Unsustainable City

In New York, the sustainable city is being built on its own undoing.

In 2014, residents of Staten Island’s Elm Park neighborhood found their cars covered in dust. Periodic blasts shook their homes. Construction noise dinned all day and often all night. The air smelled of diesel, thanks to a never-ending line of trucks waiting to cross into New Jersey. Throughout that summer, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) instructed residents to keep windows closed. After several months and hundreds of complaints, they began issuing hotel vouchers for the nights when they anticipated severe noise.

The worst part was that construction on the Bridge had only just begun. It would be another five years before the PANYNJ completed its goal of raising the Bayonne Bridge by 64 feet. At this height, massive container ships, known as supertankers, would be able to pass underneath the Bridge and unload at the New York and New Jersey ports. But residents dreaded the project’s fruition as much as they did its construction—larger ships would also bring noise and pollution. According to the United Nations International Maritime Organization (2014), international shipping accounts for about 2.2 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, with container ships topping the list of polluting vessels. In addition to consuming vast amounts of fuel, the oil powering the ships contains high amounts of sulphur, a potent greenhouse gas and pollutant.

Illustration of someone looking out over a river at a city.
Image description: A hand-drawn illustration of a figure standing with their back to the viewer on an industrial quayside with containers and cranes, staring across the water to a skyline of skyscrapers. Emily Thiessen

Across the New York Harbor and worlds away from the North Shore’s sulfuric supertankers, half-finished developments, and noxious industries, the newly-greened waterfronts of Manhattan and northern Brooklyn sparkled like Emerald Cities. Glass-fronted Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified buildings were surrounded by state-of-the-art parks that featured native plants, self-watering systems, and rooftop farms. Nearby, organic food vendors, pedestrian plazas, “eco-luxury” hotels, and bike lanes demonstrated all the ways in which the Big Apple had gone green.

Over the past decade, I have researched the hidden costs and consequences of sustainable policies and practices in New York City. Sustainability rose to prominence alongside a real estate boom that transformed certain low-income neighborhoods into urban oases and catered to affluent and white-collar residents. I refer to the coupling of environmental improvements and high-end redevelopment as “environmental gentrification,” a process that undermined the very concept of sustainability. In addition to exploiting natural resources and generating pollution, widespread waterfront redevelopment diminished some of the city’s last remaining wetlands. What’s more, I found that environmental gentrification in certain neighborhoods exacerbated the environmental and climate risks facing low-income areas and communities of color. In short, the greening of some neighborhoods seemed to be predicated on the browning of others.

No Homes for Solar Panels

With easy access to the Atlantic Ocean and the Baltimore & Ohio railroad, Staten Island’s northern shoreline became an industrial hub by the early 1900s. Soon, the shore was crowded with factories and communities of immigrant workers, who arrived from Europe in a steady flow. Although many of those factories downsized or closed in the latter part of the twentieth century, the North Shore continued to host one of the city’s most active industrial waterfronts. A 5.2 mile stretch of shoreline included an industrial salt company, a sanitation garage, a Con Edison plant, a waste transfer station, a sewage treatment plant, a salvage yard, ship repair yards, several former factories, and the site of an old warehouse that contained levels of uranium nearly 10 times the acceptable limit.

These facilities bordered a series of small residential neighborhoods (collectively known as the “North Shore”) that continued to house diverse, low-income and working-class communities. The American Community Survey 2013–2017, found that approximately 38 percent of households on the North Shore were non-Hispanic white, 20 percent were African American, and 30 percent were migrants from a wide array of countries such as Mexico, Liberia, and Sri Lanka. According to the City of New York, another 21 percent lived below the poverty level (Mayors Office of Operations 2017).

Across the New York Harbor and worlds away from the North Shore’s sulfuric supertankers, half-finished developments, and noxious industries, the newly-greened waterfronts of Manhattan and northern Brooklyn sparkled like Emerald Cities.

In 2007, Beryl Thurman, president of the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy of Staten Island (NSWC), a local environmental justice organization, compiled a list of potentially contaminated sites along the North Shore. Later, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed that all 21 properties listed in the booklet contained contamination from heavy metals and other toxic chemicals. In addition, the waterway that ran along the North Shore was itself part of an underwater Superfund site that contained Agent Orange, dioxins, and other heavy metals. During heavy rain storms, the Kill washed over its banks and flooded nearby roads, parking lots, and basements. As sea levels rose and storm surges increased, this flooding only stood to worsen. Potentially, it could dislodge and disperse contaminants throughout the area. Climate change thus multiplied threats from toxic chemicals, especially for low-income communities who did not have the resources to move out of harm’s way.

After Hurricane Sandy devastated the New York and New Jersey coastlines in 2012, Thurman began lobbying public officials to include the North Shore in their post-storm resiliency plans. In 2015, she created a second booklet that documented instances of shoreline erosion or locations that lacked barriers, buffers, bulkheads, berms, or other forms of flood protection. All of them were within several feet of contaminated properties. Although Thurman sat on several state and municipal climate change advisory boards, the issues identified in her booklet went unaddressed. In a frustrated email to the Deputy Secretary of Environment (who had just convened the New York State Environmental Justice (EJ) Council), Thurman wrote:

So while there are conversations about solar panels being installed on homes during these EJ Council Conference calls and meetings, I repeat that if the areas continue to be without any resiliency protection and have contaminants on site that are not dealt with, not only will our people not have homes to put the solar panels on, they may also incur illnesses from being in contact with hazardous materials, debris, and chemicals from these sites.

Although public initiatives promoting sustainability and resilience bypassed the North Shore, they settled on rapidly gentrifying parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens.

Greening the Big Apple

On taking office in 2002, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg vowed to recreate New York as a “luxury city.” He also declared the importance of environmental amenities in achieving his goal. In the forward to “Reclaiming the High Line,” the feasibility study that ultimately led to the creation of the iconic High Line Park, Bloomberg explains:

Any brick put down or any tree planted must recharge the urban economy; it must attract new businesses, residents and visitors by creating appealing, healthful, safe work and home environments; it must spark financial activity, raise property values, and generate tax revenues (David and Hock 2002).

Certainly, Bloomberg was not the first public official to link parks to property values. Since the completion of Central Park in 1876, city planners have documented the degree to which public green spaces spark a rise in the market value of nearby residences. But Bloomberg took this symbiotic relationship to a new level.

To create the High Line, Bloomberg allowed developers to donate to a special fund in exchange for permits to extend building height requirements. In the case of Brooklyn Bridge Park, the city paid for park construction on the condition that its maintenance and operations be paid by property taxes and through ground leases on the park itself. The payoff for developers was huge. A 2017 study of the High Line’s “halo effect” showed that resale values of nearby properties rose a cumulative 10 percentage points faster than areas only a few blocks farther away (see Barbanel 2016). And tax valuations for Brooklyn Bridge Park properties far surpassed the city’s projections (see Rosenberg 2017). As both the de Blasio and Bloomberg administrations facilitated gentrification across the city, they employed this “build it and they will come” strategy, using green space to anchor and drive luxury development.

Similarly, Bloomberg looked to private investment to remediate contaminated properties. His “brownfield” program contributed to sustainability by offering tax breaks and other incentives to developers willing to purchase, remediate, and repurpose contaminated properties in underserved neighborhoods. Developers took advantage of the program to invest in properties with profit potential. Thanks to brownfield funding, they transformed former factories and gas stations into luxury lofts, Whole Foods, and other high-end retail outlets. But only in gentrifying neighborhoods such as Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Gowanus, and Long Island City. Non-gentrifying neighborhoods, like the North Shore, were left with an array of contaminated sites and no mechanism for cleaning them up.

Browner spots on the Apple

To make matters worse, as neighborhoods gentrified they became less likely to host waste-producing facilities, which then clustered in out-of-the-way neighborhoods. Central Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal was notorious for being one of the country’s most polluted waterbodies. In 2009, the EPA designated the canal as a Superfund site. Already the area had become a popular nightlife destination and developers were beginning to speculate on its future value; Gowanus now took off as a hotspot for both gentrification and—ironically—eco-friendly development. New, luxury apartment buildings sprouted up throughout the neighborhood, featuring rooftop gardens, green roofs, fixtures made from recycled materials, elaborate bike rooms, and air filtration systems. Promotional materials promised residents a post-Superfund future filled with canoe and kayak launches, waterfront esplanades, and outdoor amphitheaters.

Flag proposed expanding its operations to process dredged soils from across the five boroughs and repurpose them as concrete mixtures. Gowanus sludge, it appeared, was destined for Staten Island’s North Shore.

But cleanup on the Gowanus Canal had just begun. In 2013, the EPA hosted a public meeting to announce the details of its cleanup plan. Part of that plan included transporting soil dredged from the canal to a facility off the shore of Red Hook, a neighborhood that was about a mile south of Gowanus. There, the dredged sludge would be mixed with concrete and repurposed as construction materials. Local residents received this news in a fury, demanding that officials take the sludge out of the area entirely. Shortly after that meeting, the EPA changed course and declared that it would ship the waste out of Brooklyn (Musumeci 2013).

Just a few months later, I attended a packed meeting of Staten Island Community District 1, which encompasses the North Shore. First on the agenda was a permit application from Flag Container Service, a local waste transfer station. Flag proposed expanding its operations to process dredged soils from across the five boroughs and repurpose them as concrete mixtures. Gowanus sludge, it appeared, was destined for Staten Island’s North Shore. Now it was North Shore residents’ turn to be furious. “There’s all this stuff dumped on us all the time—the Bayonne Bridge, group homes, toxic waste sites, sewage treatment plants,” demanded Sylvia, an African American woman who lived in Port Richmond. “What are our children supposed to breathe?”

The Flag expansion proposal came at a time when North Shore residents were especially weary. That same year, the New York City Economic Development Corporation designated a large swath of the North Shore as an Industrial Business Zone (IBZ), offering tax incentives to attract new industrial businesses to the area. Over the past several years, public agencies had also issued permits for a new cement plant and a natural gas pipeline. In light of the raising of the Bayonne Bridge, an expansion of the New York port was also under consideration.

For local activists, there was a direct relationship between environmental gentrification in Brooklyn and the intensification of environmental burdens on the North Shore. As local activist Victoria Gillen wrote in an op-ed for the Architect’s Newspaper:

Creating all the wonderful new playgrounds and high-value waterfront residential areas pushes HEAVY industrial use into parts of Queens and Staten Island… while our taxes support these changes, we do not share in the benefits, and find ourselves, here on Staten Island, once again a dumping ground for the City’s unwanted garbage.

While local activists unequivocally opposed the expansion and addition of industrial facilities, they were also aware of an insidious paradox presented by the city’s development-oriented approach to sustainability.

Sustainable paradox

As the number of polluting facilities on the North Shore’s waterfront increased, the city also seemed to hedge its bets. Between 2009 and 2015, the New York City Department of City Planning published about a half dozen studies on North Shore redevelopment that reimagined specific North Shore neighborhoods as mirrors of gentrified Brooklyn. Each planning study featured pastel renderings of peaceful pedestrians strolling along meandering shoreline paths paved with bike lanes, farmer’s markets, and grassy, open space. In the backdrop, industrial cranes rose, dinosaur-like, from the Kill Van Kull while containers ships floated by.

The contrasting visions conjured by the planning studies on one hand and new permits for industrial facilities on the other, seemed to offer North Shore residents an impossible choice. If they staved off new polluting facilities in order to create a more sustainable future, would they be faced with environmental gentrification and eventual displacement?

Such false choices grow out of the win-win scenarios that dominate sustainability discourse and promise to harmonize economic growth with ecological sustainability. However, these scenarios too frequently displace environmental costs onto the shoulders of already vulnerable populations. Such short-sited approaches to sustainability negate its very goals. While they might threaten low-income communities first and foremost, superficial solutions to sustainability that exploit human and natural resources eventually endanger everyone. As Beryl Thurman wrote in an email to her elected officials:

[We] plod along as if we have all the time in the world for these problems to be resolved and come to a reasonable conclusion. And to be honest we don’t have a lot of time, we are on the same clock as the developers, businesses and mother nature, it’s whoever gets here first.

As long as the privileging of profit-minded development continues, the sustainable city will continue to be built on its own undoing.

Melissa Checker is associate professor of anthropology at the City University of New York Graduate Center and of urban studies at Queens College. She is the author of The Sustainability Myth: Environmental Gentrification and the Politics of Justice (forthcoming, 2020) and Polluted Promises: Environmental Racism and the Search for Justice in a Southern Town.

Emily Thiessen is an illustrator and climate justice organizer living in Lekwungen Territories/Victoria, BC. She holds an anthropology degree and has a fire for creative troublemaking. You can see her work at emilythiessen.ca or @archipelagic on Instagram.

Cite as: Checker, Melissa. 2020. “Unsustainable City.” Anthropology News website, April 22, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1390

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