In this season of bomb cyclones and polar vortexes, it is hard to remember how hot this town gets in the summer. Thanks to a phenomenon known as the urban heat island (UHI) effect, cities can be more than 20 degrees warmer than surrounding suburbs and countryside. UHI is deadly: extreme heat causes more deaths in the U.S. than all other weather-related events combined. And the risks are greatest in communities—like Gowanus, Brooklyn—that are impacted by poverty, pollution, and a lack of cooling green space.
Here’s the good news: The proposed rezoning of Gowanus presents an unprecedented opportunity to tackle the UHI effect, saving lives while creating a more equitable and sustainable community.
Gowanus faces daunting public health challenges. The neighborhood is home to more than 15,000 residents, some 4,000 of whom live in public housing where tenants tend to be lower-income and older than the population at large. The Gowanus Canal, designated as a Superfund site in 2010, has been a dumping ground for waste and contamination for decades and two major traffic arteries, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE) and the Fourth Avenue corridor, on Gowanus’ southern and eastern borders, contribute to poor air quality. Air and water pollution are linked to high rates of asthma and other chronic health problems.
UHI makes all of these problems worse. Because extreme heat can exacerbate chronic medical conditions, the impacts of UHI can be greater for at-risk populations that suffer from higher incidences of heat-related mortality. UHI also leads to higher energy consumption and costs, as well as increases in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Rezoning could turn up the heat in Gowanus. If higher density buildings are permitted without comprehensive sustainability plans to promote localized cooling, the UHI effect could worsen, further burdening vulnerable residents—many of whom are not able to afford air conditioning to keep cool, and who live in older buildings that have not been renovated to meet current housing code.
But rezoning also presents an opportunity for positive change. With Gowanus expected to see significant land use changes and new public investment as part of Mayor de Blasio’s plans to address the city’s growing population and long-standing affordable housing crisis, there’s no better time than now to focus on environmental justice needs and the health and overall quality of life for residents. The rezoning of Gowanus should include New York City’s first ‘Eco-District’ that directly addresses UHI and advances a number of local and city-wide sustainability and resilience efforts. As the country’s fairest and most progressive big city, New York City should be creating innovative land-use models that advance equity and sustainability to both meet local community needs and advance New York City’s bold affordable housing and climate goals.
To bring attention to the disproportionate negative health and environmental impacts to at risk populations, the Fifth Avenue Committee partnered with the Urban Land Institute New York’s Technical Assistance Panel. Ten real-estate, transit, and environmental experts—advised by public-housing residents and other local leaders—analyzed the existing conditions in Gowanus and proposed a series of measures to mitigate the impacts of UHI. These recommendations are included in a new ULI NY report, A Vision for a Greener, Healthier, Cooler Gowanus: Strategies to Mitigate Urban Heat Island Effect.
Steps include increasing vegetation by 20 percent to reduce air temperatures, support storm water retention, and help mitigate flooding. Vines could be added to the external walls of existing buildings to reduce outside temperatures and cool the buildings themselves. New buildings should use green infrastructure to reduce, rather than contribute to the UHI effect, by installing green roofs and double- or triple-pane windows; creating breezeways to provide ventilation and encourage airflow; and redirecting and reusing solar heat, which, if allowed to be wasted, can contribute to higher temperatures.
Transit systems should be more efficient to encourage people to take public transit rather than drive. This will help reduce congestion and decrease car emissions, which contribute to the UHI effect. There should be more frequent bus service, sufficient bike parking, and stop-sign and traffic-light improvements. And because Gowanus offers few places for pedestrians to escape the heat, the community’s network of hidden creeks should be daylighted, and areas of respite should be created to provide cool and inviting public spaces. In addition, green workforce development opportunities for local residents are essential to any rezoning effort.
While implementing green infrastructure is smart and sensible, it’s of even greater consequence to ensure that the anticipated multi-billion dollar public and private investments in Gowanus contribute to environmental equity goals before any zoning changes are approved.
No community should bear a disproportionate burden of impacts due to environmental, planning, and policy decisions. Today, we have an opportunity to put in place innovative and forward-thinking land use and sustainability standards while also advancing tangible and meaningful social, economic, and climate justice remedies. Let’s not waste this unique moment to make Gowanus a model community that is greener, healthier, cooler, and more equitable.
Michelle de la Uz is the executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee and oversees its mission of advancing economic and social justice. She is also a member of the New York City Planning Commission.
This commentary was produced in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.