Due to its geography, burgeoning population, and the effects of climate change, New York City is grappling with a multifaceted set of environmental concerns. Residents face concerns over air and water quality, park space and conservation, sustainability, and disaster preparation – with these issues frequently overlapping with one another, forming an intricate and increasingly urgent set of policy predicaments.
NYC has a population of approximately 8.2 million people with a population density of over 27,000 people per square mile. Such a large population – the largest of any city in the United States – creates considerable pressures on the environment. Air quality is one major area of concern related to the environment and public health. Notably, emissions from automobiles and buildings has resulted in parts of New York City falling far short of federal standards for air quality. The most problematic areas are areas located near busy motorways or buildings that burn specific types of heating fuel. Similarly, industrial development upstate – including ‘fracking’ – threatens to contaminate New York City’s water supply, which is brought in from upstate reservoirs. The in-city water supply remains susceptible to pollution from sewage, particularly after periods of stormy weather. Given their significant risks to public health, these issues require reexamining the city’s infrastructure and energy policies, as aging infrastructure and “dirty” sources of fuel contribute to diminished air and water quality.
Environmental issues found their way onto the 2013 election agenda in a wide range of areas, including fossil fuels, Hurricane Sandy cleanup, infrastructure development, transportation, and waste management. During his successful campaign, Mayor de Blasio offered his own plan to address environmental concerns: A Framework for a Sustainable City. His proposal made commitments to expand renewable energy production and promote energy efficiency, reform recycling and sanitation, improve air quality, and incorporate green initiatives into New York’s infrastructure.
Advocacy group New York League of Conservation Voters released an Environmental Scorecard, evaluating the voting and sponsorship records of the NYC Council Members from 2012-2013. The scorecard assesses records on issues such as: plastic bag and styrofoam use, recycling, composting, electric vehicles, biodiversity, and green zoning.
Parks and Open Space
NYC boasts more than 52,000 acres of green space, in the form of public parks and other spaces across all five boroughs. In total, approximately 14% of NYC is covered in publicly accessible park land managed by NYC Parks and Recreation, in addition to State and Federal park lands and nature preserves. However, there are concerns about the equity of park access in the city, with certain neighborhoods having much more readily accessible park space than others. While certain parks – particularly Central Park and the Central Park Conservancy – have been receiving generous financial support, others have been left with few resources. Issues of neighborhood equity and control over parks have been raised, as underfunded or overlooked spaces deny certain areas the benefits of access to parks.
Climate change has been a buzz-term on the national stage for years, but recently the issue and its effects have become a major focus in NYC. Perhaps the most evident result of climate change has been a recent surge in extreme weather events, including snow storms, heat waves, and tropical storms and hurricanes. Compared to the 1970s, NYC is expected to experience an increase in average temperature of 3-5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050, an increase in sea level by 1 foot, a doubled risk of flooding, and a twofold increase in days with temperatures higher than 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Hurricane Sandy threw the environmental impacts of climate change into acute focus, exposing problems with protecting coastal regions and key infrastructure. Damage to the outlying areas of NYC – particularly neighborhoods in “flood zones” – demonstrated that the effects of climate change have the potential to become a citywide catastrophe, requiring more efforts in emergency preparedness and reexamining infrastructural integrity.
The Bloomberg administration invested considerable resources in addressing environmental concerns, most notably encapsulated in the 2007 publication of “PlaNYC 2030,” the administration’s road map for “a Greener, Greater New York.” The publication and its subsequent 2011 update set out to address the myriad environmental issues facing the city. Initiatives seek to address several environmental sectors, namely housing, parks, brownfields, waterways, water supply, energy, air quality, solid waste, and climate change, with an eye for sustainable and “clean” development. Many new goals were introduced by the report for environmental development, including:
- Targeting under-served neighborhoods to provide park access, through redevelopment of underutilized lands, landfills, and water-based recreation.
- Maintain water quality by protecting the city’s water supply from ‘hydrofracking’ near its watershed and completing high-tech water filtration systems.
- Creating an Energy Policy Task Force, reexamining natural gas distribution, and increasing investment in clean sources of energy, “greener” infrastructure, and environmentally conscious engineering and urban planning.
- Improving air quality by promoting cleaner-burning fuels for buildings and promoting electric vehicles.
- Investigating protective measures for the city’s coastline, addressing the “urban heat island” effect, and reducing Greenhouse Gas emissions by at least 30%.
Since the report’s publication, the Bloomberg administration has aggressively pursued its goals and – when applicable – celebrated its successes. In his 12th State of the City address, Mayor Bloomberg touted a 16% decrease in the city’s carbon footprint, the first electric taxis in the city entering service, and the opening of a 30-acre park on Governor’s Island among the plan’s successes so far.
Many of the projects drawn up to address environmental concerns in New York City focus on “greener” infrastructure. Such initiatives seek to address the City’s environmental problems by making new building projects more environmentally conscious. For instance PlaNYC features a building initiative called the “Greener, Greater Buildings Plan,” with the goal of reducing emissions by creating energy and water consumption benchmarks, auditing energy use, and enforcing energy codes in non-residential areas. The “Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency” report, written in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, paid special attention to park infrastructure and waste water, with initiatives for expanding Greenstreets (areas of vegetation that help absorb storm water) and Bluebelts (natural streams and bodies of water that help filter sewage before it can make contact with the City water supply). The City also instituted the “green roofs” tax credit in 2010, through which building owners can save money by installing gardens on their rooftops – gardens that aid in storm water retention and heat insulation – while also acting as readily available park space.
Along with these governmental initiatives, various environmental groups have applied pressure on city officials for broader environmental efforts. They have called for more action on air quality issues, through better documentation of toxins and impurities in the air and greater use of bio-diesel fuels. In the area of green infrastructure, they have pushed for “green codes” in building construction, as well as green roof tax credits and renewable energy initiatives. Locally, they have led the opposition of environmental damage by larger institutions, for instance opposing the development of new waste disposal and transport facilities in Fresh Kills in Staten Island and on 91st street in Manhattan.
Questions to Consider:
- What alternatives are there to current forms of building heating that can address emission levels?
- What can be done to reduce emissions in the City from private and public motor vehicles?
- How should the City’s water be managed to ensure quality as the City grows?
- How can the benefits of park access be brought to more New Yorkers?
- What role should the City, State, federal government, and local neighborhoods play in administering and conserving parks and wildlife reserves in the city?
- What measures can the City take in the short, medium, and long term to prepare for climate change-related crises?
- What role will “Green” initiatives play in the future of New York City?
- Is PlaNYC enough to address the City’s environmental concerns, has its implementation been effective, and is it progressing quickly enough?
Resources for More Information:
Key Advocates and Experts: New Yorkers For Parks (Election Year Platform)
Latest progress report:
Special Initiative for Reconstruction and Resiliency:
Green Roof Property Tax Abatement Program:
City of New York Parks and Recreation:
NYC Department of Environmental Protection:
Environmental Control Board:
Mayor’s Office of Environmental Coordination:
Office of Environmental Remediation:
Georgetown Climate Center:
Overview of PlaNYC:
New York League of Conservation Voters:
“Blueprint for a Greener New York City.”
Urban Green Council:
Building Resiliency Task Force Report:
Green Codes Task Force:
Center for Health, Environment & Justice: