other aspects of greenery in Asia. So in Europe, you have the perfect mix in many cases of good urban planning of moderate but not hyperdensity and good transit and land use, and that's not just a function of parkland or anything like that because there are lots of American cities that we wouldn't think of as being particularly green, for example, that have lots and lots of park space, like Kansas City has tremendous parks, but it's a sprawling auto-dependent, mainly suburban metropolitan area. So anyway, that's the quick overview of why European cities tend to be ahead; the final thing I'll point out is, compared to the rest of the world, European cities, especially the cities of Northern Europe, have had a tradition of really high-quality municipal governments and I think that [makes] a big difference.

That's really fascinating. Staying on the topic of the work you do studying cities and shaping environmental policy in New York, I wanted to ask you what you enjoy most about your current job?

Well, I'm only five weeks in, so it may be premature to say, but being able to work on creative solutions to important problems on behalf of the public in a place that is my home, you couldn't ask for anything better than that.

And, reflecting on the arc of your career thus far, what would you consider to be your greatest achievement professionally?

So thus far, I think of three things that I've done that are significant. One is a set of laws that we enacted that I was the driving force behind in New York, which was the first ambitious set of requirements to require existing buildings to become more energy efficient; a package of laws passed in 2009 called the "Greater Buildings Plan." And then the other, which I was not solely responsible for but played a significant role in, was the banning of dirty heating oil in New York City, which has had a measurable impact on our air quality. And then the final significant achievement was when I was at Bloomberg Philanthropies, where I was the lead on a grant where we gave 50 million dollars to the Sierra Club to attack the U.S. Coal industry. We closed more than 200 coal-fired power plants.

Wow, that's pretty awesome.
Looking back on your career for a moment, would you say that it's been a relatively straight path for you in terms of getting to where you are today, or do you feel that you've been tested along the way in achieving the goals that you've set for yourself and if so, could you talk about what some of those challenges have been and how you have been able to overcome them?

That's a really deep and broad question. I can't imagine that many people have a career that follows a linear and untroubled path. I guess I've always tried to focus on solving problems that are important and where I think I have a particular contribution to make, and this constant search has led me to the various things I've done; many of them have been opportunistic in the sense that you can't plan for opportunities to arise, but you can create your own luck if you are doing work on things that you care about and doing good work for people. That's how opportunities come your way, and then you have to be smart and nimble enough to take them. Probably I'd say the biggest challenges I've faced have been in a couple of the cases where I wasn't able to take opportunities that presented themselves, and that's always a disappointment, and then places where I thought maybe I was going to be able to make a contribution and I didn't for reasons that might have been beyond my control, or maybe I just couldn't figure it out, and then you feel underutilized which can be frustrating.

Are there any important lessons you have gleaned from your own experience that you can share with our graduating class of 2022?

Always be willing to talk about stuff you're passionate about because you can find opportunities to have an impact in circumstances that you would not expect. And so, when you meet somebody, if all you do is make small talk, they'll never know what you actually care about, and you never know, but that person might be in a position to either make the change you'd like to see happen or bring you in some way and allow you to make the change.

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