There’s a part of Brooklyn where the heavily trafficked Brooklyn-Queens Expressway intersects with the Williamsburg Bridge. Thousands of cars pass through daily, spewing pollutants into the air and punctuating pauses with honks.
This intersection, located in what longtime residents call the "Southside of Williamsburg," or “Los Sures,” is also home to the neighborhood’s public parks and playgrounds. These are made mostly of concrete and metal.
A few years ago, the longstanding community organization El Puente led high school students in a study of air contaminants in local parks and playgrounds, in partnership with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. During the summer, they found alarmingly high levels of PM (particulate matter) 2.5, a pollutant linked to asthma, lung cancer and heart attacks.
“When you think of a park, right, you think about greenery and grass and activities to do. Our parks are not like that," Ismael Diaz-Tolentino, who coordinates projects at El Puente tied to environmental justice, told NBCLX.
Environmental justice, as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, means that “no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies.”
While air quality has steadily improved in New York City since the 1970s, residents in traffic-heavy and industrial neighborhoods, like the Southside of Williamsburg and parts of the Bronx, get left behind.
These communities tend to lack green spaces, which naturally mitigate some of the environmental hazards that come with climate change. Trees and vegetation act as natural air conditioners by shading surfaces, deflecting radiation from the sun, and releasing moisture into the atmosphere. Soil acts as a natural sponge during storms.
Climate change, meanwhile, makes extreme heat events more frequent and more intense. Rising temperatures also translates to heavier rainfall, which causes flooding in cities because streets and sidewalks can’t absorb the water. This past September, 13 people died in New York City as a result of Hurricane Ida.
“One of the things I think we've realized is that ... the way we've developed [cities] over the last century … isn't working when it comes to protecting everyone from climate change, but it's specifically not working for particular communities that have less green space," explained Timon McPhearson, who maps climate risks in New York City to understand which neighborhoods are most at risk. He’s found that low income communities are the hottest and the most vulnerable to flooding. This is not a coincidence.
Experts point to redlining, a 1930s housing policy that graded city neighborhoods on their “mortgage security” — based in part on the racial and ethnic identity of residents. This made it virtually impossible for people in certain communities, mostly African Americans and immigrants, to buy homes and build wealth.
This has also meant that large-scale projects like highways, freeways, industrial facilities and public housing were most often built in redlined areas, which had the lowest land values and minimal political power.
That’s why the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway cuts through the Southside of Williamsburg, which was then one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. In recent years, this area has rapidly gentrified, bringing new residents and developments but little public green space.
McPhearson says city governments need to act now to protect their residents by reinvesting in nature: “Some of that is going to be very expensive, but it's more expensive not to do it. We're seeing that with every storm that hits the city.”
In 2019, New York City began requiring green roofs or solar panels on newly constructed buildings, following in the footsteps of other major U.S. cities like San Francisco, Denver and Portland. But installation is expensive, and mapping studies show that green roofs tend to populate New York’s wealthier blocks.
Reinvesting in green space can look like a lot of things, depending on the needs of the community. El Puente and other organizations, for instance, are advocating to close one of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway's on-ramps located between two parks. And instead of concrete in open spaces, community members want greenery. That’s why New Yorkers have converted hundreds of vacant lots into community gardens throughout the city.
Green spaces not only combat climate change, but they also make neighborhoods more livable. They create pathways for local wildlife to pass through. They’re associated with better mental health. And a recent study in Philadelphia suggests that adding green spaces to neighborhoods makes residents feel safer overall.
Diaz-Tolentino said he sees El Puente’s efforts as blueprint for other neighborhoods because environmental justice issues can present anywhere in the world.
“It starts in communities like Los Sures, Harlem, the South Bronx, communities like Sunset Park in Brooklyn, where these inequalities have affected low-income people, people of color historically," he said. "It's just time to change it.”