New York City Councilmember Lincoln Restler released a new climate action roadmap for Brooklyn’s 33rd district on Tuesday, the first of its kind for an individual city district.

The plan is designed to prepare the neighborhoods he represents for their specific crises and concerns related to the climate emergency.

Its goals are to reduce local building and vehicular emissions, expand green space and infrastructure, build storm surge protection, and reach zero waste. The effort, which was drafted to serve as a non-binding guide, would also introduce new bike lanes and increase local renewable energy sources such as rooftop solar.

District 33 encompasses about 5 square miles stretching from Greenpoint to Boerum Hill — most of which sits on waterfront or low-lying areas at risk of flash floods and storm surge. Residents say they’ve been waiting 10 years – since Superstorm Sandy – for city officials to develop climate resiliency and emergency responses.

When the hurricane struck in 2012, toxic waters from the canal overflowed and flooded the basements of the Gowanus Houses, a NYCHA public housing campus with 24 buildings. Elevators shut down, and some residents were cut off from electricity and water for nearly three weeks.

Tracey Pinkard, 53, a lifelong resident of the NYCHA public housing complex, said their community of 2,500 leaseholders isn’t any more prepared now than when superstorm Sandy hit a decade ago.

“We understood how it felt to be abandoned. There was no plan in place,” said Pinkard, who is the resident’s association vice president for Gowanus Houses. “You're in a space of survival mode and move forward and do the best you can without thinking that the government needs to do something about it.”

Restler’s 14-page plan is comprehensive for this district of more than 170,000 inhabitants. Addressing climate impacts locally prioritizes key issues such as replacing sea walls with a natural shore that can aid in drainage, akin to the one currently in the district’s Brooklyn Bridge Park.

District 33 also contains pockets of heavily industrialized areas, such as the Newtown Creek wastewater treatment plant in Greenpoint, the largest in New York City. Nearly a decade ago, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection proposed adding organic waste to the sludge the plant creates — and then redirect the resulting methane emissions to heat homes. The district’s plan will push to revive this as a solution to create power from existing waste.

Many of Restler’s goals and priorities are shared by other districts such as composting, increasing park space, full electrification and increasing community solar with storage.

Flooding near the Gowanus

Flooding near the Gowanus

Flooding near the Gowanus
Courtesy of Tim Sachs

“Every level of government has failed us when it comes to the climate crisis, and I think if we all sit around hoping for some international agreement, that's going to come in and save the day, we're going to be waiting around for a long, long time,” Restler said. “We need to roll up our sleeves and take action at the local level, at the neighborhood level on our blocks.”

According to local environmental advocacy groups, more districts will likely follow with individualized plans because doing so creates a strategy for securing funds in the city budget and getting laws on the books. District-level plans offer a way for local residents to get involved in rallying for solutions to problems that have plagued them for generations. By laying out the climate change issues and solutions in each neighborhood, residents of the district can have a better idea of what topics to advocate or champion, as they see fit.

Restler’s proposal, for example, will assist the largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions in his district to achieve its collective goals of zero pollution and greening the neighborhoods. The plan aims to identify all the different major sources of pollution locally, so the district can open a dialogue with those businesses to formulate ways to effectively address the problem.

One large source of air pollutants is the Brooklyn-Queens expressway that snakes through the district. It gets badly congested with cars idling and spewing carbon monoxide and smog-inducing nitrogen oxides. These pollutants exacerbate negative outcomes for cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases that lead to premature death.

Another example is schools, which are typically among the biggest sources of pollution in neighborhoods. School bus fleets run on diesel gas, and their emissions can exacerbate asthma, the leading cause of school absences. Electrifying this transportation would also reduce the pollutants that contribute to climate change.

Many of the city’s educational buildings are also outdated and rely of natural gas for heating. Making classrooms more energy efficient and installing solar on rooftops could save money and cut emissions for the 30 school facilities located in the district. In cataloging their locations and their waste streams in finer details, the city can tailor programs, funding and laws to develop alternatives.

“It is really important to really understand and identify your district's needs specifically for climate change because each district is a little bit unique in some of their challenges,” said Lonnie Portis, environmental policy and advocacy coordinator for WE ACT, a local environmental advocacy group. “It makes it manageable because if you go too large, you lose sight of local needs.”