New York’s newly elected representative from the 14th Congressional District, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has made waves in recent weeks with a bold environmental, social, and economic agenda named the “Green New Deal” (GND). Ocasio-Cortez is advocating for the establishment of a Select Committee in Congress to develop a plan that would achieve 100% power generation from renewable sources, create a national “smart” grid, and decarbonize heavily polluting industries like manufacturing and agriculture among other goals.
Building off the work of environmental justice advocates, the GND would tie these goals to the empowerment of low income communities through the parallel development of a democratic economy. It is evident that there are threads planners could pick up to help in this process, especially in our region where as of 2017 only 4.3% of the 31 county region’s energy generation capacity comes from renewable sources. As ambitious as it may seem, the proposed GND actually draws many of its ideas from pre-existing campaigns both in and out of the Tri-State area. Here we will highlight two local initiatives that work towards the goal of 100% renewable energy generation, and point to how planners, with the momentum of a GND, can enhance their work.
UPROSE, a Sunset Park, Brooklyn-based community organization has three renewable energy projects currently in progress, all of which seek to prioritize frontline communities and local low-income renters. In addition, UPROSE is studying how the creation of offshore wind along the Sunset Park waterfront could spur sustainable energy production and community economic development, while mitigating displacement in the process. Consistent with the Green New Deal’s calls for the provision of “cooperative and public ownership,” both of these “Just Transitions” proposed by UPROSE are predicated on community ownership and access. Grassroots projects like these could tie into existing goals in New Jersey and New York State, who seek to produce 3500 and 2400 megawatts through offshore wind by 2030, respectively.
Uptown in the South Bronx, a startup called PowerMarket — part of New York University’s Urban Future Lab — has created a community solar farm with over 1,200 panels on a rooftop in Port Morris. Functioning like a community garden, the project allows NYC residents and small business owners from all five boroughs to rent solar panels, guaranteeing savings of more than $750 on their electric bill. As advocates highlight, community solar offers a pathway for lower income people to benefit from renewable energy generation.
By working with and funding local planning institutions, and enabling state, city, and community-wide initiatives, Ocasio-Cortez’s committee could catalyze unprecedented investment in environmental and economic justice measures, the livelihoods of under-resourced people, and the wellbeing of the planet itself. With this in mind, planners have an important role to play in bridging the different scales at which environmental and economic justice would be operationalized, whether that is connecting community organizations to resources or working in a regulatory capacity to ensure building energy efficiency. Planners should be excited by the opportunity to push the nation, in concert with advocates and community leaders, towards a more just environmental, economic, and social future.