New York Mayor Champions Economic Justice in Sustainability Plan

Mayor De Blasio offers a visionary roadmap to lift 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty through environmental action. Can it work?

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (right) during an interview last year. On April 22, 2015, de Blasio announced his revamped OneNYC plan, an effort to include poverty reduction in the Bloomberg administration’s plan to address climate change, calling it "a real blueprint of change." Credit: Mayor Bill de Blasio/Facebook

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Environmental justice advocates may have found a climate champion in Mayor Bill De Blasio, who this week made income equality the centerpiece of his sweeping sustainability plan for New York City.

The plan, known as OneNYC, is a rebranding and revamping of the city’s eight-year-old sustainability agenda PlaNYC, but the emphasis on economic justice came as an unexpected swerve. Urban development and environmental experts told InsideClimate News that OneNYC is the most ambitious strategy in the nation to link the fight against income inequality with climate action and may inspire officials in other municipalities to follow.

De Blasio’s plan is a municipal-level equivalent to the thorny discussions between rich and poor nations over an international climate deal. There is now growing recognition that a climate deal that fails to lift poor nations out of energy poverty would not succeed. Guaranteeing people access to clean electricity would promote economic development, uplift the lives of the poor—and address the economic justice issues that have plagued climate progress.

“The revolutionary thing here is the linking of all of it to equality,” said Rob Freudenberg, director of environment and energy at the Regional Plan Association, of De Blasio’s effort. The plan is “novel and unique,” and a “great start establishing a new vision.”

However, he added, “a lot of lip service has been given to solving environmental justice…People are right to say, ‘Let’s see how the actions link up to the visions.'”

De Blasio called the plan a “real blueprint of change” at a press conference in the Hunts Point neighborhood in the South Bronx, an area historically riddled with pollution and economic woes. Expanding the city’s environmental agenda to include economic inequality—the key issue on which he ran for office in 2013, which has dominated his agenda as mayor—was a natural decision, he said.

“We know that if we only had environmental sustainability and ended up with a gilded city only for the most wealthy, it would no longer be New York,” de Blasio said. “And equally, if we had a city filled with economic opportunity and inclusion but it was not environmentally viable and sustainable, it wouldn’t work. So we’ve got to bring these two pieces together.”

OneNYC includes initiatives to raise the minimum wage, expand and diversify jobs, improve safety, lower the cost of Internet service, and increase access to health care and free education. The goal is to raise 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty. The plan also aims to cut landfill waste to zero, drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare the nation’s largest metropolis for the effects of climate change.

“For a while, environmental issues were being discussed in a silo,” said Juan Camilo Osorio, director of research for the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance. “When Hurricane Sandy hit, environmental justice advocates pointed out how we couldn’t think about physical vulnerability to climate change without thinking about local economics and inequality.”

Connecting sustainability with resiliency and equality opens the door to “increasing the effectiveness of the work being done,” Camilo Osorio said.

Environmental leaders also praised the expanded focus.

“There is a strong correlation between better economic conditions and better environmental conditions,” said Kate Sinding, deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s urban program. The broad scope of OneNYC “will in some ways make it harder, and make it harder to track success, but it is the right thing to do.”

First launched in 2007, the city’s sustainability and development agenda helped transform New York into a global leader on climate action. City law requires it to be updated every four years. The 332-page, 2015 report is the result of a collaboration of 70 city agencies and offices, meetings with 177 civic groups, more than 50 politicians, and a public survey.

Heavy on Goals, Short on Specifics

While environmental leaders praised the overall broadening of the plan, some said there are several aspects that are worrisome and could limit its effectiveness for environmental justice.

The plan is heavy on goals—laying out some 200 initiatives—but light on specifics of how they’ll be met. Missing are timetables, budgets, funding sources and assignments of which agencies will handle which goals.

“Successfully achieving our ambitious goals requires a roadmap that allows us to measure progress,” said Marcia Bystryn, executive director of the New York League of Conservation Voters, in statement. “The de Blasio administration should quickly follow up with an implementation plan.”

Emily Nobel Maxwell, director of The Nature Conservancy’s NYC program, said the plan is “visionary” and “shows an ongoing commitment to sustainability,” but “needs more specific action plans and timelines to be truly effective.”

Camilo Osorio said environmental justice isn’t just about the connection between environmental degradation and poverty, but also about the inclusion of these communities in problem-solving. Advocates are “eager to see who the city will partner with to implement the plan.”

During the OneNYC announcement, de Blasio faced concerns voiced by reporters that the goals were too ambitious, particularly without proposed implementation strategies.

“I don’t blame anyone that’s cynical,” de Blasio said. “I represent 8.5 million jaded people…There’s absolute and total commitment by City Hall to achieve these goals.”

He said the cost of OneNYC will be made public when the executive budget is released May 7.

There aren’t many new sustainability and climate initiatives in the updated plan, green leaders said. OneNYC largely rolls existing programs and projects from the de Blasio and the predecessor Bloomberg administrations into the document, slightly expanding some of them. This includes improving air quality, remediating and repurposing former industrial sites, flood management, increasing the number and functionality of parks and planting trees.

Besides the income equality component, the other major addition is a new plan to reduce New York City’s landfill waste to zero by 2030 through aggressive composting and recycling programs. Cutting New York’s waste will also help the city reach its goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, known as 80×50, which de Blasio announced in September.

The target will require drastic reductions in greenhouse gases from buildings, which account for 75 percent of the city’s emissions. The de Blasio administration also said it will expand development of renewable energy sources and will cut energy consumption at wastewater treatment plants to reach the 80×50 goal.

The city’s climate resiliency measures include increasing involvement of local community groups in emergency planning and preparedness, strengthening the city’s coastal defenses, hardening infrastructure such as electricity and transportation against climate impacts including flooding, preparing for increasingly dangerous heat waves, and working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reform the National Flood Insurance Program.

Pressure on De Blasio

De Blasio faced intense pressure from environmentalists to continue and expand on the environmental and climate work of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. New York is vulnerable to rising seas, heavy rainfall and scorching temperatures as the warming planet alters the climate. Scientists estimate the city could experience 6 more feet of sea level rise by 2100 as a result of human-driven climate change. Temperatures in the city could increase by as much as 8.8 degrees Fahrenheit by the 2080s, with the number of days above 90 degrees jumping from 18 presently to 76 by that decade.

The mayor took a year to appoint someone to lead the city’s sustainability work. A plan announced in February to build thousands of new affordable housing units proposed erecting them in low-lying neighborhoods hit hard by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, including Long Island City, Staten Island, the Rockaways and East Brooklyn.

“If you were a pessimist, you could look at this moment in history, you could look at climate change, you could look at income inequality, you could say somehow we’ve fallen into an intractable rut, there is no way forward,” de Blasio said. “I believe history is pervaded by examples of people, recognizing their circumstance, and demanding change.”