New York City Needs to Take Concrete Actions to Achieve a Climate Resilient Future
MEMBER SPOTLIGHT: Drew Gamils, Staff Attorney, Riverkeeper
New Yorkers must think critically and creatively to design and adopt programs and policies that will safeguard our communities against the variety of climate hazards they are facing. The New York City Council has attempted to prioritize climate change resilience planning for the City through the adoption of Local Law 84 of 2013 and Local Law 122 of 2021. While the current Mayoral Administration has made progress and investments in water quality improvements, stormwater management, coastal resiliency, heat mitigation, and green infrastructure development, it can and must do more. The administration has issued AdaptNYC, PlaNYC: Getting Sustainability Done, and, in conjunction with the state, the draft 2023 Citywide Green Infrastructure Modification Order to identify and/or implement initiatives designed to achieve a cleaner, greener and a more just city for all. These documents demonstrate that the City is thinking about the important issues, but the City’s proposed initiatives will not go far enough to tackle the challenges of climate change to secure a climate resilient future for NYC.
New York City Misses the Mark with AdaptNYC
Citing the urban flooding from Superstorm Sandy, the New York City Council adopted Local Law 122 of 2021 on November 7, 2021 to require the City to develop a comprehensive climate adaptation plan that considers and evaluates various climate hazards impacting the City and its shoreline. The plan was required to include specific and concrete recommendations for resiliency and adaptation measures and identify areas that are highly vulnerable to climate hazards to help determine where resiliency and adaptation measures should be prioritized. In November 2022, the Adams administration, through the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice (“MOCEJ”), released AdaptNYC. AdaptNYC was meant to function as the City’s first climate adaptation plan in response to Local Law 122 but falls far short. AdaptNYC is simply an online platform that compiles existing policies, plans, and programs on city-level adaptation efforts, and does not propose forward-looking strategies to address future climate impacts.
Of great concern is AdaptNYC’s failure to consider the potential impact of identified resilience and adaptation measures and non-structural risk reduction approaches on environmental justice areas as mandated by Local Law 122. The plan simply references the City’s ongoing study of environmental justice in NYC. The Environmental Justice Interagency Working Group and the Environmental Justice Advisory Board are working on the City’s first comprehensive study of the present state of environmental justice in New York City as required under Local Laws 60 and 64 of 2017. The purpose of the City’s Environmental Justice Report is to identify the City’s environmental justice areas, analyze environmental and climate issues, and identify which communities are disproportionately impacted by environmental burdens and not seeing the benefits of green investments made by the City. However, given the City’s track records with meeting Local Law requirements, it remains to be seen whether the City's Environmental Justice Report, expected in October 2023, will satisfy the requirements of Local Laws 60 and 64 of 2017, let alone Local Law 122.
NYC is in desperate need of a comprehensive climate strategy that includes real financing and funding mechanisms to implement tangible projects and programs that will help keep communities safe from climate disasters. AdaptNYC is a far cry from the climate adaptation plan envisioned by the City Council when it adopted Local Law 122 and fails to set forth resiliency and adaptation measures necessary to respond to the climate hazards that threaten our communities and jeopardize our goal of building an equitable and sustainable environmental and economic future.
PlaNYC Does Not Go Far Enough to Get Sustainability Done
New York City issued PlaNYC: Getting Sustainability Done (“PlaNYC”) in April 2023. PlaNYC is the fifth in a series of climate action plans released by NYC pursuant to Local Law 84 of 2013. Unlike AdaptNYC, PlaNYC is a detailed comprehensive plan that sets forth concrete actions to make NYC more resilient to climate change impacts. PlaNYC is meant to deliver near-term benefits to New Yorkers as the City moves toward achieving ambitious long-term climate goals. While PlaNYC does include meaningful commitments to action on climate resilience, it inexplicably omits several widely acknowledged resiliency improvements that are critical in advancing NYC’s sustainable stormwater and green infrastructure planning.
Despite the clear need, green infrastructure maintenance is notably absent from PlaNYC. The maintenance of green infrastructure assets in perpetuity must become a priority, especially as the City intends to construct thousands of new green infrastructure assets. Poor maintenance will undermine the success of such installations. Unless the vegetation is healthy, the day-to-day co-benefits for local neighborhoods cannot be felt. The City must do more to promote green infrastructure maintenance and create a green infrastructure maintenance budget to ensure the long-term care and operation of the City’s green infrastructure projects, just as the City has done for gray infrastructure over decades. The City should also consider restructuring water rates in such a way that generates revenues dedicated to green infrastructure maintenance and stormwater management.
The City should consider the lessons learned from, and the success of, the public-private partnership by which the City funds non-profits to adopt and maintain the City’s green infrastructure assets. These lessons include the need for year-long maintenance (not seasonal); the need for vegetation palettes that are carefully planned, robust and full throughout the year; local skilled job training for green infrastructure maintenance in tandem with local education and volunteer engagement. The City should consider incorporating these costs into the overall budget for the Green Infrastructure Program set forth in the City’s resiliency plans. The state revolving fund should be considered to support this additional funding. Though PlaNYC doesn't shift the City's short-term strategy on the reduction of combined sewer overflows (CSOs), it does require a study on ending routine CSO discharges by 2060. It’s laudable that the administration has set a goal to eliminate the discharge of untreated sewage into the New York Harbor, and it is crucial that the administration follow through to identify specific projects to get there. The City must provide information as to how specific strategies will be developed and provide examples of projects that will be considered to minimize combined sewer overflows and significantly improve water quality. In particular, it must pursue the Renewable Rikers plan to turn Rikers Island, which currently contains New York City’s largest jail complex, into a clean water and renewable energy hub.
Proposed Modifications to the City’s Green Infrastructure Program Are a Step in the Right Direction But Additional Improvements Are Needed
On Friday May 19, 2023, the NYCDEP announced modifications to its Green Infrastructure Program, the product of a 2012 Consent Order agreed to between New York City and New York State to reduce citywide Combined Sewage Overflows (CSOs) by 1.67 billion gallons annually by 2030. The 2023 Citywide Green Infrastructure Modification requires NYCDEP to expend an additional $2 billion on green infrastructure to reduce CSOs by 1.67 billion gallons per year by 2040 on a citywide basis, with the potential to request an additional five years to achieve the CSO reduction goal by 2045. While the modification will delay pollution reduction benefits by 10 years, the state and city have proposed implementation of many of the practical recommendations Riverkeeper and coalition partners laid out in our 2022 Building an Equitably Green New York City report. Riverkeeper’s blog on the 2023 Citywide Green Infrastructure Modification Order provides further details.
Climate change poses a risk to our health, safety, environment, and economy and has a disproportionate impact on communities that are already vulnerable. Climate change has shifted from a threat on the horizon to a recurring element impacting our everyday lives. While a monumental challenge, climate change also presents an opportunity for us to reimagine our communities and to create a more equitable, healthy, and resilient future. Responding to and preparing for climate change will take work, creativity, and critical thinking. If the City hopes to achieve a climate resilient future, environmental justice, public health, and climate considerations must be at the center of the City’s planning and budgeting processes. The City has set ambitious climate targets, initiatives, policies, and programs, but tremendous work remains to achieve a sustainable future for the City. It is one thing to plan, it is another to execute. We call on the City to take the steps necessary to actually tackle the challenges of climate change and secure a climate resilient future for NYC.