Environmental issues in New York City
Learn more about Environmental issues in New York City
Environmental issues in New York City are affected by the city's size, density, transportation policy, and location at the mouth of the Hudson River. New York City also plays an important role in national environmental policy because of its size and influence.
New York's population density has environmental benefits and dangers. It facilitates the highest mass transit use in the United States, but also concentrates pollution. Although gasoline consumption in the city is at the rate the national average was in the 1920s,<ref>Jervey, Ben (2006). The Big Green Apple: Your Guide to Eco-Friendly Living in New York City. Globe Pequot Press.</ref> New York City has some of the dirtiest air in the United States. Pollution varies greatly from borough to borough, and residents of Manhattan face the highest risk in the country of developing cancer from chemicals in the air.<ref>"1999 National-Scale Air Toxics Assessment", Environmental Protection Agency, 2006-02. Retrieved on 2006-07-19.</ref>
 Influence on outside policy
Environmental groups make large efforts to help shape legislation in New York because they see the strategy as an efficient way to influence national programs. New York City's economy is larger than Switzerland's, a size that means the city has potential to set new de facto standards. Manufacturers are also attuned to the latest trends and needs in the city because the market is simply too big to ignore.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg is one of 248 mayors from 41 states to have signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Under the agreement, mayors "strive to meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol targets in their own communities."
Although cities like San Francisco or Portland, Oregon are most commonly associated with urban environmentalism in the United States, New York City's unique urban footprint and extensive transportation systems make it more sustainable than most American cities. The environmental organization SustainLane ranked New York highest of all U.S. cities with more than 1 million residents in its 2005 US City Rankings, a detailed report on city quality of life combined with indicators of sustainability programs, policies and performance.<ref>"SustainLane US City Rankings." March 2006.</ref> The organization cited New York's land use, density, transportation systems, innovative watershed management, and extensive local food and agriculture resources that include 750 community gardens and 64 farmers markets as some of the city's strongest environmental assets.
Recently, the city has focused on reducing its environmental impact. The city government is required to purchase only the most energy-efficient equipment for use in city offices and public housing.<ref>Depalma, Anthony. "It Never Sleeps, but It's Learned to Douse the Lights", New York Times, 2005-12-11. Retrieved on 2006-07-19.</ref> New York has the largest clean-air diesel-hybrid and compressed natural gas bus fleet in the country, and some of the first hybrid taxis.<ref>Metropolitan Transportation AuthorityDifferent Buses for Different Jobs, retrieved on 2006-07-19 and "New York City’s Yellow Cabs Go Green", Sierra Club press release, 2005-07-01. Retrieved on 2006-07-19.</ref> The city is also a leader in energy-efficient "green" office buildings, such as Hearst Tower and 7 World Trade Center.<ref name="greenbuilding">Pogrebin, Robin. "7 World Trade Center and Hearst Building: New York's Test Cases for Environmentally Aware Office Towers", New York Times, 2006-04-16. Retrieved on 2006-07-19.</ref>
 Water supply
Many of the city's environmental assets are related to geography and a long tradition of environmental stewardship in the mountain ranges north of the city. New York's water supply is fed by a 2,000 square mile watershed in the Catskill Mountains. Because the watershed is in one of the largest protected wilderness areas in the United States, the natural water filtration process remains intact. As a result, New York is one of only five major cities in the United States with drinking water pure enough to require only chlorination to ensure its purity at the tap under normal conditions.<ref>"Maintaining Water Quality that Satisfies Customers: New York City Watershed Agricultural Program." New York City Department Of Environmental Protection 20 Nov 1998.</ref><ref>"2005 Drinking Water Supply and Quality Report", City of New York Department of Environmental Protection. Retrieved on 2006-07-19.</ref>
The city’s complex system — with 19 reservoirs bringing mountain water to New York from as far as 125 miles away through a gravity-fed web of aqueducts — is divided into three separate segments. The Croton segment, the oldest and smallest section, sits in Westchester and Putnam Counties. The second oldest is the Catskill segment. In the early years of the 20th century, the city and state designated thousands of acres the eastern Catskills to build two reservoirs that more than doubled the city's capacity. In the 1950s and 1960s, the city expanded again, tapping the east and west branches of the Delaware River and other tributaries to create the newest and largest of its three segments.
The Croton segment is the source of some turbidity issues for the city's water. The turbidity problem stems largely from conditions that have been present in the Catskill system from the beginning. Engineering studies in 1903 recognized that the clay of the steeply sloped Eastern Catskills turned the clear waters of the Schoharie and Esopus Creeks muddy after storms.
Engineers decided to go ahead anyway, devising a two-reservoir system with built-in turbidity controls. The city has sought to restrict development throughout its watershed. One of its largest watershed protection programs is the Land Acquisition Program, under which the New York City Department of Environmental Protection has purchased or protected through conservation easement over 70,000 acres since 1997.<ref>"New York’s Water Supply May Need Filtering." 20 Jul 2006 The New York Times </ref>
In the 12 months that ended on June 30, 2006, daily consumption averaged 1.086 billion gallons in the city, a decline of 5.2% since 2002 and the lowest total daily use since 1951, when the city had about 7.9 million people and New York was experiencing a severe drought. Daily consumption peaked at 1.512 billion gallons in 1979; in the next year’s census, the city’s population was 7.1 million, its lowest since 1930. Despite having grown to a population of 8.2 million in 2006, the city is now using 28% less water than it did in 1979. The drop in consumption is mostly a result of city policy; water-saving plumbing fixtures and devices in renovations and new construction are required, the city has been more diligent in finding and fixing leaks, and since the late 1980s it has been metering residential customers’ water use. The city uses sonar and other equipment to more efficiently find and fix leaks in its millions of feet of water mains and has taken steps like installing sprinkler caps on fire hydrants during the summer, letting overheated kids cool off without torrents of gushing water.<ref>"More Masses Huddling, but They Use Less Water." 3 October 2006, The New York Times.</ref>
 Energy efficiency
The city's unique density, encouraged by much of it being surrounded by water, facilitates the highest rate of mass transit use in the United States. New York is one of the most energy efficient cities in the United States as a result. Gasoline consumption in New York is at the rate the national average was in the 1920s.<ref>Jervey, Ben. "The Big Green Apple: Your Guide to Eco-Friendly Living in New York City." See Metro New York article:</ref> The city's mass transit system, multifamily housing, mixed neighborhoods and the fact that developments no longer go up on virgin land make building in New York very energy efficient. While New York City has a larger population than all but eleven states, if it were granted statehood it would rank 51st in per-capita energy use.<ref>Owen, David. "Green Manhattan." The New Yorker 18 Oct 2004.</ref>
Nevertheless, New York faces growing energy demands and limited space. The city has introduced a series of innovative environmental policies since the 1990s to address these problems. These include a raft of detailed measures, such as switching more than 11,000 traffic lights and "Don't Walk" signals in the city to new energy-efficient light-emitting diodes that use 90% less energy than conventional fixtures. The city will also replace 149,000 "cobra head" street lights with new energy efficient designs by 2008. Over 180,000 inefficient refrigerators in public housing projects have been replaced with new ones that use a quarter of the power of the old ones. By law, the city government can purchase only the most efficient cars, air-conditioners and copy machines.<ref>"It Never Sleeps, but It's Learned to Douse the Lights." The New York Times 11 Dec 2005.</ref> The electricity used to power the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and 22 other federal buildings in New York City, an annual electricity demand of roughly 27 million kilowatt hours, is provided by wind power.<ref>"Wind Power In NYC." Gotham Gazette Mar 2006.</ref>
New York City is home to several clean energy projects. The most significant is the installation of underwater turbines in the East River to take advantage of tidal currents. Designed by researchers at New York University, six windmill-like turbines with three 8 foot-long blades are being installed just north of the Queensborough Bridge. They will supply electricity to Roosevelt Island. After an 18-month trial, an additional 300 slow-moving, widely spaced turbines will be installed. They will generate enough clean energy for 8,000 homes. Planning is also underway to construct windmills on a hill in the former Fresh Kills Landfill. The wind energy project would power 5,000 homes on Staten Island.
 Green building
For years New York City was slow to embrace green building guidelines used in cities like San Francisco to promote environmentally-friendly construction. In the post-World War II construction boom, changes in zoning regulations and the widespread use of air conditioning led to the design of sealed glass and steel towers. Without natural sources of light and ventilation, such buildings required large amounts of fossil fuels to operate.
This phase of building style is rapidly changing in New York, which has become a leader in energy-efficient green office buildings like 7 World Trade Center, which recycles rainwater and uses it in toilets and for irrigation, and computer-controlled heating and lighting. The United States Green Building Council estimates 3,000 new green apartments in New York City have been built since 2001.
In 2000 the state of New York introduced a green building tax credit, the first one of its kind in the United States, that has allowed some developers of environmentally friendly buildings to write off as much as $6 million on their tax bill. The city's Department of Design and Construction developed a set of guidelines in 1999 that encourage environmentally sound building methods for municipal projects. The guidelines had led to approximately $700 million in green city construction projects by the end of 2005.<ref>"Green Buildings." Gotham Gazette 5 January 2004.</ref> In 2005, New York City mandated that nonresidential public buildings costing $2 million or more be built to standards set by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), which grade buildings in areas like energy and water consumption, indoor-air quality and use of renewable materials. The legislation also applies to private projects that receive $10 million or more in public funds or half of whose budgets come from public money.
 Farmers' markets
In 1976 the Council on the Environment of New York City established the Greenmarket program, which provided regional small family farmers with opportunities to sell their fruits, vegetables and other farm products at open-air markets in the city.
The Greenmarket program manages 45 markets in the five boroughs. More than 100 New York City restaurants source their ingredients from Greenmarket farmers each week; Greenmarket farmers also annually donate about 500,000 pounds of food to City Harvest and other hunger relief organizations each year.
The most famous location is the Union Square Greenmarket, held Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday between 8 AM and 6 PM year-round. 250,000 customers a week purchase 1,000 varieties of fruits and vegetables at the market.
164 farmers travel a median distance of 90 miles to attend the markets, including 90 vegetable and orchard growers, 29 meat, dairy, poultry, wool and fish producers, 12 producers of honey, maple syrup, jam, and wine, 19 growers of plants and flowers, and 14 bakers.
In 2006 the City Council annouced it would make farmers' markets the centerpiece of efforts to reduce hunger and increase awareness of nutrition in the city, especially in lower-income areas, and that 10 new farmers' markets would open serving low-income neighborhoods including public housing projects.
 Air pollution
Air pollution, while not as severe as in cities like Los Angeles or Beijing, remains a problem. The city's air has high levels of ozone and particulates, and residents in some neighborhoods have very high rates of asthma. Air pollution is an ongoing political issue in neighborhoods that contain bus depots.
The 2004 annual report of the American Lung Association ranks New York City as 18th of the 20 regions in the United States most affected by year-round particle pollution, behind Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, and Modesto, CA among other cities.<ref>"State of the Air: 2004." American Lung Association.</ref> New York City ranks 13th of the 20 regions most affected by smog, behind Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, among others. While none of the outer boroughs of New York City rank in the top 25 U.S. counties most polluted by annual particle pollution, Manhattan ranks 22nd.
The city has made efforts to reduce particle pollution with measures like fitting catalytic converters to the exhausts of diesel city buses. New York also has the largest hybrid bus fleet in the country, and some of the first hybrid taxis. A large percentage of the city-owned vehicle fleet, including the personal cars of top city officials, are required since 2005 to be fuel efficient hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius or Honda Accord gas-electric sedan that produce minimal particulates and carbon dioxide emissions. In 2005 the city's vehicle fleet had 6,000 alternative fuel and 70 electric vehicles. A biodiesel processing plant will soon open in Brooklyn that will process 2.5 million gallons of biodiesel a year and distribute it to conventional gas stations in the city.<ref>Jervey, Ben. "The Big Green Apple: Your Guide to Eco-Friendly Living in New York City." See Metro New York article:</ref>
The Department of Sanitation, which has 1,500 trucks of its 2,200-vehicle fleet on the streets each day, is working with truck manufacturers to introduce gas-electric hybrid garbage trucks. The Department switched to using low-sulfur fuel in 2001 and uses corn-based ethanol in 500 of its 1,500 light-duty trucks.<ref>"Eco-rig a Sanitation Sensation." The New York Post 3 April 2006.</ref>
 Transit use
New York is distinguished from all other American cities by its use of public transportation. While nearly 90% of Americans drive to their jobs, public transit is the overwhelmingly dominant form of travel for New Yorkers.<ref>Bureau of Transportation Statistics, U.S. Department of Transportation.</ref> According to the 2000 U.S. Census, New York City is the only locality in the United States where more than half of all households do not own a car (the figure is even higher in Manhattan, over 75%; nationally, the rate is 8%).<ref>Bureau of Transportation Statistics, U.S. Department of Transportation.</ref> About one in every three users of mass transit in the United States and two-thirds of the nation's rail riders live in New York and its suburbs, and New York City's public transit system accounts for nearly four times as many passenger miles as the Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles metro regions combined.<ref>The Metropolitan Transportation Authority.  and David Owens.</ref> Only 6% of shopping trips by New Yorkers involve the use of a car.<ref>"Necessity or Choice? Why People Drive in Manhattan." Transportation Alternatives Feb 2006.</ref> The city's extraordinary public transit use means that New Yorkers emit far fewer greenhouse gases on a per capita basis than the average American.
 Greenpoint oil spill
The Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn was once home to many oil refineries for more than a century. In 1950, the predecessor of the ExxonMobil oil company is alleged to have spilled 17 million gallons of oil into Newtown Creek in what is one of the worst oil spills in United States History. Oil continues seeping into a city waterway decades after the leak was first noticed.
The oil business has largely moved elsewhere, but countless small and large spills went unnoticed for decades and eventually formed a subterranean blob of more than 50 acres. Authorities have been aware of the problem since 1978. Exxon Mobil accepted responsibility for much of the damage in 1990 and has since pumped some nine million gallons out of the ground.
The slow pace of the cleanup, however, has increasingly angered Greenpoint residents and elected officials, who have launched a series of lawsuits against Exxon in 2005. In June 2006 the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation announced it would sue Exxon Mobil to hasten completion of the cleanup.
 Garbage disposal
In 2001 Mayor Rudolph Giuliani closed the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. The City did not have a subsequent plan for garbage disposal. An interim system was put in place in which most of the city's garbage was trucked out of the city to land fills in other states. This generated an unacceptable amount of truck traffic in low-income neighborhoods, leading to exacerbated air pollution. In 2006 Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed legislation establishing a new solid waste management plan, which will use barges and trains to export 90% of the city’s 12,000 daily tons of residential trash. Under the previous scheme trucks and tractor-trailers were used for 84% of the trash. Passage of the new legislation was delayed by opponents in a Manhattan neighborhood who protested the use of a marine transfer station in the Hudson River Park. Environmentalists and social activists argued the plan promoted environmental justice because no one borough or neighborhood would bear a disproportionate burden under the proposal, and they therefore supported it.
 Other issues
Much of the city's housing stock is old, and lead paint is an ongoing public health issue. Some parts of the city are also at risk if current global warming patterns continue and sea levels rise.
The city is home to several thriving non-native species of plants and animals. Populations of wild South American Monk Parakeets, also known as the Quaker Parrot, live in Greenwood Cemetery, Marine Park, Bensenhurst, and Bay Ridge in Brooklyn.