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Over the past several years, climate change has begun to exact a disproportionate toll on the poor and working class people of New York City. During Hurricane Sandy, we saw that marginalized communities lost their homes, jobs, financial security and more at a higher rate than others. Yet, to this day, the political and economic dynamics that precipitated the worst of Sandy’s fallout have hardly changed.
With an ultimate goal of protecting NYC’s most vulnerable from climate-related impacts, the NMCA promotes environmental policies that also aim to address socioeconomic inequality. The NMCA recognizes that issues of class, race, gender, ethnicity, and age, not simply rising sea levels and temperatures, must be mitigated and ultimately overcome.
The NMCA can only address these issues through increases in democratic activity within and outside government. For its vision to be implemented, we must engage with the legislative process, but also build our own systems of economic exchange and urban development independent of the public sector.
The NMCA is the result of a six month-long planning process led by WE ACT for Environmental Justice, undertaken in partnership with a multitude of stakeholders. The core ideas in this plan were generated during seven workshops held between January and June of 2015, in which hundreds of New Yorkers participated.
The NMCA’s study area encompasses the neighborhoods of Inwood, Washington Heights, West Harlem, Central Harlem, and East Harlem (Figure 1). Over 600,000 people, mostly African American and Latino, reside in these neighborhoods. Over 20% of the area’s residents live in poverty, a rate substantially greater than the rest of Manhattan’s 14% average.
Inequality across NYC is severe and increasing. 20% of all household earners control over 54% of the City’s wealth. Since 1990, the median income of the top 1% of earners grew from $452,415 to $716,625, while the bottom 10% of earners saw their income increase only modestly, from $8,468 to $9,455. This gaping wealth disparity also translates into an advantage in political power and access to resources for the wealthy. For this reason, some NYC residents are dramatically better prepared to absorb the shocks associated with climate change than others.
In terms of the physical impact that climate change will have on Northern Manhattan, it is predicted that by 2100 we could see temperatures climb by up to 8°F, sea levels rise by up to six feet, precipitation increase by 13%, and what are now once-in-100 year floods occur once every eight years. These are “worst-case scenarios,” but even the best-case scenarios represent a grave threat to Northern Manhattan’s people and infrastructure, including utilities and transportation routes critical to function of the entire City. As we invest billions in preparations for climate change, we must leverage our efforts to address other social crises, such as chronic unemployment, poor diets, mass incarceration, and low-quality education, among others. Otherwise, we may prevent climate change from erasing NYC only to watch the slower erosion of gentrification swallow what’s left.
A map of Northern Manhattan, showing Hurricane Evacuation Zones and main neighborhoods.
2) Climate Change and Social Equality
The NMCA uses the frameworks of environmental justice, resilience, and social cohesion to guide its recommendations. Resilience, as defined by the NYC Panel on Climate Change, is “the ability of a system and its component parts to anticipate, absorb, accommodate, or recover from the effects of a potentially hazardous event in a timely and efficient manner.”
However, environmental justice work strives to improve upon existing socio-economic conditions, not simply maintain or restore them. Therefore, as is argued in “From Resilience to Resourcefulness,” definitions of resilience must be expanded to avoid privileging “established social structures, which are often shaped by…injustice” and closing off “wider questions of progressive social change, which require transformation of established systems.” When attempting to build resilience, we must ask if the economy should “conform to meet the needs, values, and vision of a democratic society,” or continue to “advance the capitalist system” regardless of its impact on our social fabric.
As Melissa Checker points out in her article “Wiped Out by the “‘Greenwave’,” our overdependence on systems of private investment leads to “environmental gentrification,” which appropriates the “successes of the urban environmental justice movement…to serve highend redevelopment that displaces low income residents.” In other words, “the efforts of environmental justice activists to improve their neighborhoods...now help those neighborhoods attract an influx of affluent residents.”
The NMCA supports the growing movement in NYC to recognize the crucial connection between social equality and response to climate change. By working together, we can empower the masses to remake the city in their own vision, not remain victims of hyper-privatization and environmental degradation.
Discussion at an April 4, 2015 climate change workshop organized by WE ACT.
The workshop was one of seven that used "serious games" to plan climate actions.
3) Concept One: Energy Democracy
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, New Yorkers pay the nation’s second highest energy prices. This manifests as a disproportionate cost burden for low-income NYers, which threatens not only their retention of energy services, but also limits access to housing, healthy food, healthcare, and other costly necessities. Therefore, this plan calls for green energy projects that provide direct economic benefits to low-income residents. These may be achieved through investments in neighborhood companies, creation of systems for tenants to lead change within their own communities, and local hiring agreements that apply to efficiency improvements and green energy installations.
One type of energy improvement that aligns with this goal is construction of microgrids, small, networked geographic areas that produce their own energy using renewable resources (wind, solar, geothermal, etc.) and are therefore not dependent on the main grid. Such systems can confer direct economic benefits on low-income residents by creating manufacturing, construction, and maintenance jobs while also providing savings. However, regulations must be passed to ensure that cost savings are passed down to tenants, not absorbed by property owners or middlemen. Green energy cooperatives can help maximize economic benefits for tenants, as they allow stakeholders to pool their resources and manage their own grids, affording them maximum control over generation, consumption, and costs.
In our workshops, people consistently expressed a desire for a more robust, democratic system of tenant associations. Such associations are an essential ingredient in the creation of larger systems of common resource ownership and management, such as cooperatively owned microgrids. The fact that members of tenant associations already share a roof over their heads makes the prospect of “shared solar” that much more attractive.
As a member of the Energy Efficiency for All Coalition, WE ACT has already begun work to connect community members with renewable energy and efficiency improvements and to explore options for microgrids under NY State’s Reforming the Energy Vision process. With the support of other partners, such as Solar One and the City University of New York, Northern Manhattan could see microgrid pilot projects and large-scale investments in renewables in the near future.
But ultimately, as Trade Unions for Energy Democracy recently stated, “the transition to an equitable, sustainable energy system can only occur if there is decisive shift in power towards workers, communities and the public.” In making such a transition, we must confront what the Energy Democracy Initiative recognizes as a fundamental “clash between the priorities of political elites and corporations on one hand, and the needs of the masses of people for a truly socially and environmentally sustainable society on the other.”
The Mother Clara Hale Bus Depot, complete after 10 years, is NY’s first LEED-certified bus depot.
Bus depots in Harlem house the buses many NYers use, especially when subway
service is suspended, but result in local pollution and respiratory problems for residents.
4) Concept Two: Emergency Preparedness
As Hurricane Sandy brutally showed, NYC’s residents, government, and infrastructure are extremely unprepared to withstand a severe natural disaster. After Sandy, areas such as the Rockaways experienced “total blackouts” with “no communications to speak of.” Residents had to resort to bullhorns to relay messages, print fliers at home to share information, and physically “[congregate] at local hubs like churches...and schools” to communicate.
For NYC to be ready for the next Sandy, neighborhood-specific preparedness plans must be devised, climate-proof communication systems must be developed, and necessary physical resources, such as flood protection infrastructures and space for storage of food and medicine must be built out. In addition, much of the suffering in Sandy’s aftermath resulted from misappropriation of resources, not from a lack of capacity. Therefore, in any future disaster, opportunities for more community input in resource distribution must be created to ensure that resources (and institutions) are appropriated for the public good.
The central element of the NMCA’s emergency response plan is creation of a locally-managed communication system that operates in analog and digital formats and that can effectively direct vulnerable populations to necessary resources during crises. This communication system will include wayfinding signage, social media plans, physical message boards, means for crowdsourcing, and tools to direct people to cooling centers, energy supplies, medicine, food, and water. In the long-term, this communication system can also be used to foster democratic participation in emergency response decisions.
Building flood protection infrastructure such as coastal barriers, rain gardens, bioswales, and more can ensure that private and public spaces are protected. Involving residents in the creation of green spaces can also, in and of itself, aid in recovery from crises, as allowing people to express their instinctive “affinity for nature” through the “creation of restorative environments may [bolster] resilience.” NYC already provides some financial support for the construction of open space and green infrastructure: the Department of Environmental Protection has committed over $208 million to its Green Infrastructure Program, while the Department of Parks and Recreation’s City Parks Initiative, which carries out park improvements in underserved neighborhoods, is worth $130 million.
The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is currently exploring the possibility of developing neighborhood health hubs. In addition, it possesses valuable information regarding who is most in need of assistance during heatwaves and other emergencies. However, further advocacy should be carried out to encourage DOHMH and the NY state government to expand the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to include air conditioning.
Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) are also integral to planning and recovering from a disaster. Other programs that support this objective include the NYC Citizen Corps and the Office of Emergency Management’s (OEM’s) Ready NY Campaign and NYC Readiness Challenge.
After Hurricane Sandy, many residents without the means to relocate were cut off
from their jobs, families, healthcare services, and more. Several years later,
impacted areas are still recovering, while other areas have yet to be prepared.
5) Concept Three: Social Hubs
In the immediate future, development of more physical spaces for movement building activities is key. Providing spaces for local activists to organize meetings, produce materials, and incubate projects crucial. Such space could bring diverse groups together and build community cohesion, while also accommodating desires for community gardens, libraries, green energy infrastructure, artists’ workshops, and more.
In the short-term, temporary and/or mobile hubs for social cohesion should be established to serve these functions, with a long-term goal of establishing a permanent, central resilience hub on the site of the abandoned 135th Street Marine Waste Transfer Station, pictured below.
Eric Klinenberg’s research demonstrates that during the 1995 Chicago heatwave, while most low-income and minority communities suffered severely, “3 of the 10... neighborhoods with the lowest rates of heat-related deaths were low-income, African American communities.” These three communities proved resilient because they had “high levels of community interaction and organization [and] decreased isolation among residents.” A network of hubs, programmed by the rich composition of people that live locally, could help facilitate similar interactions in Northern Manhattan. Several such ‘hubs,’ such as Word Up Bookstore: Libreria Communitaria, The Brotherhood Sister Sol, and more, are already having a positive impact.
Large cities that have recently experienced changes in political power in favor of the working class, such as Madrid and Barcelona, have reported that “social centers” played an important role. While subsisting on small membership fees or income from bars or cafés, many such meeting spaces served as crucial organizing venues for community activists. This resulted in the development of political strategies and actions that have now led to concrete electoral successes.
Residents of Washington Heights have recently been demanding construction of a community gathering space as part of a multi-million dollar Port Authority bus terminal renovation. When they were offered only a meager 250 square feet of space, Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez responded, “our community is left out entirely. Port Authority: we do not want another slumlord in our community, so we demand that you do your part.” Whether or not the Port Authority ultimately heeds the demands of this community, establishment of such spaces is essential and is therefore a central objective of the NMCA.
The abandoned 135th Street Marine Waste Transfer Station presents an opportunity to
develop a community space on the waterfront, which can be used to monitor the impacts
of climate change, build social cohesion through community events, and provide space for
public meetings, research labs, galleries, and workspaces.
6) Concept Four: Public Participation
Changing the political dynamics in NYC so that low-income residents are not excluded from policy-making is crucial to the effective implementation of this plan. Without a change in the current distribution of political power, only limited, cosmetic gestures will be made to protect low-income groups from climate change; little will be done to change the fundamental, underlying problems of inequality and poverty.
Organizing deeper participation in existing systems of governance while also creating new, more responsive systems can help shift the balance of power towards the underclass. This initiative should include, but not be limited to, the following activities: increasing political education and mobilization through protests and direct actions, developing partnerships with governmental and non-governmental allies, writing educational curricula, organizing involvement in participatory budgeting, and building participation in the electoral process.
Participatory budgeting (PB) has been proven to bolster civic participation. A 2011 study of PB that compared five Brazilian municipalities with PB to five without it found that the effect of participatory budgeting was to “create a space for citizens to voice their demands and to scrutinize what were once highly insulated and discretionary decisionmaking processes,” allowing citizens not only to allocate monies, but also to “bargain from a position of greater strength with municipal authorities” in general. In NYC, PB should be expanded to the 9th City Council district, the only district in Northern Manhattan where it is not currently offered.
Worldwide, there has been a recent resurgence in the belief that democratic participation can bring an end to the negative results of fiscal austerity and neoliberalism. Whether at the 2014 People’s Climate March or a Black Lives Matter demonstration, people are demanding greater control over the policies and institutions that have, up until now, controlled their lives without their input and created an oppressive society in the process. In July of 2015, the Greek people, heeding the Prime Minister’s calls for them to decide to reject the “extortionate” policies that could prevent them from “ever standing on [their] own two feet, socially and financially,” voted against the weight of the global financial system and its thirst for public monies. In Spain, recent municipal elections have shown that including diverse ideas in political platforms can create broad partnerships that cut through historic divisions to unite the people and move them towards a more just future.
7) Next Steps
In order to implement the NMCA, we must (1) Increase democratic participation in the development of City policy and (2) Build grassroots infrastructure that allows communities to control their own responses to climate change.
In order to achieve these goals, we must continue to work with a broad network of NYers to build the critical mass necessary for profound, systemic change. Thus far, it has been an honor to connect with a wide variety of actors from the local and international climate justice communities. The countless presentations, conversations, and correspondences that went into the NMCA have not only created this plan, but also facilitated relationships among community members that help us to better understand our responsibilities as New Yorkers. Strengthening these relationships is imperative if we are to carry out wide-scale action that will change City policy and build systems of participation and mutual aid at the local level.
Some of the specific policies the NMCA proposes as targets for its implementation process are listed below.
The primary policy target of the NMCA is OneNYC, the City’s chief policy framework on environmental issues, which is due to be revised in 2019. A few of the many environmental objectives listed in OneNYC are to “invest in emergency shelter sites to accommodate 120,000 New Yorkers with disabilities,” fund “physical assets for emergency response” as well as community-centered education projects, and create green jobs and local hiring plans to benefit those most in need of economic opportunities.
In terms of the City Council, the NMCA targets the chairs of the Environmental Protection, Land Use, Transportation, Waterfronts, Parks and Recreation, Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, and Economic Development Committees to be pressured to take action for climate justice by constituent actions. The Black, Latino, and Asian caucus and the Progressive caucus are natural allies in this campaign. In terms of electoral politics, a voter engagement strategy must be developed for the 2017 elections that identifies key races, registers voters, seeks commitments on climate justice from candidates, and generally increases public participation in the electoral process.
Community Boards 9, 10, 11, and 12 will prove critical in advancing our policy recommendations. In the past, WE ACT has partnered with Community Board 9 to participate in the Department of City Planning’s 197-a program, which supports community-based urban planning. We will continue to build these partnerships around the proposals of the NMCA.
The North River Sewage Treatment Plant is a physical example of the undue environmental
burden forced onto Northern Manhattan. Originally planned for 72nd Street, it was built
instead at 135th to allow room for Robert Moses's Riverside Park on the Upper West Side.
In addition to OneNYC, the One City, Built to Last plan is of great importance. It lays out the City’s plan to reduce its carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 and centers on improving the energy efficiency of NYC’s building stock. A recent report by the Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN) stated that efforts associated with One City, Built to Last may require over $5 billion in investments every year and could create 82,000 new jobs annually from now to 2050. In the plan, the City also pledges to support community-shared solar projects and to train and hire community members for green jobs. The plan’s Retrofit Accelerator Program could spur further construction and energy improvements in Northern Manhattan and is connected to DEP’s Clean Heat program, which WE ACT is already involved in implementing.
Besides energy efficiency investments in buildings, we need large investments to improve stormwater management infrastructure, alter the design of our streets and mass transit systems, and protect our coastal areas. The Department of Environmental Protection leads a Green Infrastructure Program that invests millions in mitigating increased flooding and rising temperatures already being observed. Such infrastructure is badly needed in areas of Northern Manhattan that currently have a dearth of green space and that are in floodplains, such as East Harlem. The Department of City Planning is already conducting a Resilient Neighborhoods study that is engaging East Harlem in planning flood protection measures.
Another key component of the NMCA planning process was our ongoing academic partnerships, including those with the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, our research partnerships with the Pratt Institute’s sustainability and urban planning programs, partnerships with City College students and faculty, and work with auxiliary programs such as the Urban Climate Change Research Network, among others. By further pursuing these partnerships and policy goals, we can leverage public investments while also building local capacity to ultimately end the scourges of poverty and inequality.
Many areas in Northern Manhattan, particularly in East Harlem, do not have
enough open space or tree cover to adequately mitigate the urban heat island effect.
The problem is exacerbated by pollution from local infrastructure, such as bus depots.
8) #NMCA Resilience Concepts
- Baiocchi, Gianpaolo et al., “Evaluating Empowerment: Participatory Budgeting in Brazilian Municipalities,” Empowerment in Practice: From Analysis to Implementation, 2006.
- BBC News Europe, “Greece Debt Crisis: Tsipras Announces Bailout Referendum,” June 2015.
- Baussan, Danielle, “Social Cohesion: The Secret Weapon in the Fight for Equitable Climate Resilience,” Center for American Progress, May 2015.
- Bergad, Laird W., “The Concentration of Wealth in New York City Changes in the Structure of Household Income by Race/Ethnic Groups and Latino Nationalities 1990 - 2010,” CUNY, January 2014.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Heat Illness and Deaths - NYC, 2000-2011,” August 9, 2011.
- Checker, Melissa, “Wiped Out by the ‘Greenwave’: Environmental Gentrification and the Paradoxical Politics of Urban Sustainability,” City and Society, vol. 23, 2011.
- MacKinnon, Danny & Kate Driscoll Derickson, “From Resilience to Resourcefulness: A Critique of Resilience Policy and Activism,” Progress in Human Geography, vol. 37, 2013.
- Mazria, Edward, “Achieving 80 x 50,” Architecture 2030, July 2015.
- McKay, Jim, “Sandy Created a Black Hole of Communication,” Emergency Management, January 28, 2013.
- NYC Center for Economic Opportunity, “Poverty Data Tool,” n.d.
- NYC Department of Environmental Protection, “NYC Green Infrastructure: Annual Report,” 2014.
- NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, “New York City Community Health Survey,” 2013.
- NYC Office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “A Stronger, More Resilient New York,” June 2013.
- NYC Office of the Mayor, “One City: Built to Last,” September 2014.
- NYC Office of the Mayor, “#OneNYC: The Plan for a Strong and Just City,” April 2014.
- NYC Office of the Mayor, “Providing Climate Projections Through 2100 for the First Time,” 2015.
- NYC Office of the Mayor, “The CEO Poverty Measure, 2005 - 2012,” April 2014.
- Sagrans, Eric, “6 Lessons for the U.S. from Spain’s Democratic Revolution,” In These Times, May 29 2015.
- Salter, Raya & Cecil Corbin-Mark, “New York’s Energy Revolution Will Mean More Clean and Renewable Power Projects in Low- to Moderate-Income Neighborhoods,” Natural Resources Defense Council
- Seguín, Bécquer & Sebatiaan Faber, “In Spain’s Seismic Elections, ‘It’s the Victory of David over Goliath,’” The Nation, May 2015.
- Tidball, Keith, “Urgent biophilia: Human-nature Interactions and Biological Attractions in Disaster Resilience,” Ecology and Society, vol. 17, 2012.
- Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, 2015
- U.S. Census Bureau, “ACS 2010 5-Year Estimates,” 2010.
Download the full report here.
WE ACT for Environmental Justice