A Greener City Hall: Conversations with NYC Mayoral Candidates
April 26, 2021
We convened New York City Mayoral candidates to share their views on a variety of sustainability issues in a series of taped interviews. We asked questions on issues including air quality, water quality, parks and open space, public transportation, climate adaptation, composting, and green infrastructure. Watch the full video.
NYLCV President Julie Tight kicked off the webinar, saying that we cannot afford to wait anymore on climate change and must act. She added that we need to invest in resilient infrastructure, increase the amount of recycling we do, protect our water supply, invest in parks and green spaces, and green our transportation sector.
Kathryn Garcia, the former Sanitation Commissioner, said that we need to ensure that Local Law 97 is actually implemented and that we focus on actually decarbonizing the economy instead of fines and fees. She said that we should use a combination of Canadian hydropower and upstate solar, wind, and geothermal power to green our energy. She said that many communities, particularly those of color, have been overburdened by environmental nuisances. Garcia added that we need to ensure a green New Deal for NYCHA, including investing in geothermal energy and heat pumps.
The need to electrify our school buses and entire city fleet were also talked about by Garcia. She stressed the need to build infrastructure to charge these vehicles. We need to think about a system that incorporates different modes of transportation, including bicycles. The pandemic showed the physical and mental health benefits of parks, says Garcia, who promised to increase the Parks Department share of the City budget to 1% by the end of her first term. Garcia said that we need to invest in communities that do not have parks, promising to build 10 new parks while creating “green boulevards” between our green spaces. She also suggested increasing public access to green spaces around NYCHA housing.
According to Garcia, we must bring back the city’s curbside composting program, expand it to everybody’s doorstep, and make it mandatory. Garcia also said that we need community composting facilities in every borough and that she has committed to a renewable Rikers Island. Under Garcia, Rikers would be used for making not only renewable power but also compost to be returned to our green spaces. She said that we need to make sure we do not site projects in communities that are already overburdened. Garcia said that we should invest money in our parks as well as in turning asphalt schoolyards into green areas. Garcia said we need to use our strong lead laws while also informing parents about the importance of getting their children tested. Agencies need to work together, and spot checks must be performed, especially on properties owned by repeat offender landlords. She added that training people now on how to design and maintain heating and hot water systems will improve equity. She will make sure that we use our CUNY system as well as our trade schools to achieve this.
Businessman Ray McGuire called climate change an existential crisis with which he has lived his entire life, sharing his personal experience growing up across the street from a paper mill that emitted fumes so strong that the refrigerator needed to be open to breathe. He added that his plan looks to build on climate resiliency, focusing on both air and flooding. He said we need to execute our resiliency plan.
McGuire said that it is critical that we deal with congestion and that we should get at least to net-zero emissions by 2050. To achieve this, he suggested the electrification of vehicles in the city, including public school buses. While we electrify our vehicles, we also need to make sure that the charging infrastructure is there, said McGuire. To reduce emissions, McGuire suggested congestion pricing and increased use of solar and wind power. Citing how outdoor experiences inspire our lives, McGuire said that we should open up bike lanes and parks. Lower-income communities have only half the park space that wealthier communities have, says McGuire, who added that all communities are deserving of great outdoor spaces. He added that we need to return to Gordon Davis’s vision of restructuring the parks, mentioning that outdoor spaces are key to the city’s revival.
McGuire added that we need to focus on composting. He also said that climate should be the highest priority and that we have no alternative. We need to start actually addressing the issue of mold in environmental justice communities, stressed McGuire. Buildings would be tested for lead and graded on a scorecard under McGuire, and immediate action would be taken to remediate problems where they are discovered. McGuire promised, if elected, to take every step available to him to immediately address lead poisoning when it is found.
Green jobs are part of McGuire’s infrastructure plan, and he said that he will make sure jobs are being created to address environmental issues. He said that it is important that we have workforce training for green jobs.
Eric Adams, Brooklyn Borough President, said that we need to properly identify the sources of greenhouse gas emissions and use not only man- and womanpower, but also technology to solve the problem. He promised to attack greenhouse gas emissions with a force matching that with which the gases are attacking our planet. Adams wants to end the overconsumption of meat in the city, especially with government-supplied food. Meat isn’t only unhealthy but producing it can also create emissions. He wants to replace the peaker plants with the installation of battery storage and create a greenhouse bond program to put people back to work. Adams said that 1 out of 10 NYCHA developments is located in flood zones and that there is a need to rebuild our parkland.
Adams added that we need to expedite the electric bus rollout and do it based on health figures in communities. He said that he would keep the open streets program, reasoning that there is no need for cars on the streets in high-transit areas. He also promised to ensure a real rapid transit system. Adams also suggested the creation of safe passageways for children to ride their bikes to and from school, as well as bikeways. Adams said we must continue to understand the connection between our health and parks and open space, mentioning the need to make sure everybody is within 15 minutes of a park or open space. Specifically, Adams advocated for investment in spaces surrounding schools and the conversion of parking space to green space. Adams believes that we should allocate 10% of our park spaces to farming, which would help with food deserts and introduce children to healthy food habits at the same time.
Adams said that in addition to generating waste, we are also wasting money when we are shipping it out of the city to be processed. According to Adams, real savings will come from investing in long-term waste-processing infrastructure. He added that we need an organic waste collection program and that we should turn the waste over to GrowNYC. Adams said he will make sure every New Yorker participates in the organics program, starting with schools. We need to analyze waste treatment plants and what kinds of buses we are using in certain communities. There needs to be a partnership between the Department of Education and Health and Hospitals regarding dealing with lead, added Adams. When lead is found in clusters, teams should be brought in to do education and abatement. He added that he stood up when he heard about NYCHA’s lead failures. He will implement a Green Bond Act, which will turn the city into a green economy in which agriculture plays an important role. He will also open more CTE schools to turn the city into a pipeline for green jobs education and will ensure that the city’s children are the ones being educated to hold these new jobs.
Scott Stringer, the current City Comptroller, emphasized the need to stop siting peaker plants and bus garages in communities of color, adding that COVID exposed the environmental racism of land-use decisions made over generations. He said that he will build a solar panel on every rooftop and an electric battery in every basement. Stringer added that we can retrofit all of the dirty buildings in the city and implement Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’s NYCHA Green Plan by creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. He plans to develop a talent pool in communities of color by accessing workforce development programs for CUNY students and making them free.
Stringer said we need decisive action on greening our buses and fleets. The city is made up of 80% sidewalks and streets, with cars controlling 70% of the latter, but Stringer mentioned alternative use for these areas, saying that we can park 20 bicycles in one parking space and create outdoor dining using just three spaces. Stringer plans to build 35 miles of bus lanes per year while keeping safety in mind. Stringer said that we need to think about a post-Robert Moses New York City, saying that highways such as the Cross-Bronx Expressway have polluted and split neighborhoods. He went on to express the need to invest in our parks, suggesting building 200 playgrounds for children in the next five years. He also shared his support for the LCV’s 1% for Parks proposal (which says that 1% of the city budget should be used for parks). Stringer said that we must implement Local Law 97 and invest in green infrastructure that actually cleans up buildings and streets, creating a green economy for working people.
Stringer also talked about the need to get trash off of our streets. He included an idea of using some parking space to place a dumpster instead. He said that we need to do better on composting as a city and that we should be leading the nation. According to Stringer, we must also think strategically and come up with new ideas about the separation of goods in the recycling process. Stringer also said that we need to stop putting dirty bus depots in disadvantaged communities. He said that the next mayor needs to step up and work with communities to solve health disparities. Stringer pointed out that it made no sense that when a child tests positive for lead in a building, we do not conduct a deeper investigation. He added that we need to appreciate that lead poisoning is something that stays with a child for life and that other agencies should work with NYCHA on lead.
Shaun Donovan, former US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said he would make NYC the world’s leading city on climate change. He said we will partner with the rest of the country and world, and pointed to the 6000-word climate plan he outlined as part of his Plan for NYC. He added that he is the only candidate capable of making these connections, pointing to his experience in the federal government. He plans to accelerate the implementation of Local Law 97 and give buildings the tools they need to do so. Donovan added that he will make sure public housing is a worldwide model for sustainable green housing. Within his first 100 days, his government will issue an executive order on environmental justice, including increased mapping.
He said he will also appoint a chief equity officer to ensure that the burden of climate change is not unevenly felt. Our streets need to be reimagined, says Donovan, including through the addition of dedicated bus and bike lanes and by giving buses traffic signaling priority. Donovan said we need to make every public vehicle an EV, and suggested using them as a source of stored energy when our next climate disaster (e.g., a hurricane) arrives. Regarding parks, Donovan says his commitment starts at home, being that he is married to a landscape architect. He said that every New Yorker needs access to a park. Donovan said our lack of park space has to change, citing the fact that we have the least green space per person of any city in the country.
Regarding waste, Donovan said that New York City needs to lead the country in recycling by bringing back organics. He would also implement a serious construction waste recycling program. Donovan would measure the real impacts of climate change in every community. Under Donovan, the city would be planned around “fifteen-minute neighborhoods,” which would ensure people have everything they need to live a life of opportunity within 15 minutes of where they live. He said we need to make sure we do not put environmental hazards into communities of color. Donovan highlighted his prior work on lead poisoning, including implementing Local Law 1 and working on the Healthy Homes Initiative under President Obama. He said that he is the only candidate who knows how to work on the federal level to make sure New York is getting its fair share of federal resources. He will use that money to green the city and create jobs for people too often left behind.
This event was held in partnership with the Alliance for a Greater New York, New Yorkers for Parks, the Riders Alliance, South Bronx Unite, Transportation Alternatives, The Trust for Public Land, Urban Green, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. A special thanks goes to our sponsor, National Grid.
The debut of candidate interviews was followed by commentary from a panel of experts. The commentary focused on the environmental issues explored during the candidate forum.
Adam Ganser is the Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks (NY4P). He said that NY4P feels very optimistic about where the candidates are positioned on parks. Ganser added that NY4P is hoping for 1% of the city’s budget to be dedicated to parks, as part of the Play Fair campaign which we helped found. NY4P feels that parks are critical to the city’s economic recovery and should be treated like any other essential infrastructure. Ganser said that the Parks Department was gutted over the past year so we need a massive increase in staffing and permanent jobs. Maintenance, especially in underserved areas, will improve. Another platform of NY4P is to increase access to outdoor space within walking distance for New Yorkers.
Michael Johnson is the co-founder of South Bronx Unite. He was happy to hear the emphasis on waste from candidates, including the overburdened communities in which waste is handled. However, he wishes they said more about listening to the community and working with the community to develop solutions. Johnson described open streets as a good opportunity to get people outside when they really needed to during the pandemic. He also said that the open streets initiative was not done equitably and that we need permeable surfaces. Johnson stressed the need for permeable surfaces to avoid the urban heat island effect and ensure that play spaces are not unbearably hot. Green spaces are also economic drivers and job creators, he said.
Danny Pearlstein is the Director of Policy and Communications at the Riders Alliance. He said that they are very happy to hear the priority given to buses by the candidates, as well as the fact that candidates are not attacking bike lanes. He said that we should roll out 30 miles of bus lanes per year. When city planners consult stakeholders on bus lanes, they consult bus riders from all along the route, so that changes are not based on parochial concerns. Pearlstein then stressed that 75% of bus riders are low-income New Yorkers of color, emphasizing the importance of buses to achieving equity. He also touched on the city’s emissions crisis and pointed out how improved transit leaves fewer cars on the road. Pearlstein said that open streets are incredibly important to our communities, but that we need a plan to make sure that they are distributed equitably. Pearlstein also mentioned the 25 X 25 plan, which would open 25% of city streets by 2025. However, he added that we need to involve the community in the decision-making process.
Chris Halfnight is the Associate Director of Policy at Urban Green Council. He said that nearly 70% of the city’s total emissions come from the energy used in buildings. Halfnight said that we heard from all the candidates that the buildings sector is a top priority. He discussed Local Law 97 and the work that needs to be done to ensure that the law is implemented correctly. He said that replacing peaker plants and retrofits to public housing are also good priorities which the candidates mentioned. Urban Green also has two other priorities which were not stressed: building electrification and strategy for reducing emissions from the city’s smaller buildings. Halfnight said that green jobs in the buildings sector are good, well-paid jobs. There is significant potential for jobs in the buildings sector, especially surrounding retrofits. Halfnight would like to see plans laid out for developing green jobs in the buildings sector. Over the next decade, energy efficiency will provide a $20 billion market opportunity and could stimulate 141,000 jobs.
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