Greener and Greater For Some

800px-NYC_Pont_de_BrooklynPlaNYC’s deadline for achieving 132 initiatives and 400 milestones looms near: December 31 of this year, and I’m not impressed. With PlaNYC, Mayor Bloomberg hopes to accomplish what looks to be a huge victory for the sustainable development of New York City. That is, a huge victory for parts of New York City. I’m left wondering about the rest of the city. PlaNYC’s outline to create, “a greener, greater New York” has left some communities still waiting to see the vast improvements the government promised. The Greener, Greater Buildings Plan in the Housing and Neighborhoods section of Bloomberg’s project gave such high hopes, but those high hopes do not apply to everyone, it turns out.

The first milestone listed in this section of PlaNYC is to rezone and create new housing in neighborhoods such as Sunnyside/Woodside, Queens. The New York Times described these two communities as having, “wide avenues, leafy streets, and a mix of private homes, small apartment buildings and the occasional towering co-op.” So tell me again, why is the government’s money going towards improving these neighborhoods first? Pardon me, why is the government’s money, which is actually New York City residents’ money, going towards improving these neighborhoods first? I began searching PlaNYC for Mayor Bloomberg’s reasoning behind the priority he gave to the Sunnyside/Woodside area.

I never found any answers.

There are many explicit goals in the plan such as, “starting construction of affordable housing on underutilized DSNY facilities on West 20th Street in Manhattan.” However, there are only two milestones regarding surveys that provide Mayor Bloomberg with essential background research.

The government begins with a somewhat better approach in the Parks and Public Space section. They set the goal of, “developing matrix assessment and mapping tools to assist in targeting high priority areas,” but that milestone is still in progress, not completed. It seems odd that the survey that addresses which areas of the city are in the most need of help is not completed before the other, neighborhood specific goals are written. Surely a primary, comprehensive survey exploring the environmental inequalities throughout New York City would be a trusted platform for the initiatives. But, I suppose, collecting background research takes time, and Mayor Bloomberg only has until January to attach his name to any accomplishments before the new steward takes over. Quick, flashy results: 1. Environmental justice: 0.

Granted, creating a citywide plan of any sort is no easy task. Mayor Bloomberg had to please a lot of special interest groups and politicians in order to pass such legislation, and everyone had to put in their two-cents. However, there’s going to be a new sheriff in town come November, and I hope that the new mayor can take Bloomberg’s plan and add to it the environmental justice it so desperately needs.

The question is, how? Can we really place our faith in empirical data to help combat the rampant environmental injustices that plague our city? Some say no because environmental injustices between neighborhoods are social and economic problems in which science plays no role. But other, emerging voices in the environmental justice conversation have a different perspective.

In their book, Technoscience and Environmental Justice, Gwen Ottinger and Benjamin Cohen argue that the fight for environmental justice needs to be more fully integrated with science because both fields help further the improvement of the other. The authors write that science, “is constantly in the process of being remade in response to shifts in cultural terrain,” so the need for hard science as a backing for environmental justice studies allows scientists to, “refashion their practices, institutions, and identities to bring about changes in the nature of scientific research or the bases for expert authority,” which helps improve the field of science and its application to arenas such as sustainability plans.

Three local groups have already embraced such practices. The Pratt Center for Community Development, The Watchperson Project, and El Puente de Williamsburg in Brooklyn have achieved great success by using science and a technology-based approach as Ottinger and Cohen suggest. Dr. Jose Morales, an expert on public health, Luis Garden Acosta, the director of El Puente de Williamsburg, and students from El Puente Academy surveyed their neighborhood, collecting information concerning residential and environmental health problems caused by Radiac, a radioactive waste facility located nearby. The group then used their data to create a map, which they presented to the government as an illustration of the threat that Radiac posed to the community. And The Pratt Center issues scientific reports from the studies of the Pratt Institute’s students and faculty in order to provide a factual background for their community work.

PlaNYC has not yet adopted a similar way of thinking. In initiative seven of the Housing and Neighborhoods section titled, “foster the creation of Greener, Greater Communities,” the plan discusses the need for integration of government sponsorship and local opportunities to create a greener city; it says, “we will launch the Greener, Greater Communities approach to help community- and neighborhood-based organizations develop and implement local initiatives.”

Mayor Bloomberg’s rhetoric in PlaNYC shifts the responsibility of assessing the starting conditions of the city’s communities to the local activists. And as it stands now, it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll see any implementation of scientific surveys and data in future updates of PlaNYC. Unfortunately for some neighborhoods, that means their environmental injustices will be passed over until a grassroots organization discovers their problem and fights for it. Or, as I hope it does, this will become fighting ground for votes between the new mayoral candidates in the coming months. We need our new mayor to listen to our cries of injustice and seek out the help of experts to solve the problem.