Interviews & Profiles

About half of New York City has been harmed by environment inequities

In a Q&A with Elijah Hutchinson, the head of the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice, he talks about the “urgency and a moral obligation” of focusing on these areas of the city.

New York City Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Executive Director Elijah Hutchinson

New York City Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Executive Director Elijah Hutchinson Will Chilton

Nearly half of New York City’s population lives in neighborhoods that have been disproportionately harmed by environmental inequities, a new report found. And communities of color and low-income communities in the city are at outsized risk.

The so-called environmental justice areas were outlined in the new report and a mapping tool released by the New York City Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental justice on April 5. The main conclusions of the report, which also identified structural racism and poverty as contributors to environmental injustice, were not all that surprising on their own given previous studies and reporting on environmental inequities.

But the 274-page report and mapping tool bring much-needed detail to help understand specific environmental risks and make the case for funding to be directed to help address those risks. “Never have we understood the depth and breadth of the findings in this way,” said Elijah Hutchinson, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice.

Hutchinson, who was appointed to the role last fall after serving as vice president for waterfronts at the New York City Economic Development Corp., now helms the office that produced the report, along with an advisory board of residents, advocates and experts.

The environmental justice areas mapped in the report were determined using the same criteria developed by the state to designate census tracts as “disadvantaged communities” set to be prioritized in the state’s own climate plan. Among 45 indicators included in that criteria were exposure to active landfills, asthma-related emergency department visits and tree cover. Nearly all of the Bronx is designated an environmental justice area.

The city’s report also acknowledged that the disadvantaged communities criteria was imperfect, and included recommendations for improving it, such as incorporating pluvial flooding – an increasingly apparent threat following extreme rainfall events in the city – to the calculations.

City & State caught up with Hutchinson to discuss his office’s focus on environmental justice, the findings of the new report and developing plans to adapt to a changing city. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your office’s report concluded that about 49% of the New York City population lives in environmental justice areas, found that communities of color bear the brunt of exposure to diesel emissions, and identified structural racism and poverty as contributors to environmental injustice. Were these findings surprising to you, or in line with previous research and your own impressions?

The findings themselves aren’t too much of a surprise. But never have we understood the depth and breadth of the findings in this way. And now we have data associated with each one of these issues, so that it starts to define, in very specific terms for each community, how those environmental burdens and benefits are distributed across neighborhoods. What that does is paint a new picture and a new map of New York City that allows us to understand where these risks are, and how they actually express themselves. What that sets us up for is a next phase of work to make specific policy recommendations, investments and other decisions that would address the issues identified.

What do these environmental justice areas identified in the report have in common in terms of infrastructure, historic disinvestment, or other socioeconomic or environmental factors?

There were over 40 different indicators areas that go into identifying a disadvantaged community. One thing we see is that there’s a real legacy that exists from going back even to things like redlining. We see that 67% of the neighborhoods that were historically redlined are also environmental justice communities. And so you can see this real throughput of the consequences of depreciating and lowering real estate values, and making decisions around putting infrastructure in places of low land value, that contribute towards air quality, hospital visits and other health indicators.

Now that you have this 274-page report, how will its findings be used?

You know, a big report is good. But the mapping tool and putting that data and that resource in the hands of communities is really helpful. Because what that’s allowing us to do is take advantage of the historic investments that are being made available by the state and federal governments – and historic investments in environmental justice that are coming from the Environmental Protection Agency – and it allows us to use that data and information to strengthen the competitiveness of our applications so that we can get the resources that we deserve to be able to adapt to this really challenging issue.

The production of this report stems from a law passed by the City Council in 2017, and the study was supposed to come out by the end of 2018. Why did this end up taking seven years?

There are a few things. One is that we needed to go through the process of actually appointing through the City Council the Environmental Justice Advisory Board. It was really important that we had a springboard and a group of advocates that were organized to do this work. We had (the community organization) WE ACT for Environmental Justice co-chair that committee and help us design the engagement process and provide all of the input. But the other piece was we initially had a disadvantaged community criteria that wasn’t aligned with the state. And that didn’t make sense. And the disadvantaged community criteria just came out in 2022, and so we redid our analysis and updated the report, so that we had the latest data and information and we could align environmental justice with how the state thinks about environmental justice as well.

This report takes a sweeping look at factors that contribute to environmental justice issues – outdoor air pollution, access to open space, housing maintenance issues, coastal storm surge, etc. Are there certain factors that you see as ones that should take priority?

I think what people want to see is that there’s action quickly, and that we’re able to come up with recommendations that have meaningful impacts in communities. And so we’re going to be working with the agencies and looking at how they target resources, how we develop policies and programs, evaluate them for their impacts, and make recommendations about how there could be improvements. But there’s not one area to focus on here. And we’re going to start to do the hard work of tackling this. But this is not something that’s going to end with even releasing a draft plan next year. This is an ongoing process.

That draft plan – a comprehensive citywide environmental justice plan – was also required by local law. I know there’s a process of engaging with stakeholders and communities, but generally what do you expect that plan to include? Policy recommendations? Desired funding allocations?

There are a few things we know already, we don’t have to wait to get into the next phase to understand what we might do. One is the investment in environmental justice communities, and prioritizing that using the disadvantaged community criteria. The other one is integrating environmental justice in agency decisions through climate budgeting. We’re getting ready to release the first climate budget, for any large city in the United States, this April. This presents an opportunity to tie our policy recommendations into our climate budgeting framework. We know we want to improve accountability and increase data transparency and communication. And that’s why we have things like the mapping tool, putting that out there in the hands of the community and updating that tool regularly with the latest information and data. We also want to coordinate with permitting and regulatory authorities to embed equity and environmental justice while they’re siting and permitting large infrastructure projects. And then we also know we need to explore new ways of engaging with communities. Breaking the walls down between government and environmental justice advocates is really important for us because what our office is trying to do – which is very different from a traditional climate office – is we’re trying to center environmental justice within our already extremely ambitious climate agenda.

The climate budget coming out this month – will that be part of the city’s actual budget process?

It’s connected to the city budget. It’s being produced by our Office of Management and Budget, and it is a part of the formal budget that gets released. What it does is it tracks spending on climate priorities and evaluates our budgeting decisions on environmental justice priorities, and it creates an understanding of this how much we’re spending to phase out fossil fuels, this is what we’re spending on resilience and sustainability, here are the data gaps that we know that we have, and here are some recommendations on how we can improve accounting and work towards our fossil fuel phase-out plan.

What do you hope policymakers – whether that’s elected officials or decision-makers at agencies – take away from this report?

That there’s an urgency and a moral obligation to focus on some of the areas that have the legacy of issues, and that we look at the cumulative impacts of climate change and recognize that climate is affecting every neighborhood across New York City. It’s not just a coastal issue. It is not just a waterfront issue. And it’s not just about water. It’s about all of these factors, including heat and air quality and other drivers that are really impacting these disadvantaged communities. And that we need an adaptation strategy and a conversation in every neighborhood.