Brooklyn's Environment

In the borough of Brooklyn, as all over the world, communities of color are not only consistently under-funded in terms of housing, education and healthcare, they are also more likely chosen as locations for industry and obstructive infrastructure, therefore experiencing higher levels of pollution and climate change related disaster. These are our communities, our families’ communities, and our neighbors’ communities, and we bear responsibility to continuously fight for Climate Justice and climate solutions for all. 

If you want to learn more about the issues facing Brooklyn communities and the organizations  – local and state – helping to bring just and equitable solutions, take a look through the following resources. 

  1. Environmental Issues & Projects
  2. Local Environmental & Climate Justice Organizations
  3. Government Organizational Approaches

Brooklyn Environmental Issues & Projects

Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal

The Gowanus Canal is a notoriously polluted 1.8-mile waterway extending from Gowanus to Red Hook. Since its creation in the nineteenth century, the canal has been a factory chemical dumping ground with an inherent history of pollution and neglect. Due to high levels of mercury, typhus, coal tar, and toxic black sludge deposits, it’s been earmarked as a superfund cleanup site and a January 2020 executive order announced the beginning of its long-awaited cleanup.

Newtown Creek is a 3.8-mile waterway that marks a part of the border between Brooklyn and Queens. For over 100 years Newtown Creek had been used as a chemical and raw sewage dump site, including a notorious 30-million-gallon oil spill from nearby Greenpoint. Like the Gowanus, Newtown has been designated a superfund site, and in late 2019 released a plan for rehabilitating the site. 

Pollution caused by fossil fuel-powered peaker plants—power plants that supplement the energy supply in “peak” consumption times, like summer—negatively affect the more than 1.2 million New Yorkers who live within a one-mile radius. In Brooklyn, the plants are sited in the historically working-class communities of Red Hook and Sunset Park. In 2019, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest introduced a bill to the NYC Council Committee on Environmental Protection proposing converting the plants’ energy source from fossil fuel to clean renewables. 

Urban areas like New York City are more vulnerable to extreme heat than less-developed areas. This Urban Heat Island Effect is caused by cities’ building and infrastructure hardscape, limited vegetation, population density, and human movement patterns.  This can lead to temperatures that are far greater than rural and suburban areas—1.8°F to 5.4°F hotter annually, and up to 22°F hotter on a given night, due to heat retention. The city’s Cool Neighborhoods initiative addresses the issue from multiple angles—planting trees to absorb heat, advertising open community spots with air conditioning, and creating a “buddy” system for neighbors to check on each other, especially those at greatest risk of heat-related health issues. 

Local Environmental & Climate Justice Organizations

GrowNYC was created in 1970, emerging from the spirit of the first Earth Day. Formerly the Council on the Environment of New York City, the organization originally focused on policy and writing comprehensive reports about quality of healthy lifestyle issues like air, traffic, and noise pollution. The organization now works to improve New York City’s quality of life through environmental programs that transform communities block by block and empower New Yorkers to secure a clean and healthy environment for future generations.

The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance is a nonprofit citywide membership network linking grassroots organizations from low-income neighborhoods and communities of color in their struggle for environmental justice. NYC-EJA empowers its member organizations to advocate for improved environmental conditions, and against inequitable environmental burdens, through campaigns designed to inform city and state policies. 

The New York Energy Democracy Alliance is a statewide alliance of community-based organizations, grassroots groups, and policy experts working together to advance a just and participatory transition to a resilient, localized, and democratically controlled clean energy economy in New York State.

Pratt Center for Sustainable Design Strategies embodies Pratt’s commitment to educate environmentally responsible citizens. CSDS encourages  classroom and campus initiatives to embody a  living laboratory. The CSDS Materials Research Center supports faculty, students, and alumni through the intersection of sustainability and their professional lives. CSDS is also the home of the Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation, founded in 2002.

The Brooklyn Movement Center is a membership-led, direct-action, community organization based in Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights. BMC mobilizes community members to obtain concrete improvement in their lives by identifying social, economic, and environmental issues of critical importance, and acquiring the information and leadership skills necessary to transform their community’s local conditions. BMC operates The Central Brooklyn Food Co-op that is 100% member-owned and operated, with membership open to all. Their mission is to utilize collective strength to ensure access to affordable and fresh food within the mostly-of-color, low- and moderate-income communities of Central Brooklyn.

The Gowanus Canal Conservancy promotes the development of a resilient, vibrant, open space network through community stewardship of the Gowanus Watershed. Since 2006, GCC has led grassroots volunteer projects, educated students on environmental issues, and worked with agencies, elected officials, and the community to advocate for, build, and maintain innovative green infrastructure around the Gowanus Canal.

The Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund is a joint program between the New York State Office of the Attorney General and Department of Environmental Conservation working to enhance environmental conservation programs in Greenpoint. These projects are meant to build, improve and rehabilitate open space, waterfronts, green buildings, infrastructure, and neighborhoods, while promoting environmental education and stewardship. This grant program was created by monies obtained through a settlement with ExxonMobil over its Greenpoint oil spill.

The borough of Brooklyn has established its own Renewable and Sustainable Energy Taskforce (ReSET). The taskforce’s initiatives run the gamut from rebates for switching to more energy efficient heating and cooling systems, to resources for installing solar panels and complying with sustainability laws. 

UPROSE is Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community-based organization, promoting sustainability and resiliency in Sunset Park through organizing, education, indigenous and youth leadership development, and cultural and artistic expression. Since 2009, they have been spearheading a Vision Plan for Sunset Park’s waterfront district, already a major contributor to NYC’s industrial sector, to be redeveloped as a prime destination for environmentally-sustainable industry. Plus, they’ve developed Sunset Park Solar, the city’s first cooperatively-owned community solar project built on the Brooklyn Army Terminal rooftop!

Government Organizational Approaches

The New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability draws on the expertise of architects, data scientists, engineers, policy advisors, and city planners to create plans for a clean, green, zero waste and zero carbon New York City.

80 x 50 is the Office of Sustainability’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050. The mayor’s office has also set an interim target of 40 x 30. Plans for improved energy efficiency include replacing fossil fuel-based heating and hot water systems with renewable or high efficiency electric systems, progressing towards a renewable-based electric grid, transitioning city vehicles to electric and clean fuel, and achieving the goal of zero waste to landfills. 

OneNYC 2050 is our city’s strategy to confront the climate crisis, achieve equity, and strengthen our democracy. The plan lays out the framework for a cosmopolitan, livable, and inclusive city powered by renewable energy. 

Members of the New York City Council draft legislation and work with the Mayor to fund climate projects. Their 2019 Climate Mobilization Act includes bills supporting the future climate initiatives of the Mayor’s Office, including the 80 x 50 plan, as well as those that have already gone into effect such as the single-use plastic bag ban and 5-cent bag fee.

The New York City Panel on Climate Change is a Mayor-appointed advisory board of researchers with expertise on issues pertaining to climate change. NPCC provides an authoritative source of information on climate change and its potential impacts to support NYC planning and decision-making. Every three years, NPCC analyzes the current climate situation and releases an integrated assessment – their latest report was released in 2019.

New York City offers a tax abatement for those who install green roofs on existing buildings, and the Department of Buildings now requires all new construction to include a green roof. This might come in the form of installed solar panels or a planted roof, like we see at Barclays or Javits Center. 

The New York Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act is a historic climate law that puts the state on a path to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions. The law, passed in 2019, provides three important aims—reducing GHG emissions, scaling up clean energy, and directing 35-40% of the program’s benefits to historically disadvantaged communities. Steps to achieve these aims are planned and enacted by the Climate Action Council. 

ElectrifyNY is a statewide coalition of advocates for environmental and social justice, public transportation,  and satisfying employment, fighting for a clean, equitable,  electric transportation future for New York. The organization aims to improve the environmental and public health outcomes for communities most affected by the negative impacts of the transportation sector’s dependency on fossil fuel. One  commendable initiative is the transition of all vehicles state-wide to electric by 2040. 

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI or “Reggie”) is a cooperative effort between nine northeast and mid-Atlantic states to cut carbon dioxide emissions through a market-based cap and trade initiative, which sets a regional cap on carbon dioxide emissions. The states sell emission allowances through auctions and re-invest that money in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and other programs that benefit consumers. A de facto carbon tax is created by a set reserve price, below which the allowances are not able to be sold. Whether this initiative actually  reduces carbon or not has been questioned.