With the incoming class of new Councilmembers set after the 2021 general election, the city is turning its attention to the City Council Speaker’s race. The speaker is an incredibly important role, able to control what legislation is voted on in the council, appoint committee chairs, and have a major say in the NYC budget among many other powers.
Therefore, the future of the environment and our fight against climate change in NYC will lie heavily on the shoulders of the next speaker. NYLCV strongly believes that the next speaker will need to be an environmental champion that takes bold and progressive actions to help us reach many of the goals and commitments we have made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protect open spaces and natural resources, value public health, and expand transportation alternatives to automobiles.
On November 17, 2021, NYLCV partnered with New Yorkers for Parks, the Regional Plan Association, and the Center for an Urban Future to host a virtual forum with the City Council Speaker candidates. Titled “A New Vision for Open Space”, this forum focused on future plans for open spaces in New York City. Candidates were asked how to support a more equitable public realm within parks, sidewalks, and community spaces while prioritizing climate resilience and economic recovery. Among the candidates present were Justin Brannan, Gale Brewer, Francisco Moya, Keith Powers, and Carlina Rivera. Candidates Adrienne Adams and Diana Ayala were not at the forum but submitted answers to all the questions.
Moderator Katie Honan asked a variety of questions that focused on the City Council’s agenda to an open space plan that would reclaim shared spaces for New Yorkers. As the need for public spaces increased during the pandemic, the goal is to build upon current policies to further advocate for improving urban spaces. Candidate Justin Brannan highlighted the fact that to his shock, some New Yorkers visited their local parks for the first time during the pandemic. Carlina Rivera provided a different perspective, stating that “our parks are only enjoyed by a privileged few and too many communities get left behind on money and priorities”. All candidates could agree that the capital process on parks and other green infrastructure is “completely broken”, as stated by Keith Powers. The procurement process for funding projects within NYC Parks is seriously flawed. Gale Brewer mentions that many firms will not even take up projects with the city of New York because it takes so long. This process takes so much time, that many council members have to leave office long before their projects are started, as Francisco Moya acknowledged. Justin Brannan mentions that when talking to parents about upcoming projects, he isn’t really joking when he says that he hopes the project is done by the time their child goes to college. Moya insists that “we have to view parks as essential services.” Carlina Rivera states that she would focus on in-house capacity to ensure that projects are being completed. Powers says that “we can actually put money in the budget right now to make sure that we’re doing the maintenance on the parks.” While some candidates did provide solutions, each candidate emphasizes that reform within the capital process is critical. The general consensus is that the process must be redone to make it more efficient. “Procurement is inequity hidden in plain sight,” Brannan says.
All the candidates agreed that a viable solution to the capital process reform is to appoint a director of the public realm to encourage comprehensive planning. Rivera says that this position would be vital to an equitable approach to open spaces. Brannan mentions that public spaces can be under the jurisdiction of multiple agencies- to have one person that can tie together all these different aspects of open green spaces is necessary and logical. This is the most viable plan for spearheading a more holistic approach to improving public spaces.
There were different ideas on how to maintain open streets and outdoor dining in a safe, effective manner. Powers says that continuing to support these infrastructures is essential. While all the candidates did agree that these structures are necessary and useful, Moya mentions that there can’t just be a blanket approach- each restaurant and area needs to have its own ways to tackle certain issues that may arise. Brannan states that he hopes that restaurants will continue to be supported and prioritized in these efforts. Rivera, who helped to pass the bill for open streets, exclaims her enthusiasm over the program and its success. She urges the Department of Transportation to uphold its end of the bargain to provide equity in the program. She also mentions that there is a further need for improvement and that certain areas are still being neglected. It was agreed that open streets are necessary, but there is still a lot of work to do to make this possible. Brannan, Powers, and Rivera all support Transportation Alternative’s 25 by 25 plan. Brannan supports a holistic approach, prioritizing pedestrians and open streets, but also considering those that do need to drive. Moya does emphasize the need to find a balance between cars and pedestrians, but again, believes that each area needs its own approach on how to handle this. Brewer was not present for this portion of the forum.
Climate resilience was a big topic of this event, as each candidate highlighted their perspective on significant issues within New York. There was general support for a climate resiliency plan for the whole city. Keith Powers states that “the last couple storms have proven our agencies aren’t ready for climate emergencies.” Rivera agrees, noting that “we don’t have agencies ready or capable”. Brewer and Brannan mentioned maintaining a better sewage overflow system, but Brewer says that this is almost impossible without proper funding.
NYLCV thanks the Regional Plan Association, the Center for an Urban Future, New Yorkers for Parks, the candidates, and Katie Horan for making this event possible. The forum was necessary to create an open conversation on new urban spaces. All candidates agreed that the parks department should receive 1% of the city’s budget and that the capital process must be reformed. While this is promising, NYLCV pushes for a candidate who will prioritize public spaces and environmental justice. We want there to be an emphasis on climate resiliency, transportation alternatives, and overall environmental progress in New York. NYLCV urges that at the election in January, City Council members keep this in mind so that a greener New York City is possible.
By Mahirah Billah