“A beautifully sustainable city that is the playground of the rich doesn’t work for us.”
By Jim Miller
Some of the best political news in America in quite a while happened last week in New York City. While much of the country is still under the sway of the climate-change denying right and thus fiddling while the world burns, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio came out with precisely the kind of bold, visionary plan that we need to address not just the existential threat of climate change but the equally pressing and dangerous trend toward deepening economic inequality.
Indeed, taking a page out of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, de Blasio made the interrelated nature of the two great crises of our age clear when outlining his “One New York: The Plan for a Just and Strong City” as he asserted that, “I believe fundamentally that you can’t have environmental sustainability without economic sustainability.”
Thus, the New York City mayor sees, “The way forward is to create a vision for one city where there’s opportunity for all, sustainability for all and fairness for all.”
More specifically, de Blasio’s plan builds on the environmental work of the previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, by adding a robust economic justice component. As the New York Times reported:
In his most sweeping bid yet to apply a focus on income inequality across the municipal spectrum, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York on Wednesday will introduce a reimagined take on the city’s ambitious environmental program, Plan NYC.
The city is pledging to lift 800,000 residents out of poverty or near-poverty in the next decade — the largest urban poverty reduction effort ever in the country, officials said — and significantly reduce the “racial/ethnic disparities” in premature mortality. The administration will move to create some 500,000 housing units by 2040, according to the plan, and help the average New Yorker reach hundreds of thousands of jobs by transit within 45 minutes.
Impressively, while taking on one of the biggest efforts to reduce poverty in the history of the United States, de Blasio has also pledged “to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050,” retrofit public and private buildings, expand bike networks, reduce emissions in a wide variety of ways, eliminate 90 percent of waste by 2030, and much more.
As CityLimits.org observes, the plan addresses four broad areas:
Growth: increase median household income … spur more than 4.9 million jobs by 2040 …ensure the average New Yorker can reach 1.8 million jobs by transit within 45 minutes by 2040, a 25 percent increase from today … Ensure 90 percent of New Yorkers can reach at least 200,000 jobs by transit within 45 minutes by 2040 … Create and preserve 200,000 affordable housing units and support creation of 160,000 additional new housing units by 2024 … Support creation of at least 250,000 to 300,000 additional housing units by 2040
Equity: Lift 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty or near poverty by 2025 … Reduce overall premature mortality by 25 percent by 2040 and dramatically decrease racial and ethnic disparities
Sustainability: Reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 relative to 2005 levels … Reduce waste disposal by 90 percent by 2030 relative to 2005 levels… Reduce risks of stormwater flooding in most affected communities
Resilience: Eliminate disaster-related long-term displacement more than one year of New Yorkers from homes by 2050 … Reduce the Social Vulnerability Index for neighborhoods across the city … Reduce average annual economic losses resulting from climate-related events.
In a statement that resonates all the way from New York to San Diego, de Blasio bluntly explained why the marriage of economic justice work with sustainability policy was crucial: “A beautifully sustainable city that is the playground of the rich doesn’t work for us.”
As San Diego moves forward with its own climate action plan, time will tell whether those advocating for a sustainable future and city leaders crafting policy will do so with anywhere near the same kind of integrated vision of a truly just city as de Blasio just did in New York or whether they throw workers and the poor under the bus in the service of maintaining a green-washed status quo.
But whatever happens here in the short term, the example of New York City is a compelling and hopeful one that may just offer us a way out of the poverty of political imagination that, at present, afflicts most of the country. Let’s hope it illustrates to America that it’s possible to join the fights against inequality and climate change in a way that can serve as a pragmatic model for how to win a future worth living in for all of us.