Nilda Mesa

[12/3/14: We’re hap­py to update our inter­view from 2012 with the news that Nil­da Mesa has been named Direc­tor of the Office of Sus­tain­abil­i­ty for New York City. Imple­ment­ing the City’s pro­gram “One City: Built to Last” which will cut emis­sions 80% by 2050 will be part of her purview. WNYC (12/3/14); NYT (12/19/14)]

What would you be doing right now if you weren’t sit­ting here talk­ing to us?

Late­ly, I’ve been look­ing at a num­ber of pro­pos­als devel­oped by researchers on the fac­ul­ty, work­ing on ener­gy effi­cien­cy. I’ve also been work­ing with our din­ing and cater­ing ser­vices on green­ing – and I don’t mean let­tuce – and we’ve been com­ing up with all sorts of ques­tions and all kinds of good ideas, includ­ing some inter­est­ing recy­cling pro­pos­als.

Has the Columbia stu­dent body become more inter­est­ed in issues of sus­tain­abil­i­ty and the envi­ron­ment?

When I start­ed here five years ago, we had a num­ber of orga­ni­za­tions inter­est­ed in envi­ron­men­tal issues, col­lect­ed under a con­sor­tium called the Green Umbrel­la. In the last few years, the groups involved in the Green Umbrel­la have become more sophis­ti­cat­ed and more pro­gram­mat­ic. As a result, they have been able to recruit more stu­dents who have increas­ing­ly tak­en on lead­er­ship posi­tions. We now have a sus­tain­able devel­op­ment con­cen­tra­tion, in addi­tion to a sus­tain­abil­i­ty man­age­ment pro­gram that is a joint project between the Earth Insti­tute and our con­tin­u­ing edu­ca­tion school. It has got­ten eas­i­ly two or three times the num­ber of peo­ple enrolled as orig­i­nal­ly antic­i­pat­ed. And now we have a green busi­ness club at the busi­ness school – that didn’t exist a few years ago. So inter­est in sus­tain­abil­i­ty real­ly is pret­ty robust here.

What envi­ron­men­tal devel­op­ments would you like to see hap­pen on Columbia’s cam­pus and the city at large in the next ten to twen­ty years?

As with oth­er orga­ni­za­tions, we are try­ing to cut car­bon emis­sions. We agreed to tar­get reduc­ing green­house emis­sions 30% by 2017 for the Morn­ingside cam­pus. The med­ical cam­pus just adopt­ed a sep­a­rate car­bon goal. In the process of doing that we found that well over 90% of our emis­sions came from build­ings and how they are oper­at­ed. That is pret­ty con­sis­tent with what the mayor’s office of the city of New York found when they looked at their emis­sions inven­to­ry. So, I guess what I would real­ly like to see in the next ten years is more and bet­ter strate­gies for reduc­ing emis­sions in build­ings. And most of the build­ings in New York, are of course, old build­ings that are ener­gy inef­fi­cient for the most part, so that is where we need to focus our effort.

And I would real­ly like to see some kind of dif­fer­ent financ­ing vehi­cles devel­oped, so that peo­ple can fig­ure out how to finance the sys­tem. Because often times, there is a big cost up front to imple­ment new tech­nolo­gies and strate­gies, and it may be that it’ll all pay out over the long run, or even over the short run, but it’s tough to get folks over the ini­tial fund­ing chal­lenge. So I would like to see mech­a­nisms devel­oped — and more meter­ing and mon­i­tor­ing — to show what works and what doesn’t work. The future has to be ver­i­fi­able. We have to be able to real­ly show that this stuff is effec­tive.

Any­thing else for the city at-large?

More trees, more plants, more – OK, in my big pic­ture thing – I would love to see more rap­tors in the city. I love rap­tors. Yes! Big birds of prey — whether they are red tailed hawks or pere­grine fal­cons – I don’t care, I like them all. And pere­grine fal­cons are native to the Hud­son River, and so I would love to see habi­tat devel­oped for pere­grine fal­cons, and I know that some of them are already nest­ing under the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge. Some of them are in places that are high and kind of pro­tect­ed. I would like to see more places for them to roost.

What about the humans liv­ing here. How can we bet­ter under­stand where we live?

I real­ly wish, I think it is real­ly hard for peo­ple in the city — espe­cial­ly for kids, but for grown ups the same — to under­stand the con­nec­tion between their actions and the effect on the nat­u­ral world.

And I think it is real­ly hard for peo­ple to under­stand how the nat­u­ral world is real­ly out there. So, you know, when you walk out, every­thing is hor­i­zon­tal and ver­ti­cal and straight — the same way that it is inside. It is all this very con­trolled exte­ri­or space, so I think it is hard for peo­ple to con­ceive of nature in a healthy way.

The nat­u­ral world keeps try­ing to make itself known. It keeps creep­ing out. If you walk along, you’ll find the grass com­ing up in between cracks in the side­walks. I would like to see more of it, and I would like to see bet­ter inte­gra­tion of that. Whether it’s more trees being plant­ed, bet­ter use of the parks, dif­fer­ent man­age­ment of the parks, more aware­ness about the birds that fly through here dur­ing migra­tions — any of that, I would like to see it.

Do you think GreeNYC is doing good things for New York?

I think so. I think it’s brought a lot vis­i­bil­i­ty about sus­tain­abil­i­ty to this city. It’s got­ten peo­ple to rethink New York City in a lot of ways. I mean, who would have ever thought ten years ago to put “green” togeth­er with New York City? Not most peo­ple. You know? I think just by putting those two words togeth­er — “Green” and “NYC” — it gets peo­ple to think about that pos­si­bil­i­ty.

How could a project like the City Atlas be use­ful for what you do? What would you like to see in it?

I think it is chal­leng­ing enough at Columbia to try to keep track of all the things that are going on here – we have 33 research insti­tutes here devot­ed to the envi­ron­ment and ener­gy – yeah, it’s crazy – we have 24 envi­ron­men­tal degrees that are grant­ed here and those are just degrees with the word “envi­ron­ment” in them – not even degrees like civil engi­neer­ing, which have a lot to do with the envi­ron­ment but don’t hap­pen to have that word in the there. So it is kind of crazy – there is so much going on here and while there is a lot going on here – I know there is a lot more going on through­out the rest of the city. I think just by get­ting the infor­ma­tion out there, that fos­ters col­lab­o­ra­tion and it gen­er­ates ideas for peo­ple who are in this field.

What makes New York City liv­able for you?

I’ve been liv­ing in the city since about 1998. So, after liv­ing in a cou­ple dif­fer­ent neigh­bor­hoods here, I moved to Harlem about ten years ago. And I love liv­ing in Harlem because it is a very human scale there. It’s very neigh­bor­hoody and I can walk to work. So now I don’t need a car, and after liv­ing in LA, that’s a big thing for me. I love being able to stop and notice Morn­ingside Park. So that’s the kind of thing that real­ly, that real­ly makes it for me – being able to walk into River­side Park and look at the Hud­son – just the ease of access and the avail­abil­i­ty to the rich resources – cul­tur­al and archi­tec­tural and every­thing else in the city, I think is great.

In 30 years, what will a New York­er say we got wrong? What could we have done today to make the future more liv­able?

That ques­tion both­ers me actu­al­ly, a lot. I feel like we are miss­ing things – you have to try as best as you can, but we’re sure to miss some­thing. And that is part­ly why I was talk­ing before about ener­gy and retro­fits on build­ings because that’s where I see it, but some­times I won­der if there is some­thing that we are miss­ing as we are so involved in the day-to-day kind of prob­lem solv­ing that we’re sure to miss part of the big pic­ture.

I think recy­cling in the city still needs a lot of work. I nev­er know if the stuff I’m putting into sep­a­rate con­tain­ers gets dumped into the same place.

I would like to start to see peo­ple think of the waste stream not as a waste stream but a kind of a cir­cle. And so not think in terms of dis­pos­al, but in terms of reuse — who can I give this to instead of throw­ing it in the trash?

It could be bet­ter. I would love to see it get bet­ter, I real­ly would.

Describe a hap­py day for you in the city. What do you do and where do you go?

I like being able to put peo­ple togeth­er who care about the city – get­ting them in a room togeth­er because they need to know each oth­er and then hav­ing them come up with some­thing at the end of the meet­ing that didn’t exist at the begin­ning.

My kids being in the school play – that’s also a real­ly hap­py day. A real­ly hap­py day for me starts – and my work­day kin­da ends — with a walk through Morn­ingside Park look­ing at the pond there, and the water­fall, and the birds that are there – OK, so I am not as crazy about Canada geese as some peo­ple might be. But I love the mal­lards, and there is an egret that goes there, and the turtles that I am sure are escapees from someone’s ter­rar­i­um or some­thing, swim­ming about in the pond. You know, the gold­fish that I’m sure are also escapee, from some­one else’s aquar­i­um. And the owls. I know they are there. I haven’t seen them, but I am told. I’m not going to go into a park in any city after dark, by myself, to find owls, but I know oth­er peo­ple do this, and so I am hap­py to know that they are there.

About Nil­da Mesa:

As VP of Envi­ron­men­tal Stew­ard­ship at Columbia, Nil­da Mesa works with stu­dents, fac­ul­ty, and staff at all three cam­pus­es to lessen the envi­ron­men­tal foot­print of the uni­ver­si­ty. Pro­grams include ini­tia­tives to reduce green­house gas emis­sions on the cam­pus, as well as recy­cling, sus­tain­able food sourcing, and green roof instal­la­tions. She also teach­es as an adjunct pro­fes­sor in the Columbia Grad­u­ate School of Inter­na­tion­al and Pub­lic Affairs.

Pri­or to her posi­tions at Columbia, she worked in oth­er promi­nent posi­tions relat­ed to envi­ron­men­tal pol­i­cy. Fol­low­ing her grad­u­a­tion from Har­vard Law School, she worked for the Cal­i­for­nia Attor­ney Gen­er­al on enforce­ment of tox­ic man­age­ment and nat­u­ral resources laws. As an appointee in the Clin­ton-Gore admin­is­tra­tion, she was a mem­ber of the U.S. del­e­ga­tion and lead legal nego­tia­tor on the envi­ron­men­tal side agree­ments sub­se­quent to the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment (NAFTA). As Assis­tant Deputy for Envi­ron­ment at the US Air Force, she worked to rec­on­cile train­ing and air­space envi­ron­men­tal issues with trib­al gov­ern­ments, envi­ron­men­tal groups and local busi­ness groups. And at the White House Coun­cil for Envi­ron­men­tal Qual­i­ty, Ms. Mesa led an inter­a­gen­cy task force on rein­vent­ing envi­ron­men­tal review and per­mit­ting process­es. At both the Air Force and at the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agen­cy, she helped devel­op envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice pol­i­cy.

Pho­to: Mau­reen Dren­nan