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.


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.

Smart growth - developing in more compact patterns - helps, because it reduces the spread of new pavement into previously undeveloped areas. But it is not enough, because we need waterways near our existing developed areas to become cleaner and safer. Many cities and suburbs are now undergoing more intensive development, in part to address other environmental concerns such as transportation efficiency and land conservation. If the development does not proceed in a manner that accounts for the potential of runoff, some waterways could become even more polluted.

illustration of green infrastructure (courtesy of American Institute of Architects, Indianapolis SDAT)

The good news is that these problems can be addressed with green infrastructure, which prevents rainwater from running off in the first place. Green infrastructure (also known as low-impact development) is a set of urban design techniques that replicate the way nature deals with rainwater-using vegetation and soils as natural sponges for runoff - rather than relying exclusively on the concrete pipes and holding tanks of the past.

Green infrastructure techniques such as green roofs, roadside plantings, rain gardens, and rainwater harvesting not only improve water quality; they also transform rainwater from a source of pollution into a valuable community resource.  Done well, low-impact development helps to green the urban landscape, cool and cleanse the air, reduce asthma and heat-related illnesses, cut heating and cooling energy costs, create urban oases of open space, and generate green landscaping and construction jobs. NRDC is working in Philadelphia and Chicago to make these practices the norm rather than the exception.

  • Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, we have been helping the city develop and implement a first-of-its-kind, 20-year plan for more than $1 billion of green infrastructure investments. Through a combination of incentives to private property owners, requirements for new buildings, and public investments to retrofit city streets, parks, and other public property, Philadelphia aims to deploy the most comprehensive network of stormwater green infrastructure found in any U.S. city.

    In particular, we have been providing assistance to the Philadelphia Water Department, as well as state and federal environmental agencies that oversee the city's clean water programs, on how these methods can be used to meet the city's federal Clean Water Act obligations. Under a formal plan approved in June of this year, Philadelphia has agreed to transform at least one-third of the impervious areas served by its sewer system into "greened acres" -- spaces that use green infrastructure to infiltrate, or otherwise collect, the first inch of runoff from any storm. That amounts to keeping 80 to 90 percent of annual rainfall from these areas out of the city's over-burdened sewer system.

    Still, many challenges lie ahead, especially for the city's Water Department, which bears primary responsibility for implementing this visionary program. The plan's long-term success will hinge on active participation by community organizations, businesses, private property owners, and, especially, a wide range of other city agencies. (For a great summary of what's going on in Philadelphia, and NRDC's involvement, see this post from my colleague Larry Levine.)

  • Chicago. Beyond Philadelphia, NRDC's Chicago-based Midwest Office is advocating a comprehensive redesign of Chicago's waterway system in order to address multiple community issues related to outmoded infrastructure, including urgent threats to the Great Lakes from invasive species. In particular, we are pursuing major investments - including green infrastructure on a large scale - in the city's transportation, water and sewer infrastructure in order to move toward more sustainable movement of goods, water quality improvements from green infrastructure, and increased recreational opportunities for underserved neighborhoods.

Sustainable urban and regional transportation systems

NRDC's communities team in Southern California is focused on transportation. Southern Californians are notorious for addiction to their cars, and for decades Los Angeles's substandard public transportation system has failed to cure that addiction. Although the region is notorious for its clogged highways, building and widening roads is not a sustainable solution: history and a growing body of research teach that building more highway lanes only promotes more vehicle use, resulting in still more congestion, carbon emissions, and air pollution.

traffic in LA (by: Jeff Turner, creative commons license)

But today, at last, the city of Los Angeles has a new commitment to substantial expansion of both rail and bus transit. We believe there is renewed opportunity to make the region's patterns of getting around more sustainable, while also revitalizing key neighborhoods around transit.

In collaboration with NRDC staff working on California's state planning law, SB 375 (discussed in my previous post on regional planning), our staff in Los Angeles is targeting local, site-specific projects that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase investment in public transportation, infrastructure for walking and bicycling, and smart growth planning. We are placing a special focus on advocating for equitable transportation services, and on developing models of transit-oriented revitalization of distressed neighborhoods in the city's underrepresented areas. For the latter, we are working with community groups to ensure that new development brings the benefits of neighborhood renewal without gentrification.

We are also working to apply a recent court decision under the federal Clean Air Act (NRDC served as counsel in the case) that will require the region to reduce smog-forming pollution in an amount equivalent to taking a quarter of the Los Angeles region's passenger vehicles off the road. We are identifying measures to meet this mandate, including promotion of non-auto infrastructure, public transit investments (including bus-only lanes), bicycling infrastructure, and efficient land use development. We are also working on criteria for transit-oriented development that will protect the health of residents moving into new communities built near highways.

At the same time that we are working to establish model practices for sustainable transportation at the local level, NRDC has been seeking to help reform federal transportation policy through a campaign built on a sophisticated program of concerted partnership, analysis, advocacy, and education. Unfortunately, a flagging economy and general partisan gridlock has dampened the immediate prospects for passing a reformed federal transportation bill. Looking ahead, it is likely that these circumstances will yield a future legislative and political landscape that will continue to be challenging.

It will remain essential that we and our partners work to protect our air, water, and communities in any federal transportation that does move in Congress. We will also work with partners to strengthen the base for future reform at the federal level while seizing opportunities to make progress at the state and local levels.


We know that these are not the only issues facing our communities. NRDC is just one organization with limited resources, and these are not even the only issues NRDC is addressing: We have staff active in pursuing sustainable solutions to urban waste, developing better city parks, and retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, for example.

But we choose, for now, to emphasize these three issues because we see opportunity to work with partners to establish replicable models, while taking advantage of specific expertise that we have in-house in key locations. Combined with our work to develop models for neighborhood revitalization and sustainability, and sustainable regional planning, we hope that we and other fellow travelers can work together to make a difference for the places where Americans live, work, go to school, and play.

This post also appears on NRDC's Switchboard.
Images: John Picken, Google Earth, American Institute of Architects, Indianapolis SDAT, and Jeff Turner