Gotham Gazette

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A Roadmap to a Carbon-Neutral District, and a Model for the City


lincoln restler garden compost

Lincoln Restler, the author


With unprecedented environmental catastrophes and more hundred-year storms each passing year, the climate crisis is fully upon us. Our leaders of government and industry have failed to rise to the greatest challenge facing our planet. That abdication of responsibility is inexcusable, but we don’t have time to wait for them to get it together. We need to lead the way. As a City Council candidate, I have a plan to make my district - Brooklyn’s own 33rd - the first carbon neutral district in New York and the United States.

Part of what feels insurmountable about the climate crisis is its magnitude. That’s why I want to start small -- at the neighborhood level. Transformative change starts on the ground, and across this district, neighborhood associations, community organizations, and advocacy groups are already mobilizing to make our communities greener.

In Brooklyn Heights, neighbors have come together to demand a green reimagining of the BQE highway. Local advocates have organized brilliantly in opposition to the new fracked gas North Brooklyn Pipeline. And it was the tireless fight of local environmental advocates that secured Superfund designations to clean up the two horribly polluted waterways at the north and south ends of our district - Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal. It is clear: if you give the people of these neighborhoods a concrete plan to turn their district green, they will make it a reality.

Our 10-point plan for the district offers a roadmap to carbon neutrality and an end to dependence on fossil fuels. It’s a localized approach that targets the largest sources of greenhouse gases: buildings, transportation, and waste. With 53 concrete policy solutions and a community-centered organizing model, we hope it will provide an actionable template for other neighborhoods and cities to build on. 

Make no mistake, we need Green New Deal legislation at every level of government and a comprehensive New York City waterfront resiliency plan. But there are ample resources that can be tapped now to enact the policy solutions outlined — we just need to make it easier for New Yorkers to access them in order to change their neighborhoods, their homes, and their lives to meet this moment. 

Since buildings represent 70% of our city’s emissions, the core of this plan is reducing that footprint. We can do this by changing how we power and heat our homes and offices. This means retrofitting our buildings, including replacing fossil-fuel-burning boilers and stoves with efficient electric systems. The City has the means to do this by legalizing energy storage systems to capture solar power by providing low-cost financing to encourage mass utilization of electric heat pumps; and by expanding tax incentives and easing regulatory approvals to install solar on every viable roof from Boerum Hill to Greenpoint. These approaches aren't only critical for the fight against the climate crisis — they’re also vital to improving residents’ health and lowering electricity costs.

At every turn, we have to create solutions that center those who are most impacted -- Black and brown low-income New Yorkers. NYCHA tenants should be the first to benefit from updated, safer, and healthier energy systems and appliances. The 33rd City Council District includes 12,000 individuals living in unacceptable conditions in seven NYCHA developments. We need to secure the funding from every level of government to comprehensively renovate these developments. With the Biden administration, a U.S. Senate Majority Leader from Park Slope, Chuck Schumer, and the leading champion for NYCHA in Congress, Representative Nydia Velazquez, representing our neighborhoods, we finally have partners in Washington to help transform our NYCHA developments into environmentally-efficient, healthy, and safe homes, while ensuring that renovations don’t lead to massive interruptions in the day-to-day lives of residents. 

Transportation represents 30% of our city’s emissions - the largest source after buildings. To reduce dependence on gas-guzzling cars and discourage personal car ownership, we need to make it easier and safer for pedestrians, bikers, and subway and bus riders. We need to create safer cycling routes and push the MTA to improve bus and subway service, while improving accessibility and affordability for low-income New Yorkers. And because cars won’t magically disappear, we need to increase the availability of electric vehicle charging stations. 

And as with our district's housing stock, we need to utilize our district’s assets in the fight for carbon neutrality. That means the City mandating curbside composting pick-up and converting an empty Department of Sanitation site on Newtown Creek into a community composting facility. And we should transform the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a model industrial park, into a hub for the clean-energy industry and green jobs.

The lack of urgency from our elected leaders got us here, but new energy from those entering into office can help get us out. If I’m lucky enough to be elected, our district office will serve as a green organizing and education hub, bringing the community together and launching outreach efforts in collaboration with the impressive climate activists who have laid the groundwork to tackle these issues. As an almost entirely waterfront district, we will have a staff member dedicated to climate justice and a team of climate fellows to help spread the word and reach residents across every corner of the district. Through dynamic outreach and organizing, every resident of the district will have access to clear and compelling information that will enable them to reduce their carbon footprint. 

This plan needs to be community led, so we will be out listening at every community event from the McCarren Park Greenmarket to NYCHA Wyckoff Gardens Resident Association meetings. We will encourage neighbors with more resources to invest more and work together to ensure low-income residents and residents of color — who are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis — experience the positive impacts of these policies. We want to help tenants organize their buildings to demand retrofits, support neighbors in launching community solar campaigns, and connect NYCHA residents to green jobs.

The climate crisis is the existential crisis of our time. There is no greater or more urgent issue facing us and future generations, but big changes are often born of small beginnings. Turning one City Council district carbon neutral in the biggest city in America is a humble first step, but it is a first step that we can achieve together. Seeing the results of change, even on a small scale, inspires progress. There’s no reason to wait for someone else — we as neighbors can start together.

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Lincoln Restler is running for City Council in Brooklyn’s District 33rd district. His full policy proposal for a carbon-neutral district is available here. On Twitter @LincolnRestler.

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