New York's Heat-Vulnerable Neighborhoods Need to Go Green to Cool Off

The city sees itself as a climate leader, but organizers in those communities say its response to the ravages of climate change has been far from adequate.

Aug 18, 2020
New Yorkers enjoy the outdoors near the pier in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on July 20, 2020 in New York, New York. Credit: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

New Yorkers enjoy the outdoors near the pier in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on July 20, 2020 in New York, New York. Credit: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

In fall of 2012, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on longtime Brooklyn resident Rachel Rivera's Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment. It suffered so much damage that she had to move temporarily into a hotel. 

Initially, Rivera hoped to return to where she had grown up, only a bus stop away in Bushwick. But that neighborhood had been heavily gentrified, making the cost of living prohibitive.

So Rivera moved to East New York, where she was again displaced by rising rents, and finally landed in Brownsville, where she's lived for the past two years along with two of her six children, a 6-year-old with respiratory problems and a 14-year-old who Rivera described as a rising climate activist. 

As a Sandy survivor, she's now lived in three of Brooklyn's four most heat-vulnerable neighborhoods, based on the New York City Heat Vulnerability Index. It measures the risk of heat-related illness or death across city neighborhoods using both social and environmental factors including race, socioeconomic status, surface temperatures and the amount of green space. 

All of this has made Rivera no stranger to climate injustice—or shy about calling it out. 

After Sandy, Rivera joined New York Communities for Change, a community-based grassroots organization seeking to organize and empower families in the city's lowest-income neighborhoods, where she's been outspoken about the inequalities her experiences reflect. 

Sandy made brutally clear to her the connection between affordable housing and climate vulnerability in the city's historically marginalized communities, which has become clearer as the same communities are ravaged by Covid-19. 

During the pandemic, even opening cooling centers in places like Brownsville has become more difficult due to concerns about spreading the virus. 

But what Brownsville and other marginalized communities require to flourish in the intensifying climate emergency, experts and organizers say, is access to higher-quality affordable housing and green infrastructure, from public green spaces to solar and wind power projects, so that they can reap the environmental and economic benefits of a more sustainable city. 

At the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, organizers have produced a Climate Justice Agenda that outlines ways to reduce the city's greenhouse gas emissions, accelerate a "just transition" towards an equitable and environmentally sustainable economy and cultivate "healthy and resilient communities," including in heat vulnerable neighborhoods.  

But there's a big difference between knowing what needs to be done and making it happen that starts with the lack of both political will and funding.

No More Band-Aid Solutions

New York City champions itself as a climate leader, but experts and organizers say its response to the ravages of climate change in marginalized communities—specifically, to extreme heat—have come up short. 

"New York City's extreme heat strategy has climate justice at its core and explicitly considers social factors such as race and poverty," said Jainey Bavishi, director of the Mayor's Office of Resiliency, in an emailed statement. "We have focused our heat resiliency investments in ...  communities [that] have historically experienced poverty and legacies of discrimination." 

Currently, the city's Cool Neighborhoods NYC strategy outlines immediate and long-term plans for addressing extreme heat impacts, including measures targeting the city's most at-risk neighborhoods.

But Thomas Angotti, a professor emeritus of urban policy and planning at Hunter College, said the city's actions are limited by "the environmental injustices that are cemented into the city's infrastructure and segregated landscape." 

Heat vulnerable communities, he said, "are looking for holistic answers, not just more air conditioning." 

The Climate Justice Agenda from the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance goes far beyond what policy and communications organizer Tok Michelle Oyewole called "band-aid solutions" by the city. It calls for the city to be carbon negative by 2050 and supports broad measures from expanding community-controlled renewable energy and replacing emissions-intensive "peaker plants," or supplemental power plants that operate when needed to meet high energy demand. 

The agenda also calls for generating well-paying green jobs and investing in a climate and community development fund that would support climate solutions in affordable and public housing. 

The NYC Environmental Justice Alliance recently declared a "major heat win" after it successfully lobbied for passage of two bills by the city council. One required the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to annually report on neighborhood heat vulnerability and heat-related mortality rates. 

The other mandated that the city's Office of Emergency Management annually produce a comprehensive cooling and communication plan to inform city residents, particularly "vulnerable populations," of the dangers of extreme heat and the resources available to protect themselves from it. 

"You can't prevent everyone from dying, but you can certainly reduce the conditions that make a larger number of people vulnerable" by accounting for social priorities in climate policy, said Eddie Bautista, the alliance's executive director.  

Still, he and other activists said the bills may be a promising start, but they can't rectify the harms done by decades of neglect in heat vulnerable communities.  

Forging a New Path Forward

Between Covid-19 and smouldering heat, Rivera's summer includes regular check-ins on the wellbeing of family members and older neighbors, some of whom lack air conditioning. 

She feels that predominantly low-income and Black and Brown communities like Brownsville have been effectively abandoned by the city at a moment of unique vulnerability. 

Like many highly heat-vulnerable neighborhoods, Brownsville was heavily redlined starting in the 1930s when the Federal Housing Administration refused to insure "high risk" zones of the city. Redlining prevented many Black residents from buying homes and trapped them in neighborhoods shunned by investors. 

Today, such communities often experience higher temperatures and greater exposure to deadly heat waves than their non-redlined neighbors due to negligent urban planning and decades of disinvestment in the housing stock. These areas are concentrated with high-density buildings and heat-absorbing impervious surfaces, while lacking tree cover and vegetation that might mitigate heat. 

If the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance's agenda were implemented, electricity grid limitations in places like Brownsville would be addressed through projects like Sunset Park Solar, the city's first community-owned solar cooperative, that provide well-paying clean energy jobs and electricity savings for local residents.

Brownsville could also benefit from increased investment in tree-planting and retrofitting to make housing energy efficient. 

And neighborhoods like Brownsville could benefit from an expansion of programs that are currently operating like Be a Buddy, an effort led by community-based organizations and the city's health department to train local volunteers to help the most at-risk residents during climate-related emergencies and educate the community about climate preparedness. 

The city can't "undo what happened in the past," said Brian Purnell, an associate professor of Africana studies and history at Bowdoin University. However, it can "move forward in a radically different way," starting by redirecting capital to historically under-resourced communities like Brownsville to "weatherize" existing infrastructure and support more sustainable development. 

The Barriers to Transformation

New York City's struggles to recover economically from Covid-19 only promise to make such investment more difficult to find. Already, climate is on the budgetary chopping block, with the city suspending curbside composting and Gov. Andrew Cuomo removing a $3 billion bond for reducing New York City's flood risks from the state budget. 

"There are costs associated with any sort of infrastructure, whether it's green or gray," said Bernice Rosenzweig, a faculty member in Environmental Science at Sarah Lawrence College. 

Rosenzweig noted that there was no single government agency charged with deploying green infrastructure citywide, making it unclear who would be responsible for funding and executing the structural changes called for by environmental justice organizers. 

Rosenzweig also said that from a science perspective, the city lacked enough information to know how much green infrastructure was necessary, or how much it would cost, to significantly mitigate the urban heat island effect, or the higher temperatures experienced by the city compared to surrounding suburbs and more rural areas due to factors such as population density and the concentration of buildings that trap heat and limit room for green space. 

Given these realities, marginalized communities may have "legitimate concerns about the maintenance of green infrastructure," along with a historical cause to distrust city government,  said Rosenzweig, which might prevent their recognizing and embracing such infrastructure's benefits. 

But Rivera remains determined. In the long run, the only way to protect places like Brownsville amidst growing climate extremes is for the city to "get off of fossil fuels and get onto renewable energy," she said. Only then can her teenage daughter's vision of "a better New York" come true.

This article has been updated after an earlier version incorrectly described the Be a Buddy initiative as having been designed by THE POINT Community Development Corporation and as being Bronx-based.  Be a Buddy is led by community-based organizations and the city's health department and is currently operating in Brownsville and two other neighborhoods.  

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