Sustainable New York City

Written by Kadi Kohea

Introduction

The best way to predict the future is to create it.

New York City is home to nearly 8.4 million people. The 309 square mile area is the largest and most influential American metropolis encompassing many distinct neighborhoods throughout five boroughs-Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. The city is a hub for ideas, commerce, culture, politics, and entertainment. At its best, New York City has enabled people to advance socially, economically, and is a magnet for talent and investment. And at its worst, it has widened income gaps and discouraged the wellbeing of vulnerable populations and the environment.

A city in essence is a system composed of many parts. For a city to be truly sustainable, all of those parts must be sustainable as well, and have the ability to maintain itself overtime. The Sustainable New York City Plan identifies key components of its ecosystem which lack development and organizes them into the three pillars of sustainability: people, planet, and prosperity. Improving these areas of the ecosystem will enrich and unite the livelihood of the current population without compromising the wellbeing of future generations.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), established in 2015, and created to promote “peace and prosperity for people and the planet” will also be considered in this plan as guideposts to align the City’s sustainable efforts (United Nations, 2020). New York City currently affiliates with the SDGs and has made ample progress. OneNYC, is a strategy under Mayor Bill De Blasio to confront climate crisis, achieve equity, and strengthen democracy (Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, 2018).

New York City immediate challenges include poor housing infrastructure, poverty, unemployment, lack of green space and inequality (Porch, 2017). This reflects a tremendous need for sustainable action. To confront these challenges, major stakeholders must effectively engage to create a secure and safe city. Citizen participation is notably essential, and their voices should be empowered on every front. Individually and collectively New Yorkers can enable and inspire change for the future.

Equity Lens

Equity is deeply tied to sustainability. Racial and regional factors disproportionately affect economic opportunity for many New Yorkers. These social disparities enable generational poverty and a broken city system. The 2019 Baltimore Sustainability Plan approaches unfairness in their city by employing an ‘equity lens’ to improve planning, decision-making and allocation of resources. The equity lens is a reminder that “racial [and regional] inequities are not random, they have been created and sustained over time and will not disappear on their own” (Baltimore Office of Sustainability, 2019).

Like Baltimore, New York City has detrimental and ingrained inequities that pollutes its ambiance. Committing to sustainability will require an uproot of deep injustices that severs fairness among communities and opportunities. Because New York City’s inequity has materialized discriminatory policies and programs since their formation, using an ‘equity lens’ is essential and will be applied to the City’s plan in discovering sustainable solutions for the future.

People |Housing

A city where everyone has a home.

Home should be the nicest word there is. It is an emblem of expression, and a stable sanctuary of calm in an ever-faster world. Home is a gathering place for loved ones, a launch pad for personal and professional achievements, providing belonging, identity, and privacy. Although many New Yorkers experience these benefits of having safe shelter, it can be out of reach for others.

When housing is not attainable, vulnerable populations cannot thrive. They face homelessness, lack of financial resources, investing in their children’s future, saving for retirement, affording healthcare, being prepared for natural disasters, and other basic needs. Their wellbeing diminishes and has a ripple effect on society at large, incurring high costs to the city for programs that are reactive to the unresolved issue. Proactive decisions must replace these methods, and passionate advocacy to provide safe, sustainable housing must include disadvantaged groups.

In New York City

For New Yorkers, housing is the largest expenditure, accounting for 38 percent of household budgets, significantly higher than the 32.7 percent U.S. average (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020). To counterbalance the steep prices, many residents live in smaller and lower quality spaces.

New Yorkers are experiencing the highest level of inadequate housing in the nation, where 7 percent of residence live in inadequate homes (Porch, 2017). These shortcomings may comprise of structural defects, lack of space and privacy for household members, water leaks, mice, mold, exposed wiring, failed health and safety inspections, and other poor living conditions. Among the overwhelming need for suitable shelter, there are also 80,000 people experiencing homelessness in the city, including over 20,000 children. The primary cause of homelessness, particularly among families, is lack of affordable housing (Coalition for the homeless, 2018).

The financial strain, poor living conditions, and homelessness also disproportionately burden immigrants and minorities. The economic climate of gentrification and neighborhood erosion for these members bring significant disparities to their quality of life. New York City can empower people through housing by expanding affordable housing supply in an equitable way, promote innovation and new construction methods, and preserve existing affordable housing units, strengthen partnerships and invest in sustainable infrastructure.

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody,

only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.

-Jane Jacobs, 1961

New York City inequity is reinforced by neighborhood segregation.

Strategy and Action

1. Expand affordable housing supply in an equitable way.

Action 1:

Reform existing zoning laws and building codes which devise concentrated poverty and discrimination. Systematic inequity regulations must be replaced with inclusive mandates for long-term stability and growth. Specifically target ‘class-based’ regulations, which confine low-income people to under serviced neighborhoods, minimum lot sizes, and expensive loopholes to live in areas of opportunity.

Action 2:

Remove impractical zoning barriers that constrain the development of affordable housing. Requirements that are no longer relevant to the future of the sustainable built environment including, parking, building height limits, un-utilized space, or lagging approval processes should be discharged to reduce costs and building delays.

Action 3:

Create and strengthen partnerships with key stakeholders who understand the vision of building homes more affordably, sustainably, and promote equal opportunity. Leverage a diverse pool of talent and resources including; urban planners, universities, developers, financial and investment institutions, government, nonprofits, and other applicable parties. This also includes identifying populations and neighborhoods with the most immediate needs and urgency for affordable housing and building relationships with these communities. Allow these residents to participate as decision makers and change agents.

Action 4:

Plan with stakeholders housing solutions that prioritize affordability, accessibility, and equity. Execute on the project when the building methods and materials align with these goals. Continue to nurture partnerships, care for communities, and seek new sustainable innovations for the built environment.

2. Promote innovation and new construction methods

Action 1:

Invest and secure funding for sustainable and reliable physical and technological infrastructure. Use data driven capital planning to focus and maximize the benefits of forward-thinking investments, collaborations, incentives, and city upgrades. Mobilizing public and private investments that address inequality and the needs of each neighborhood can also include investing into minority owned businesses and expand accessible financing to these groups.

Action 2:

Enable modular construction to build affordable multifamily units in higher density locations and single-family units in suburban neighborhoods. In addition, create modular mixed-income housing, micro-units, student housing, and workforce housing using modern building methods to reduce build time, costs, and sustainable impact without sacrificing quality.

Action 3:

Restore and preserve existing housing units without increasing future costs. Refurbishing distressed homes, lawfully enforcing safety inspections, restructuring debt, maintaining neighborhood infrastructure, and providing energy efficient solutions must not be at the expense of displacing vulnerable residents.

People |Mobility

A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.

Connection is a fundamental human need. When people feel connected with a person, community or an event, they experience oneness in the best possible way. It is impossible to experience belonging without feeling connected. This experience is something all humans need to live a happy and fulfilled life (Chenault, 2019). New York City is a connected city. Its extensive public transit system brings people together, and to the things that contribute to their quality of life including; work, school, culture, shopping, healthcare, family and friends.

However, these connections are not easily accessible to every New Yorker. Community members can be estranged from the City’s network due to poverty, disability or unsafe environments. These inequities hurt the people who need connection the most. By building cities for people, not cars or trains, all New Yorkers will enjoy the benefits of an inclusive network and a sustainable city.

In New York City

There are more public transit riders in New York City on an average weekday than all other large municipalities in the United States combined (NTD National Transit Database, 2018). In 2019, the subway had an annual ridership of 1.698 billion. With public transit being the most common method of travel for workers in New York City at 55.9 percent, followed by driving alone at 22.5 percent, and walking at 9.6 percent, commuting is of high priority for sustainability. (NTD National Transit Database, 2018).

Gender based access to public transportation have some disparity when it comes to safety and cost. The NYU Rudin Center for Transportation found in a survey that 75 percent of female responses indicated some form of harassment or theft while using public transportation, compared to 47 percent of male responses. Safety was a large factor in determining mobility costs. More than half (54 percent) of female respondents are concerned about being harassed while using public transportation, compared to only 20 percent of male respondents. Whether there are real or perceived threats, the median extra cost per month for men, due to safety reasons, is $0. For women, the median extra cost per month is $26-$50, and an additional $26-$50 if they are also a caretaker (Kaufman, 2020).

Parents, particularly women who are transporting children with strollers pay larger fees and struggle navigating public transportation such as subways. Although New York City has an extensive subway system of 472 stations only about 25 percent are fully accessible or have elevators to support strollers, riders over 65 years, or those with disabilities. This is one of the lowest percentages of any major transit system in the world (Diaz, 2020).

The Americans with Disabilities Act, adopted in 1990, states that people who cannot ride subways and buses because of a disability are entitled to go anywhere their local transit system takes able-bodied passengers (United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, 2010). New York City has not been able to align public transportation to be ADA compliance. There are 554,000 New Yorkers with ambulatory disabilities, 1.23 million seniors, and 553,000 young children, yet accessibility remains at a national low (Metropolitan Transportation Authority Headquarters, 2019). The large population, tourism, and aging transit systems requires New York City to make ongoing efforts to reduce congestion and improve traffic safety and reliability.

Strategies and Action

1. Improve transit accessibility.

Action 1:

Identify and educate team players on Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance for public transit, specifically subways and taxis. A “person with a disability” can have a physical or a mental problem that interferes with travel activities and may not always be obvious (New York State Department of Labor, 2018). Educating associates on special accommodations that are needed to comply with ADA is the first step to improving the existing conditions. Also, adhere to existing policies that require ADA compliance to all future subway renovations, or new systems.

Action 2.

Build a case for investment and funding and set an achievable timeframe to remodel existing infrastructure or create new ones. Invest additional funds over the next five years for upgrades by contractors and expansion of accessible public transit. Capital investment should work hand in hand with strategic partnerships for long-term growth and benefit. Public and private partnerships should include; the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, the Department of Transportation, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Taxi and Limousine Commission, and the U.S. Department of Transportation to work towards accessibility upgrades and align vision of modernizing the subway and mass transit infrastructure.

Action 3.

Launch and install a new program to upgrade elevators/ramps in urgent transit areas with construction crews (in-house). These crews upgrade equipment, along and respond to complaints of defective or non-ADA compliant elevators/ramps.

2. Increase public transit safety.

Action 1.

Conduct safety workshops in schools, senior centers, homeless and transitional programs, and female support groups with an increased focus on disadvantaged neighborhoods. Work closely with Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) and host public safety demonstration events. Also conduct training and develop curriculum to work and coordinate with the NYPD and NYC Transit Bureau to more efficiently patrol subways and lines.

Action 2.

Redesign subways to create a safe and open environment. Dark corners, stairwells, and walkways can be lit with high quality lighting for visibility and confidence for travelers. Fare machines should be positioned closer to enforcement and surveillance cameras in order to maximize the risk of criminal activity and discourage any potential offense. Transit fare machines should also include updated technology to avoid congestion from processing payments and have the ability to accept any dollar amount to decrease the time of searching for money and being exposed to pickpocketing and theft.

Elevators should be near open spaces to eliminate enclosed territory for crime. This is especially important for individuals with disabilities, or mothers with strollers. Also, exposed modern safety technology such as surveillance cameras or digital displays can be exhibited to appear as a higher risk for crime activity. Effective enforcement would incorporate a continuously staffed entrance and throughout the subway platforms. The subways should be clean from obstruction while minimizing begging and public performances from locals to avoid confrontations.

Planet |Waste

There is no planet B.

There is no such thing as ‘away’. When we throw anything away, it must go somewhere, and often, it sticks around for generations. Mounting waste impairs public health, pollutes the environment and threatens wildlife. Moreover, the greatest threat to the planet is believing that someone else will save it, and the problems are far ‘away’ from impacting human life (Stevenson, 2012). A sustained city is informed their waste impacts them domestically as much as it does abroad.

The climate is changing, and cities must change too. Collective and individual responsibility to reduce consumption and dispose of waste correctly can change behaviors and environmental outcomes.

In New York City

The generation of waste and management is a central concern as New York City does not have landfills, and currently transports its trash out of the state. The city aims to eliminate out-of-state landfills and reduce the amount of waste disposed of by 90 percent by 2030. (NYC Mayors Office for International Affairs, 2018).

The NYC Department of Sanitation is the world’s largest sanitation department. DSNY collects more than 10,500 tons of residential and institutional garbage and 1,760 tons of the recyclables each day (NYC Mayors Office for International Affairs, 2018). Having the waste disposed safely, ethically, and in a responsible manner minimizes negative environmental impacts and improves human health. The city has made some progress by launching a comprehensive recycling implementation plan called NYCHA Recycles and have refined collection of electric waste (NYC Mayors Office for International Affairs, 2018). Although these efforts have made significant improvements, greater involvement and management is needed for the sustainability of New York City.

Strategy and Action

1. Integrate sustainable consumption and waste education and practices into grade schools and university curriculum.

Action 1:

Transform educational practices by developing training materials and curriculum reform for teachers, faculty, and academics, to engage students in sustainability. Openness for interpretive flexibility variations in practices and application has been proven as essential to sustainable development integration and may allow teachers and faculty to adapt the new information more smoothly into their current courses and fields. (Sammalisto et al., 2015). Furthermore, creating a combination of both strategies (whole curriculum reform and individual specialized courses) is also beneficial for embedding SD in Higher Educational Institutions (HEI) (Ramos et al., 2015).

For a successful integration of curriculum, a network of support and mentoring for teachers, faculty and academics should come from multiple sources, including the city and private partnerships.

Action 2.

Expand community outreach efforts to create a safe, inclusive and sustainably minded community. Beginning with a local sustainable pilot program will empower students to apply learned sustainable development skills in their own communities. Introducing a new initiative gradually and connecting it to things people are already familiar with will help facilitate access to knowledge, connection, and power to change their environment. These public activities will unite local effort and bring voluntary sustainable committees to lead activist movements, community gardens, and act as representatives for permanent sustainability change.

Prosperity |End Poverty

A city where the possibility to succeed is infinite.

The best proof of a sustainable city is when its people are undivided. Poverty has devastating consequences that affects and divides every social class. Poverty is not always about money, rather, it is multidimensional and robs people of health, education, opportunity, and prosperity. The short and long-term effects of poverty are felt by many racial minorities and regional inequities.

These victims are more likely to be denied the tools and the skills necessary to succeed in society. The City’s ecosystem altogether suffers reduced productivity and economic output, increased cost of crime, and impeded environmental objectives. Prosperity is putting people before wealth, and valuing purpose over profit.

In New York City

The New York City Government Poverty Measure in 2018 found that 19.4 percent of the city population was below the poverty line. The Bronx had the highest poverty community districts with poverty rates ranging from 30 to 37 percent (The City of New York, 2018). Females 25–34 were the largest demographic living in poverty, followed by females 35–44, then females 45–54, all ranging within 20 percent (American Community Survey (ACS) 2020).

Basic needs are expensive in New York City, and they continue to rise faster than earnings. Since 2000, costs have increased 87 percent on average across NYC boroughs, while wages have only increased 31 percent. In a study done by United Way of New York City, 40 percent of households in the city lack enough income to meet their basic needs without help from the government, family, or community. Households with children also have a greater risk of not meeting their basic needs, almost doubling the likelihood that a household will have inadequate income (United Way of New York City, 2019).

Strategies and Action

1. Provide living wage to help create adequate incomes in an equitable way.

Action 1:

Focus on job security and creating the opportunity for minorities, immigrants and vulnerable populations to access health and dental benefits. Become an advocate for workers to earn a sufficient income to pay for their basic necessities so that they can fully participate in civic life and in their communities. Adopting a living wage includes having employers commit to championing a living income and helping address income inequality at the community level. Companies can also commit to providing benefits and train their staff with skills for long-term success.

Action 2:

Increase investment and funding for populations most vulnerable to poverty. Investments should stimulate job creation, funding for minority entrepreneurs, provide life skills training, and education around wealth creation and opportunities.

Kadi Kohea is founder and director of Merati Homes, a full-service modular home builder and sustainable community developer.

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Kadi Kohea is the founder and CEO of Merati Homes, a full-service modular home builder and sustainable community developer.