Sustainability and the City

A look into sustainability initiatives in NYC

New York City: a glimmering metropolis of skyscrapers, street vendors, and style. The Big Apple is globally recognized as a city constantly looking to the future, making it a hub for eco-activists and sustainability experts.

Some aspects of New York infrastructure are already the city’s massive public transportation system. New York City is home to the largest public transit system in North America, with almost 1.7 billion people annually riding the infamous subway system that stretches all over the city. The vast majority of New Yorkers either take public transportation or walk to work; the sheer density of people living in the city makes driving expensive and time consuming.

The way that the city has expanded is the second infrastructural aspect that lends New York City towards more sustainable development. NYC is notorious for having an extremely high population density, with 27,000 people per square mile and almost eight and a half million people calling the city home. Unlike the “urban sprawl” characteristic of other metropolitan areas, New York has accommodated for an ever-expanding population by building upward, rather than outward. This many people living in such a small area poses its own set of challenges, but building the city higher instead of wider and investing in reliable public transportation systems are great steps towards curbing emissions associated with commuting. Building upon and updating existing structures is also a sustainable way to re-vamp unsustainable buildings and bring them up to a new, more eco-friendly standard. One thing that I noticed while I was in the Bronx was the energy efficiency documents displayed in the window of every residence in the area, similar to how restaurants are required by the city to prominently display their health rating for potential patrons. Doing so not only gives New York property owners an incentive to upgrade their energy and water capabilities to compete against more efficient neighbors, but allows for residents to choose apartments that are more eco-friendly. According to the US Green Building Council, the demand for more environmentally conscious homes has had a major increase in the recent past, and is projected to become an even larger priority for urban homeowners in the future. Hopefully this new efficiency standard will spread to other urban areas as well!

New York City has long been considered a “concrete jungle”, with little tree coverage and few accessible green spaces for recreation or commercial use. Most New Yorkers live in multi-story apartment complexes, and if they want green space some must venture to a park, many of which are blocks away. To combat limited park accessibility, architects and businesses are designing parks and urban agricultural areas on rooftops, which increases tree coverage and helps to combat the urban heat island effect that strikes New York every summer. The city is also planting more trees along busy streets and thoroughfares; bit by bit, these small green additions are working to make the city cooler and cleaner than it has been in previous years. Urban farming initiatives are popping up all over the five boroughs, in spaces previously unused or unnoticed. These small-scale agriculture projects are not only bringing fresh produce to underserved urban communities, but they are creating green sector jobs for people who oftentimes spend their entire lives far removed from the food production process. As urban areas get larger and our country’s farmland struggles to keep up with resource demands, urban agriculture is setting itself up to be a prolific part of the green economy in the near future, and cities like New York are working hard to expand it.

In addition to creating more green space in residential parts of the city, the New York Department of Environmental Protection has been working to create policies that advocate for the protection of freshwater resources all over the state. As a major port city, New York is constantly under threat of flooding, which can cause serious damage to aging urban infrastructure and carry pollutants into the Atlantic Ocean. Flooding mitigation in watershed communities and stabilization of stream bank erosion are the Department’s largest concerns, and the local government has funneled public funds into freshwater preservation in both recreational and resource capacities. There are many borough-specific water conservation initiatives as well; the Bronx River Alliance is focused primarily in the city’s northernmost borough of the Bronx, and hosts river cleanup days, kayak tours, and countless outdoor events as a means of encouraging Bronx residents to take pride in their local river and watershed.

Many of New York’s recent sustainable developments have been the result of a local government that sees the value in environmental prioritization. The NYC Mayor’s Office of Sustainability has played an active role in promoting urban environmentalism; their website lists several citywide initiatives and policies, most of which revolve around more transparency and accessibility in efficiency information (such as the Energy and Water Performance Map, which details the level of efficiency in major businesses all over the city), limiting emissions (via GHG inventories) and educating the urban public on sustainable lifestyle changes (like the GreenNYC and NYCZeroWaste initiatives).

While all of these governmental actions are extremely helpful, most of these citywide strides toward sustainability would not be possible without a population genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of the natural world and the way that the city interacts with it. New Yorkers tend to be more environmentally oriented than the average American, and many of the city’s more successful sustainability initiatives began with concerned groups of city residents. Today, climate change and environmental issues are major factors in the election of political candidates; in the recent NYC mayoral race, almost all of the candidates chose pro-environment stances and made bold plans to make the city more resilient against the effects of climate change. Hopefully, as New York continues to implement more and more eco-friendly practices, New York will act as an example for other cities all over the country that are working to balance large urban populations with a need to prioritize the environment.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. randypeppler says:

    Wow – this is really great Attie! I learned a lot about NYC!

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