Environmental Justice for all: An 11-Point Plan for a more Sustainable, Cleaner and Greener Harlem
Environmental justice ties together two important struggles: protecting our planet and promoting justice for marginalized groups, who are often oppressed through systematic, intentional, unequal exposure to dangerous environments. The poorer neighborhoods with higher concentrations of people of color in NYC are also the ones with the highest rates of pollution and the lowest access to parks and green space. Case in point, Central Harlem has almost double the city-wide rate of child asthma hospitalizations, which result from higher levels of exposure to environmental triggers like mold, bugs and pests, and air pollution such as diesel exhaust.
Below are 11 concrete environmental justice initiatives that I will support as a city council member to help bring about a cleaner and greener Harlem. Each point on the list below is not only good for the environment, but will be good for the economy and our community by creating local union jobs as we invest in sustainable infrastructure.
1. Increase Public Transit Access & Implement Energy Efficient Transportation
If New York City wants to be a leader in environmental justice, it must start with the connective tissue of our neighborhoods — our public transportation. Transitioning from private to public transportation is a crucial tool to decrease emissions and combat climate change in NYC. Harlem is especially impacted by the pollution from heavy traffic, as it’s bordered on two sides by highways and on a third by the George Washington Bridge. Contrary to the service cuts and proposed fare hikes that New Yorkers have been subject to during the pandemic, we must increase service, expand access to underserved neighborhoods and riders with accessibility needs, and decrease costs to riders in order to incentivize and facilitate more public transit ridership.
In addition to getting private vehicles off the road, the city must transition away from heavy duty vehicles that run on fossil fuels. The city has ~10,000 school busses that are heavy polluters, endangering our environment and students by exposing them to exhaust at 23x-46x the level considered to be a serious cancer risk by the EPA. I support the New York City Clean School Bus Coalition’s call “to electrify the city’s privately-owned school bus fleets, beginning with those that serve low-income communities and communities of color.” As council member, I will sponsor legislation to transition to energy efficient public transportation, and I will also make the creation of charging infrastructure for electric vehicles a budget priority.
2. Add More Bus & Bike Lanes
The people of Harlem deserve streets that work for everyone in the district, not just car drivers. Improving alternative transportation modes, like busses and bikes, is an opportunity to help our most vulnerable neighbors while also reducing emissions. Bus riders are more likely to be people of color, elderly, and low income than average New Yorkers. Improving bike lanes and building protected bike lanes helps make bicycle transportation more accessible to women and children and safer for all. Downtown, the 14th Street Busway (and corresponding bike streets) has been an unqualified success, achieving speedier bus service and a safer and more pleasant pedestrian experience without hurting businesses. 125th St. in our neighborhood is nearly always congested, and we deserve a solution that helps move people, busses, taxis, and bicycles faster and safer. Harlem has traditionally been left out of these types of projects and investments, but as council member I will bring similar initiatives and creative street redesign to Central Harlem.
3. Beautify and Rehab Our Neighborhoods
Harlem residents deserve to live in a clean, beautiful neighborhood with access to parks and public spaces that are free from obstructions and accessible for all. Our neighborhood would benefit from more street trees, cleaning up vacant lots, better lighting on streets and in parks, and more public litter baskets. Parks like Jackie Robinson Park and Marcus Garvey Park are community hubs, and can benefit from quick-fixes like replacing light bulbs with warm-colored LEDs that increase visibility and are also more energy efficient. It has been proven time and time again that green space makes people happier and healthier. Cleaning and beautifying neighborhoods not only improves residents’ quality of life, but it can even have impacts like reducing gun violence.
Last year’s city budget slashed $106 million from the Sanitation Department’s operating budget, which resulted in a reduction in street sweeping, fewer trucks making trash pickups on weekends and holidays, and a suspension of the Sunday service for emptying litter baskets. But before that, Harlem was already experiencing a trash and sanitation problem as a result of the removal of 223 litter baskets (a “punishment” for the purported misuse of litter baskets for disposing household trash), which has noticeably left a mess in our neighborhoods. Fines have increased for our residents as a penalty for the trash that now piles up outside of homes and businesses. As a council member, I will fight to restore the Sanitation Department’s budget, and reallocate funding to ensure that trash is picked up in Harlem without fail.
4. Ensure Open Streets & Outdoor Dining
In spite of the pandemic, outdoor dining and open streets were a major highlight of 2020. Many of Harlem’s famous restaurants are now able to take advantage of street space in front of their businesses. Block and business associations have also used this opportunity to enliven their neighborhoods and host outdoor events during weekend street closures, even with the challenges of the pandemic. The Frederick Douglass Boulevard Alliance has hosted an incredibly successful weekend street closure between 112th and 120th that could be replicated and expanded on other major avenues and cross streets. Lenox Avenue, Adam Clayton Powell, 116th, 125th, and 135th are all wide, vibrant corridors who’s businesses would benefit from increased pedestrian and outdoor commercial space. Nearly a quarter of land in the city is dedicated exclusively to cars when only a small minority of residents own vehicles. Keeping and expanding these new initiatives allows for the entire community to use and benefit from our vital and valuable street space.
5. Increase Green Structures
Green structures such as green roofs, solar paneling, hydroponic planting, and community gardens all improve the quality of life for residents while simultaneously working towards carbon neutral and environmental sustainability goals. We should invest in these types of community-centric projects in neighborhoods like Harlem that stand to benefit the most. For example, public investments in hydroponic vertical farming could bring fresh, organic, locally grown produce to underserved communities throughout the city. And projects like Solar Uptown Now — which partners with HDFC, NYCHA, and other residents in East Harlem to install rooftop solar panels — creates jobs and job training for local residents, while simultaneously lowering utility costs and transitioning to renewable power sources. I will advocate for a City Council-funded study to identify the most cost-effective areas to place solar panels and corresponding city or state funding to subsidize the cost. This is an investment in our future and also good economic policy because of the quality jobs it will create.
6. Push for the Renewable Rikers Plan
The Renewable Rikers Plan presents a possibility of fusing environmental justice with the fight for justice in communities of color. The Plan proposes to convert the notorious Rikers Island jail into a large renewable energy plant and storage facility. By replacing the jail with infrastructure that actually gives back to the people of New York (rather than another monopoly for the rich) we ensure that the horrors of what took place in that jail can be turned into something positive for our black and brown communities. These communities have been disproportionately affected by climate degradation and pollution, and are also disproportionately targeted by our criminal justice system.
This project will also be a big job-creator! I believe solar energy organizations such as Solar Uptown Now should lead the way in the project as they have trained local residents for jobs in renewable energy, including those formerly incarcerated. It would be only fair and completely fitting for the project to prioritize hiring workers from black and brown communities, especially those who have been formerly incarcerated. Correspondingly, it is essential that contracts are not given to real estate developers who have been eyeing the island since the announcement of Rikers’ closure.
Of course, the energy should not simply end with new development on Rikers. Renewable energy infrastructure and wastewater treatment facilities need to be updated citywide. While the city has the expertise and capability to build new infrastructure, poorer neighborhoods have had to suffer with old drainage and sewage treatment plants for far too long.
7. Lead On Publicly Owned and Democratically Run Utilities
We need to municipalize New York City’s utilities (i.e. electrical power, gas). A city-owned model would benefit New Yorkers through increased accountability from democratic control, and through the return of profits to the public rather than private shareholders. Making utilities public would also have important environmental impacts — currently, New York City and State have set ambitious climate goals over the next few decades, but unfortunately ConEd’s business model as a for-profit, publicly-traded (albeit heavily regulated) company is not compatible with this new future. Learn more here:
8. Enforce the Climate Mobilization Act & Incentivise Stricter Emissions Standards
New York City buildings account for almost 70% of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions. The passing of the Climate Mobilization Act was a huge step forward towards a zero-carbon city. This is actual progress and I fully support the strict enforcement of this Act which requires New York City’s 50,000 largest buildings to reduce their carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and by 80 percent by 2050. The owners of noncompliant buildings will potentially face multimillion-dollar annual fines beginning in 2024. These bold goals and harsh penalties is what we need to really fight climate change and ensure a sustainable future for our city. As for new construction, we must push for legislation that incentivises LEED Certification (a similar set of environmental building guidelines) and even stronger standards. Meeting these targets will create thousands of jobs and it is vital that training and preference is given to those from communities most impacted — working class communities.
9. Say No to All Fossil Fuel Infrastructure and Investments
Power plants and gas pipelines are just as big a presence in NYC as they are in other parts of the country. Inside the city limits, much of our power generation and heating comes from natural gas — a nonrenewable resource. We need to be moving away from infrastructure like this, and we need to do it now. As council member I will push to decommission existing fossil fuel infrastructure by 2030 and stop all future construction of such projects now. This would put a stop to projects like the highly unpopular North-Brooklyn pipeline. Additionally, I will put a stop to the installation of natural gas lines for residential cooking and heating in both new construction and renovations. Residential cooking gas puts tenants at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, and has been at fault in numerous fires and accidents, including the explosion of multiple Harlem buildings in 2014. We must move to electric power — a safer and greener alternative. While moving to electric heating and cooking does not solve our energy problems, it prepares us to move to greener energy sources, something which we also must do.
In addition to stopping infrastructure investment, as a council member I will push New York City pension funds to divest Fossil Fuels. While some progress towards divestment has already been made, I will continue to push until all city pensions are divested, as this is the only morally and fiscally responsible path forward.
10. Shift to a Healthy, Sustainable, and Just Food System
To fully enact environmental justice, NYC must enact food justice. As a planet, nation, and city, we will not meet our climate goals without shifting to a more climate-friendly food system. Cities, including NYC, are critical because they consume most of the world’s food. As council member, I will push for the City to track and reduce emissions associated with food procurement and consumption. I will also advocate for NYC to become a signatory of the C40 Good Food Cities Declaration, which will improve our food procurement practices and reduce food loss and waste. Read my statement on food justice here: https://kristinforharlem.medium.com/in-harlem-we-need-food-justice-now-c1d2a6498e1f
11. Leverage NYC’s Constituent Power to Pass the Green New Deal & the Green New Deal for NYC
The Green New Deal is a piece of national legislation aimed at reducing our nation’s reliance on fossil fuels and creating new jobs in green industries. Although this legislation is debated in Washington DC, this is not just a federal issue. This legislation would be transformative on the local level. As the council member representing Harlem I will do everything in my power to elevate the voices of New Yorkers in the national debate.
Locally, we also have the opportunity to fight for a Green New Deal for NYC, and a Green New Deal for NYCHA. By investing in our city owned housing, we can create local, union jobs, and improve lives for hundreds of thousands of NYCHA residents. At the same time, we will save the city money in the long term through increased building efficiency and a lower environmental footprint.
Environmental justice is truly a win-win-win-win situation: creating jobs, saving money, helping the environment, and promoting justice for people who usually bear the burden of our dirty and dangerous climate choices. So many of the policies and initiatives above are not burdens to take on, but rather present opportunities by creating green jobs for folks in our communities, and saving money in the long run through reduced energy expenditures and health care costs. However, everything on this list is also urgent as we are facing a climate crisis, so we cannot waste any time in getting started.
Kristin Richardson Jordan (KRJ), Candidate for New York City Council District 9 Kristin is a poet, local activist, speaker, teacher, DSA member, Black queer woman, and third-generation Harlemite on a mission to disrupt District 9 (Central Harlem) with radical love. Started almost a year and a half before the murder of George Floyd, her Kristin for H.A.R.L.E.M. political platform includes advocacy for police accountability, abolition, affordable housing, redistribution of resources, senior care, gun control, education, and environmental justice. She is interested in making change both through her grassroots campaign and through a community-based participatory democracy once elected and has drafted policy on each of her HARLEM platform points. Find out more and get involved at KristinForHarlem.com.