New York has never been a city that shies away from ambitious sustainability goals. In early February, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he would award a whopping $1.9 million in Environmental Justice Community Impact Grants to 21 community initiatives. With this grant money, Cuomo specifically seeks to support projects that address environmental and public health concerns in the low-income communities that often bear a disproportionate burden of pollution and environmental harm.
“When we support grassroots efforts to build a greener, healthier, and more sustainable New York, everyone benefits,” Governor Cuomo announced in a statement. “This newest round of Community Impact Grants will make a positive difference in the lives of all New Yorkers through innovative and successful initiatives that promote environmental justice and a better quality of life.”
This passion for furthering environmental justice and healthy living has been a longtime goal for city leadership — and one that has shown unmistakable results. In 2016, New York ranked 26th on the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index and achieved recognition as the most sustainable city in the United States.
However, even as researchers for the index recognized the accomplishments of the world’s top-ranking cities, they posed a question: “How can cities do more to ensure that as they develop and implement strategies and policies to address the considerable challenges they face — from environmental to socio-economic — they do so in a way that puts people first and at the forefront of their sustainability?”
It’s a challenge that New York has taken on with dogged enthusiasm. In the spring of 2019, the city passed the Climate Mobilization Act: a package of six bills that collectively intends to achieve a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in NYC by 2030.
The Act has a few standout highlights; for one, it would require buildings larger than 25,000 square feet to conduct retrofits for energy-efficiency, such as adding better insulation or new windows. Certain building types — such as senior housing and rent-controlled residential buildings — will also be required to install heat sensors and insulate pipes, among other measures. Most notably, owners of buildings larger than 25,000 square feet will need to display EPA-approved efficiency “grades” at entrances.
“These letter grade signs will provide a new level of accessible transparency for the public, letting them know just how energy efficient a building is compared to similar buildings in the city,” Andrew Rudansky, a spokesperson for the DOB, said in a statement for Curbed.
These letter grades are only the start, however. To achieve the Climate Mobilization Act’s target reduction rate of 40 percent within the next decade, efficiency expectations will intensify quickly. If all goes well, the city will slash its carbon emissions an incredible 80 percent by 2050.
All of this change will be remarkable even if New York City doesn’t hit the exact benchmarks that the Act outlines. This act — and the smaller gestures like Cuomo’s community grant funding — demonstrate that New York is willing to move forward towards its environmental priorities even though most of the country is still hesitant to follow.
Consider the Green New Deal as an example. Presented in February of 2019 by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, the Green New Deal was a nonbinding resolution for a comprehensive policy package that would overhaul the American economy and eliminate nearly all U.S. carbon emissions within three decades. The bill faced considerable controversy on all sides and ultimately died in the Senate. Still, it sparked conversation — and gave New York the chance to prove itself as a sustainable leader, a city willing to break with the status quo.
With the Climate Mobilization Act, along with smaller measures such as Cuomo’s Community Impact Grants, New York is pioneering green urbanism in the United States and figuring out the practicalities of what sustainability will look like in a major city. There is certainly still work to be done, but one point is for sure: as America moves forward into a more sustainable future, NYC will be leading the charge.