Nilda Mesa

"More trees, more plants, more – OK, in my big picture thing – I would love to see more raptors in the city."

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[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