Last updated March 27, 2014
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. In NYC, major environmental issues include: degradation of air and water quality from urban pollution, waste management, transportation, energy sources, and infrastructure maintenance, especially in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
The Bloomberg administration released a policy roadmap that sought to address some of these concerns, titled “PlaNYC2030.” Published in 2007 and subsequently updated in 2011, PlaNYC detailed a series of policies and initiatives that dealt with housing, parks, brownfields, waterways, water supply, energy, air quality, solid waste, and climate change. Many of its projects focus on environmental sustainability, particularly through “green” infrastructure projects like green roofs and more efficient building codes. The rollout of PlaNYC’s many projects continues, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has largely expressed support for its stated program.
Climate change has recently been evidenced in NYC by a 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.
Former Mayor Bloomberg’s administration delineated several goals for environmental development in the 2007 publication of “PlaNYC 2030,” the administration’s road map for “a Greener, Greater New York,” and in its 2011 update. These goals include:
- 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%.
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, the “Greener, Greater Buildings Plan” aims to reduce 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.
Environmental groups have advocated for broader environmental efforts. On air quality issues, they called for 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.
Air and Water Quality
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.
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. Together, these green spaces help address environmental changes related to the urban heat island effect, which alters weather patterns in cities with a large number of people and paved surfaces. However, there are concerns about the equity of park access in the city, with certain neighborhoods having much more accessible park space than others. Some parks, such as Central Park, receive generous financial support from the city and are maintained by private conservancies which contract with the city in public-private partnerships. Other parks have few resources, which has raised criticism regarding neighborhood inequity and control over parks, as underfunded or overlooked spaces deny certain areas the benefits of access to parks.
Former Mayor Bloomberg invested $5 billion dollars in expanding park space, with the stated goal of park access within a 10-minute walk of every New Yorker – reaching 76% by the end of his administration. Mayor de Blasio has backed proposals that would address the inequality of funding between parks, for instance with a bill that would distribute money from better funded parks to those that are poorly funded.
Waste Management Plan
New York City’s waste disposal system relies almost exclusively on transporting the garbage away – amounting to more than 15,000 tons a day – through short-term contracts between the City and private companies. This is done in lieu of incineration and landfilling which, while historically important to the City’s waste management, have faced staunch community opposition and raised serious health concerns. Transportation addresses some of these concerns, but has grown steadily more expensive: contractors have begun charging more for shipment as demand increases, and local landfills and incinerators run low on capacity.
The Bloomberg administration began a major overhaul of City waste management in 2006, with the release of its Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP). The plan focused on three things, namely in-city recycling efforts, renegotiation of private contracts, and reexamination of commercial waste: In-City recycling efforts would be expanded, by reducing the cost of existing efforts and inviting private companies to process recyclables; renegotiating contracts would be renegotiated, making them more long-term and sustainable; and residential and commercial waste would receive greater focus, making their collection and export more environmentally conscious and reducing their disproportionate impact on certain neighborhoods.
Recycling and Composting
As of 2013, the NYC recycling rate was calculated at 15%, less than half of the national average (34%) and a fraction of cities like Los Angeles or San Francisco (65-75%). The Bloomberg Administration included recycling in PlaNYC as a means of reducing the amount of waste New Yorkers send to landfills. A pilot organic recycling program began in 2013, with the stated goal of increasing the City’s recycling rate to 30% by diverting organic trash – food scraps, yard waste, etc – away from the garbage stream and into composting. After a test run in parts of Staten Island and several Manhattan high-rises, the program is now in the process of being expanded to include parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx – currently on a voluntary basis but with the potential to become mandatory. This expansion is coupled with a new “Recycle Everything” ad campaign, designed to make New Yorkers more aware of how much they can recycle. This expanded organic waste recycling program, coupled with an ad campaign to increase recycling of metals, hard plastics, glass, and paper, seeks to drastically increase the amount of waste that is recycled in the city rather than diverted elsewhere.
Marine Transfer Stations
New York City’s current system of waste disposal depends largely on transporting it away, to landfills and incinerators elsewhere in New York or New Jersey. 58 Waste Transfer Stations (WTSs) throughout the City are responsible for loading waste onto trains, trucks, or marine barges for transportation out of the City.
The siting of marine transfer stations has proven controversial, as evidenced by the debate over a transfer station planned to be located on East 91st Street in Manhattan, which became an issue during the 2013 mayoral election. Residents raised concerns about a WTS being built in their neighborhood, out of fear that it will harm the local environment, detrimentally affect local health, and impact students at nearby schools and Asphalt Green. However other communities – particularly those in Brooklyn and the Bronx in which WTSs are already sited – argue that such stations are too heavily concentrated in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and that all boroughs should share the burden of waste disposal.
Styrofoam and Plastic Bags
As part of its environmental agenda, the Bloomberg Administration made the phasing out of non-biodegradable materials one of its stated goals. Two targets in particular were styrofoam and plastic bags. Plastic bags became a target as early as 2008, when Mayor Bloomberg proposed a tax on their use – and when that measure proved unsuccessful, the City Council took it up again in 2013. One of the Bloomberg Administration’s final actions was an initiative to ban styrofoam, which passed through the City Council in his final weeks in office.
Bill de Blasio’s campaign for Mayor largely promised to maintain most of these policies. His policy proposals included a ban on plastic bags as part of a “zero waste” program, and he supported a ban on styrofoam products during his time as Public Advocate.
Hydraulic Fracturing (“Hydrofracking”)
Hydroracking (short for hydraulic fracturing) is a form of natural gas extraction by fracturing gas-rich rock. Recent technological breakthroughs have made the process much more economical, and as a result the past two decades saw a sharp increase in the use of the technique – widely known as the “Shale Gas Revolution.”
However, concerns over the effect of hydrofracking on water supplies have made the practice highly controversial in New York, and Mayor de Blasio has come out strongly against it.
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:
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: