3 Key Environmental Issues Worth Paying Attention To

If you care about sustainable communities, what topics do you pursue? A leading green organization outlines its priorities.

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NRDC's work for sustainable communities at the neighborhood scale and on regional planning is designed to address multiple environmental issues simultaneously. But, at the same time, moving toward sustainability requires work on selected individual issues in a focused way, bringing significant resources to bear on a limited number of key challenges faced by American cities. At NRDC, we approach the task by taking advantage of the opportunities and experience our staff enjoys in America's largest cities: New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, where we have offices, and Philadelphia.

In particular, for four decades, NRDC has used our strengths in policy development and advocacy to advance environmental initiatives in the greater New York City region and to create models of sustainability that can be replicated in other urban areas. We have done the same for over two decades in Los Angeles, and more recently we have begun to do the same in Chicago. These initiatives have involved a range of major regional issues - such as protecting New York City's drinking water supply and working to improve air quality around Southern California ports - that have helped bring important progress in governmental or business practices.

This work continues to involve a range of environmental issues. But, as a result of a strategic planning process for our sustainable communities initiative, we have chosen three for special emphasis. In each case, our work will seek to influence environmental quality not just in the particular places in which we are operating but, by example, also in cities all over the country.

Sustainable regional food systems

First, our communities team in New York City has begun to address large-scale legal and policy changes that can help increase the amount of local, sustainable food produced and distributed in the greater New York City region - with a special focus on creating food-related jobs in and outside the city and addressing the pernicious problem of food equity. This effort is aided by our long history of collaboration with government agencies in the City as well as our decades-long work to protect rural land in the nearby Catskill Mountains, where farming provides a critical food resource in the region.

In particular, our New York-based food work focuses on three key related efforts:

  • Modernization of Hunts Point Food Distribution Center. Virtually every local food stakeholder in the New York region agrees that a major obstacle to increasing supply of local food is the lack of a "wholesale farmers' market" where small- and medium-sized growers can sell directly to supermarkets and other food outlets. The best New York City location at which to create such a facility is the massive Hunts Point Food Market in the South Bronx, which is slated for modernization. This facility is the largest produce market in the world and supplies food to 22 million people within a 50-mile radius. Unfortunately, only 2 percent of the produce sold at the market comes from local farms, despite strong retail interest in buying locally grown food. To make matters especially complicated and sensitive, the market sits adjacent to one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the nation, where residents are exposed to serious air pollution from more than 70,000 vehicles, including diesel trucks, entering the area every day.

    NRDC will work with city and neighborhood partners to help ensure a range of environmental and community benefits from the modernization of this 50-year-old facility, including the inclusion of a wholesale farmers' market at Hunts Point; greater community access to fresh, local food flowing through the facility; new jobs for local South Bronx residents at the market; and reduced transportation and air quality impacts in the community.

Hunts Point Market (via Google Earth)

  • Catskills-New York City food initiative. At the regional scale, we will work with conservation and community partners in the Catskill Mountains to help strengthen the economic base and market for local, sustainably-grown Catskills food. While improving the sustainability of the regional food supply, we hope also to improve economic opportunities for farmers as an alternative to less sustainable development options, such as natural gas drilling or large-scale development projects, in this sensitive area.
  • New York City food purchasing. The third prong of this effort seeks to leverage the enormous purchasing power of New York City and New York state government to boost demand for local, healthy food from the Catskills, Long Island, New Jersey, and other nearby areas. The New York City school system alone serves daily meals at 1,200 locations, and various policy options that begin to address the sustainability of local government food procurement are already being considered by the City Council. NRDC believes it critical that emerging law and policy emphasize local, healthy food sources, especially because the models adopted in New York are likely to be influential as other regions consider the issue.

For a good overview of issues related to the sustainability of New York City's food supply, see this 2010 report from Columbia University.

Sustainable urban water systems

Another of the most pressing environmental challenges facing cities and suburbs in the United States is the impact of storm water runoff from developed land - highways, parking lots, rooftops, and other impermeable surfaces - as a significant source of coastal, freshwater, and Great Lakes pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 10 trillion gallons of untreated urban and suburban storm water runoff makes its way into our surface waters each year. In many communities, polluted urban and suburban runoff is the major source of water quality impairment - degrading recreation, destroying fish habitat, and altering stream ecology and hydrology.

Presented by

Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More

Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.

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