Nilda Mesa is the Director of the Urban Sustainability and Equity Planning Program with Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development in the Earth Institute, as well as an adjunct professor with the School of International and Public Affairs. She has had a long career in environment, energy and sustainability at the city, state, national and global levels, and now writes and presents extensively on the subjects of climate, energy, equity and urban systems relating them. Prior to joining CSUD, she served as NYC Director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability under Mayor Bill de Blasio, where she developed and oversaw innovative programs in climate, energy, sustainability, air quality, waste, green buildings, transportation, public education and other initiatives. She directed and was the principal author and editor of OneNYC, the city’s long-term sustainability plan, which for the first time for a major US city tied together environmental initiatives with economic development, equity and resilience. The innovative process brought together over 70 city agencies, elected officials, a distinguished advisory board, and engaged city residents. Reports published under her direction included One City: Built to Last Technical Working Group Report, which was the first study to plot a detailed strategy by building type to reduce substantially building greenhouse gas emissions for new construction and substantial renovation. She worked closely with state and federal energy and sustainability officials on behalf of the City’s goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. Internationally, she represented New York on the U.S. cities delegation to China, as part of the Obama Administration’s U.S.-China Climate Cities Initiative, with C40, and with the Under2 Coalition founded by California Governor Jerry Brown. Under her leadership, New York City received numerous awards for sustainability and climate initiatives.
Previously at Columbia, she founded the University’s environmental stewardship office, one of the first in the U.S. for a university. She pioneered the development of sustainability theory and practice in urban settings. She worked to establish energy reduction and climate goals, green building standards, improve recycling, establish programs that sent used equipment and supplies to nonprofits in the local area as well as abroad, set up food recovery programs for local food banks and shelters, and worked on interdisciplinary initiatives bringing together scientists, researchers, faculty, students and operations teams. She helped establish the first green roofs and promoted research on them, as well as worked with community advocates and the design and construction teams on environmental standards for new construction, including the new Manhattanville campus, which was the first university campus to attain LEED-ND Platinum. Under her leadership, the University began incorporating environmental justice considerations such as air quality into its practices. Columbia was recognized for its sustainability efforts and greenhouse gas emissions reductions.
Before joining Columbia, Mesa served in other environmental leadership roles at the White House Council of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the California Attorney General’s office. She led an interagency task force on the National Environmental Policy Act, as well as was responsible for the assessment and recommendation report of NEPA’s effectiveness, and authored the history of NEPA chapter in the 25th anniversary report. At the Air Force, she brokered negotiations on airspace and range expansions with tribal nations, state and federal resource agencies, local business communities, and environmental advocates. At EPA, she was Counsel to the NAFTA Task Force, serving as lead U.S. attorney in the implementation negotiations for the environmental side agreements, and on the U.S. NAFTA delegation. She also developed policy on international environmental negotiations. At the California Attorney General’s office, she handled civil side environmental enforcement on toxics, air quality and endangered species issues, particularly in urban settings, and wrote amicus briefs for the U.S. Supreme Court. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Northwestern University. She also studied painting and sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Art Students League. Her art may be found in the permanent collection of the 9/11 Memorial Museum, and she has exhibited in New York, Canada and France. She was born in Cuba.
She teaches at SIPA on sustainability planning and content at the urban scale, incorporating design and creative techniques with policy planning and research on urban systems, public health and economic inclusion. Her forthcoming book on climate resilience and cooperation is under contract with Routledge for 2019, and her chapter on innovation at the city scale on sustainability planning will appear in July 2018 in the book, Smart(er) Cities, with Columbia University Press.