State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Harlem Week Event Discusses Environmental Justice and a More Equitable Future

Known for luminaries such as Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington and Malcolm X, Harlem has been a center of the African-American experience since the early 20th century. But like other historically disadvantaged neighborhoods, Harlem has suffered from public policies that hindered its development, marginalized its residents, and polluted its neighborhoods. The legacies of these policies are visible today in everything from high childhood asthma rates to the urban heat island effect.

On August 10, the Columbia Climate School, the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, and the City College of New York hosted “Climate Change and Environmental Justice in Harlem,” an event that brought experts, practitioners, community leaders and residents together to discuss a more equitable future for Harlem while remembering its past.

Participants from left to right: Daniel Zarrilli, Emily Maxwell, Peggy Shepard, Milton A. Tingling, Adriana Espinoza and Lloyd Williams. Full titles appear at bottom. Photo: Chris Dobens / WE ACT
Participants from left to right: Daniel Zarrilli, Emily Maxwell, Peggy Shepard, Milton A. Tingling, Adriana Espinoza and Lloyd Williams. Full titles appear at bottom. Photo: Chris Dobens / WE ACT

“Why do we call it environmental racism?” asked WE ACT for Environmental Justice co-founder and executive director Peggy Shepard. “Because communities of color like Harlem have been targeted by business, industry and even government to bear the disproportionate exposure to polluting facilities and toxic sites. It really results from a Byzantine legacy of housing segregation, land use and zoning discrimination, and a lack of environmental law enforcement.”

The panelists touched on some of the many challenges that discriminatory policies have left behind in communities like Harlem, such as a lack of tree canopy and green space, polluting industries, and disparities in heat exposure and mortality. New York State Senator Cordell Cleare pointed out that recognizing the importance and interconnectedness of environmental issues is key to charting a new course in marginalized areas.

New York State Senator Cordell Cleare
New York State Senator Cordell Cleare. Photo: Chris Dobens / WE ACT

“Not everyone thinks about clean air to breathe, pure water to refresh, and an environment safe from weather extremes as immediate needs,” said Cleare. “However, there is a single current that runs through all of these issues: they are fundamentally related to justice, equity and reversing centuries of racist, discriminatory impacts and selfish thinking.”

While much research remains to be done to better understand the ongoing impacts of environmental racism, Courtney Cogburn of the Columbia University School of Social Work emphasized that the discriminatory policies of Harlem’s past don’t need to dictate its future.

“I just want to drive home the point that racism is designed,” said Cogburn. “The decision to fill Harlem with concrete and not trees is part of why Harlem is so much hotter than Central Park West. That’s a design decision. Because it was designed and because communities don’t just happen to be disadvantaged, it can be undesigned and it can be redesigned.”

Perhaps Harlem’s past may even provide pathways to a brighter future. A century ago, the Harlem Renaissance changed the worlds of art and culture. Could Harlem one day become a leader in the transition to a green economy?

“My vision,” said Shepard, “is really to redress the legacy of pollution by targeting frontline communities to become green zones where we can incentivize and aggregate community shared solar, electrification, energy efficiencies, green businesses, good jobs, and worker cooperatives in targeted communities that have been so disinvested in for so long.”

“Climate Change and Environmental Justice in Harlem" panel. Photo: Chris Dobens / WE ACT
Photo: Chris Dobens / WE ACT

Several projects are already seeking to turn vision into real change both in Harlem and beyond. WE ACT’s Solar Uptown Now project is helping bring affordable solar power and green jobs to Harlem neighborhoods. The Nature Conservancy’s Urban Forest Agenda aims to increase the amount of tree canopy citywide to 30% by 2035 — an amount specified by the NYC Department of Health to achieve cooling thresholds and protect vulnerable neighborhoods. And both organizations are working to support the landmark “Clean Air, Clean Water, and Green Jobs Bond Act” that would provide funds for environmental conservation and green initiatives across New York State.

“We’re also working hard with many of you in this room, including WE ACT, to advance the Bond Act,” said Emily Maxwell, New York Cities program director at The Nature Conservancy. “That Bond Act will be voted on on November 8th. It’s a $4.2 billion bond act for clean air, clean water and green jobs. There are over 200 organizations statewide pushing this. If it passes, it will create 8.7 billion in investment in capital projects, and importantly, 35 to 40 percent of that — much like the Climate Act — is required to be invested in the term ‘disadvantaged’ communities.”

In closing, Peggy Shepard acknowledged the challenge ahead, but also found reasons for optimism in shared values and community.

Peggy Shepard. Photo: Chris Dobens / WE ACT
Peggy Shepard. Photo: Chris Dobens / WE ACT

“We have to make certain that the investments and the benefits reach the communities intended, given the bias and the ambivalence of so many state and local governments around this country. We know if this is done effectively, that this could be transformative and can stop the cycle of exploitation and degradation. Because we know that every community has the right to a clean environment. You don’t need to be an environmental or climate justice leader to embrace that as a value. We can create a legacy of environmental quality and climate resilience for all in Harlem and the Harlems of the world. We can do that together because place matters. Place matters.”

“Climate Change and Environmental Justice in Harlem” was part of the annual Harlem Week celebration. The participants included:

  • Cordell Cleare, New York State Senator, 30th Senate District
  • Peggy Shepard, Co-founder and Executive Director, WE ACT for Environmental Justice
  • Daniel Zarrilli, Special Advisor, Climate & Sustainability, Columbia University
  • Courtney Cogburn, Associate Professor, Columbia University School of Social Work
  • Adriana Espinoza, Deputy Commissioner, Equity & Justice, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
  • Emily Maxwell, New York Division Cities Director, The Nature Conservancy
  • The Honorable Milton A. Tingling, Chairperson, Board of Directors, West Harlem Development Corporation
  • Lloyd Williams, President, Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce
  • Arthur Chi’en, Anchor/Reporter, FOX 5 New York

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