Environmental justice (EJ) is an essential principle to good quality of life and is a critical policy goal. All persons, regardless of race, age, or socioeconomic background, should have the right to live, work, and socialize without a risk to their safety or health. While EJ necessarily means mitigating physically harmful environmental factors, such as water contamination or air pollution, it extends much further.1 EJ also means providing equal access to elements essential to a person’s physical and mental well-being, including healthful foods and green space. Unfortunately, throughout New York City, far too many communities suffer negative health effects from the presence of harmful contaminates and the absence of items vital to their well-being.
With the adoption of Local Laws 60 and 64 of 2017, the City demonstrated a commitment to overcoming the historical disenfranchisement of EJ communities, to which the Environmental Justice for All Report is key. In order to ensure New York is a safe and healthy place to live regardless of where one resides in the five boroughs, there needs to be a data-backed understanding of the current disparity.
The current draft scope structures the Report according to three large tasks:
Analysis of environmental outcomes and climate vulnerabilities;
Analysis of the City’s contribution to environmental justice; and
Inclusivity and engagement with respect to environmental decision-making.
REBNY supports the scope’s proposed framing of the Report, which will provide a comprehensive view of the present state of environmental justice in the city, review the current regulations and initiatives to improve on the circumstances, as well as ensure more direct engagement in the development and execution of related policy and programs by the communities they are meant to serve.
The NYC Environmental Justice for All Report will necessarily be expansive given the magnitude and complexity of the issue, which touches nearly all aspects of the built environment. It is important, however, that this Report ultimately be a functional tool to improve EJ in the city and be coordinated with other City policymaking efforts. To that end, the Environmental Justice Advisory Board should consider ways to more explicitly contextualize the Report’s framing and eventual findings within ongoing initiatives, including but not limited to:
2030 Waterfront Comprehensive Plan;
Citywide Statement of Needs;
Local Law 97 Advisory Board;
New York Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act’s Climate Action Council;
Racial Equity Index; and
Where We Live NYC
In adjusting the draft scope to speak directly to such ongoing public work, the Report will avoid duplication of effort and can use the preexisting work as reliable sources of data. For example, the draft scope identifies additional oversight and investigation into the remediation of hazard materials in existing buildings, a goal of ongoing work at the NYC Departments of Health and Mental Hygiene as well as Housing Preservation and Development. The draft scope identifies a review of that work, which is laudable from an accountability perspective. It is essential, however, that the scope be manageable so the Report is ultimately digestible and, consequently, functional to inform regulatory changes or program development that will achieve greater EJ.
Moreover, it is important that whatever recommendations are put forward by the Report are holistic in their understanding of the public’s needs and minimize conflict with other policy priorities. For example, according to the recently released Census, New York City’s population has grown by 630,000 between 2010 and 2020.2 In the same timeframe, only 206,000 housing units were constructed.3 New York City is not producing enough housing to keep pace with its growing population. Ensuring that all city residents have a place and enough space to live is an EJ issue. The Report ultimately needs to have harmonized recommendations and should support related policy imperatives, such as developing enough new housing to meet the public need.
The Report’s recommendations also need to be cognizant of the infrastructure needs to deliver on EJ and reflect that in the timing of any proposed policy and programmatic initiatives. For example, bringing fossil fuels offline and electrifying buildings would unquestionably achieve greater EJ through improved local air quality. It is imperative, however, that any such action at scale be sequenced correctly to ensure there is enough renewable power available that can reliably provide the heating and cooling needs of all city residents. Should the timing of such a recommendation be rushed to the extent there is not enough renewable energy sourcing the electric grid or it is strained beyond a point of reliable capacity, the outcome would lead to further environmental justice issues as a result of increased fossil fuel outputs from power plants meeting the heightened demand or potentially power outages that could put vulnerable populations at risk in extreme weather.