When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) unveiled his ambitious environmental agenda last week, he did not choose City Hall or the green meadows of Central Park as his backdrop. Instead, he announced the plan from the headquarters of The Point, an environmental justice organization in Hunt’s Point, the South Bronx.
It was a telling choice.
Hunt’s Point, which is in the nation’s poorest congressional district, carries a heavy burden of environmental hazards, including nine truck-based waste transfer stations. Speaking from this embattled community, surrounded by advocates who helped shape his plan, de Blasio made it clear that he understands something his predecessors have not: You cannot separate poverty and inequality from environmental issues.
In New York City, we know that low-income and working communities disproportionately bear the brunt of polluting facilities, and those communities are also typically located in flood-prone, climate-vulnerable areas. This injustice is further compounded by a lack of access to quality workforce training, good jobs, and affordable housing.
De Blasio’s plan, OneNYC, offers a chance to turn this situation around by harnessing climate sustainability initiatives as engines (clean energy–powered) of greater economic equality. The plan seeks to lift 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty over the next decade, and significantly reduce racial and ethnic disparities in premature mortality. This is not your father’s environmental plan.
Importantly, the plan reflects the priorities of labor, community, and environmental justice groups and other members of the Climate Works for All coalition that grew out of last year’s People’s Climate March. For example, OneNYC will:
- Leverage investments in green infrastructure and energy efficiency to create jobs and training opportunities for disadvantaged New Yorkers.
- Establish a new model for “triple bottom line” planning that incorporates economic, environmental, and social indicators in capital planning.
- Retrofit every city building with energy-efficiency measures by 2025, install 100 megawatts of solar on public buildings, and consider mandates for energy retrofits of private buildings.
- Provide $30 million for stormwater management and other neighborhood resiliency projects in vulnerable neighborhoods.
- Reduce commercial waste 90 percent by 2030 and create a Zero Waste challenge program for large commercial waste generators.
- Conduct a comprehensive study of commercial waste collection zones that could reduce inefficiencies and create other benefits, such as improved worker conditions and wages.
Some environmental advocates have worried quietly that the plan’s emphasis on equity will diminish the focus on traditional “green” issues. But de Blasio’s plan reflects a sea change that is underway in the environmental movement. It underscores how a much broader coalition of allies — across the social and economic spectrum — are uniting for planet and people. Together, we can face the existential threat of climate change in an era of extreme — and growing — economic inequality. These problems are linked, and they must be addressed head on, together.
As de Blasio said at last week’s press conference, “Environmental sustainability and economic sustainability have to walk hand in hand. Some of my brothers and sisters in the environmental movement don’t get that yet.” He added, “A beautifully sustainable city that is the playground of the rich doesn’t work for us.”
Of course, as with any political process, the devil is in the details — and most of the details of OneNYC are yet to be determined. A key metric of success will be if OneNYC can deliver on creating good, green jobs that lift up disadvantaged communities. The good news is that the advocates who helped inspire the plan are at the table, rolling up our sleeves to help make New York City a national model of sustainability with equity.
Matt Ryan is the executive director of ALIGN: The Alliance for a Greater New York, which has launched several labor-community campaigns for a new, green economy such as the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, Transform Don’t Trash NYC, and Climate Works for All.