Building Environmental Justice in New York City

Rebecca Bratspies

Aug. 23, 2021

This blog post is based on my testimony before the New York City Racial Justice Commission, which it tasked with dismantling structural racism in the city’s charter.

This November, New York voters will decide whether to enshrine an explicit environmental right in their state constitution. If adopted, the new section will read, “Every person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.” New York would join several other states, as well as the United Nations and roughly 150 countries across the globe, in recognizing a fundamental human right to breathe clean air and drink clean water.

We all deserve to live in healthy communities. Yet, the grim reality is that Black communities, communities of color, and low-income communities frequently have to fight tooth-and-nail for these basic human rights. This situation is neither accidental nor inevitable. New York City is a clear example.

The city’s racial segregation was carefully planned. This link takes you to a map of the New York City neighborhoods that were redlined nearly a century ago. It is a map of structural racism — of the deliberate racialized decision to cut Black and brown neighborhoods out of the New Deal and the economic prosperity it built.

Now look at where New York City sited its power plants, where the city sited its wastewater treatment plants, where the waste transfer stations are located, and where polluting industry is located more generally. It’s the same map. This is the map of New York City’s environmental racism.

The structural racism of redlining has been compounded by a city that ignored the needs and priorities of its frontline communities. It is also the map of the neighborhoods burdened by over-policing and mass incarceration.

Now take this map of structural and environmental racism. Add to it the places with few green spaces or street trees, the places where environmental enforcement is lax, the places where kids struggle with asthma and miss too much school because they are sick, the places with disproportionate cardiopulmonary disease burden, the places most vulnerable to the city’s heat island effect, and the places where COVID-19 hit first and hardest.

Once again it is largely the same map. This is the map of New York City’s environmental injustice — the impacts that polluting industry and lack of environmental enforcement have on the health and welfare of its most vulnerable residents.

Recommended solutions

New York State's environmental amendment would be one of a multitude of transformative legal initiatives that could begin to address the crisis of environmental injustice. In 2019, the State of New York passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which places special emphasis on overburdened communities. The New York City Racial Justice Commission is about to propose amendments to the city's charter, and the Environmental Justice Interagency Work Group is currently producing the Environmental Justice For All Report required by the city's 2017 Environmental Justice Ordinances.

With all these converging legal initiatives, New York City has an historic opportunity to end its legacy of structural environmental racism and to help residents and communities move toward environmental justice. Here are five suggestions for how to make that happen.

  1. The city charter should be amended to explicitly guarantee every resident the right to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and live in housing that is not toxic or damaging to their health.

  2. The city and state should follow New Jersey’s lead in making environmental injustice a mandatory reason to deny a permit, license, etc. when a new facility would have a disproportionate negative impact on an already overburdened community.

  3. The city should make wider use of the procedures from participatory budgeting in which communities speak first and last, and anyone over 12 has a voice — without regard to citizenship, property ownership, or any of the other privileges that skew public discourse. Conversations about community priorities need to occur in community spaces accessible to those with disabilities, where people feel safe, welcomed, and valued, and at times that work for working people and parents. This approach does not diminish the key role for agency expertise, but communities set the agenda and regulators take seriously their self-identified needs and priorities. Renewable Rikers is an example of the kind of transformative proposals that emerge from this kind of community-driven policymaking.

  4. The city should explicitly recognize that all property is held subject to a “social mortgage.” This is a recognition that private property ownership confers stewardship obligations. Just as a conventional mortgage binds the homeowner to repay the institution that made ownership of that home possible, a social mortgage binds the property owner to repay the community for the added value provided by social context (including public services such as health care, education, transportation, and police and fire protection, as well as “cultural vibes” that make neighborhoods desirable). This can be a way to change how we think of “as of right” zoning and to create a more just, equal land use planning process capable of addressing displacement.

  5. The city should make environmental justice everyone’s job by including explicit environmental justice metrics in every job description. City workers should be evaluated based on how they solve community problems and how they achieve inclusion and equity, rather than on how many fines or tickets they issue or how many projects get built.

A new way of doing things is possible if we dare to imagine it, and it could serve as a model for cities across the country.

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