OneNYC 2050 : Volume 5 of 9 : Healthy Lives

Design a physical environment that creates the conditions for health and well-being

Environmental conditions are a foundational component of health equity. Environmental hazards lead to poor health, loss of wages, and diminished quality of life, especially for residents in high-poverty communities and communities of color that have historically been burdened with a disproportionate share of pollution and other environmental risks.

Many communities have not enjoyed equal access to the region’s environmental resources, including its natural areas, to the detriment of health and quality of life. We will work toward creating a safe and healthy environment for all people through improved data, policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing climate resiliency, and targeted interventions that ease access to natural areas in historically resource-deprived neighborhoods.

Complementing other significant environmental initiatives featured in the “A Livable Climate” and “Efficient Mobility” volumes of OneNYC 2050, New York City will improve air quality and the cleanliness of waterways; mitigate and adapt to the urban heat island effect and the warming climate; remediate brownfields; and protect the city’s natural areas while simultaneously making them more accessible to all New Yorkers. A common thread in these strategies is the role of community stakeholders in identifying problems and helping to craft effective strategies.

Reduce Childhood Exposure To Lead

Elevated lead levels in the blood can lead to irreversible developmental effects in children, including adversely affecting physical and mental growth and causing learning and behavioral problems. Young children are at particular risk because exposure to lead primarily comes from ingestion of lead-based paint. New York City prohibited the use of lead paint in homes in 1960, becoming one of the first jurisdictions to do so, 18 years before it was banned by the federal government. Yet many older buildings still have lead paint on walls, windows, doors, and other surfaces.

Since the passage in 2004 of New York City’s stringent Local Law 1, childhood lead exposure has plummeted 90 percent. This year, the City launched LeadFreeNYC to reduce that exposure to zero, and released a “Roadmap to Eliminating Childhood Lead Exposure,” which includes a two-fold approach to preventing exposure to lead hazards and responding quickly and comprehensively whenever a child has an elevated level of lead in the blood. In addition, the City will increase resources and support for children, parents, and health care providers to make sure every child younger than three is tested for lead exposure — and that any child who has an elevated blood lead level gets the services they need. We will also target bad actor landlords, lower the lead paint and dust standards in order to remove hazards, and increase oversight of unsafe consumer goods and construction work, with a focus on high-risk neighborhoods.

Image of report cover for Lead Free NYC: A Roadmap to Eliminating Childhood Lead Exposure

Expand Heat-Health Programming And Education

Heat threatens New York City’s health and livability, particularly as our climate continues to change. New York City has made progress toward lowering temperatures in our neighborhoods. In addition to expanding shade and tree-canopy cover, the City and partners have increased the albedo — the reflection of the sun’s light and heat — to more than 9 million square feet of building roofs. Still, each year, hundreds of New Yorkers experience heat-related injuries and deaths, with most exposed at homes without air conditioning. Heat vulnerability is highest in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color where discriminatory policies have resulted in inequitable distribution of social and economic resources and opportunities. New York City will promote awareness of the health impacts of hot weather and tips to stay safe for those in need. In addition, the City will continue to train home health aides and community health workers on extreme-heat safety and how to help keep their clients safe, while DOHMH’s Be A Buddy Program enables communities to help our neighbors who are most at risk (see A Livable Climate).

Climate and Health

Greenhouse gas emissions can feel abstract, but their impacts on our warming climate are resulting in very real health consequences, such as heat-related illnesses and death. Addressing climate change can have additional health impacts. The burning of fossil fuels, produces air pollutants such as NOx, SOx, and PM2.5 that directly impact human health. Thus, programs to reduce greenhouse gases by decreasing fossil fuel use — for instance, building retrofits will improve health both by combating climate change and through improving local air quality (see more in A Livable Climate).

Image of children playing soccer.

Advance Equitable Improvements In Air Quality

New York City’s air is the cleanest it has been in more than 50 years, and continues to improve, due to the City’s effort to curtail and phase out pollutants such as residential heating oil. The City also launched the NYC Retrofit Accelerator and Community Retrofit NYC to help building owners and operators make energy-efficiency improvements. The City now owns one of the largest alternative fuel municipal fleets in the world. Still, air pollution remains a leading environmental threat, especially to the health of low-income New Yorkers. Particulate matter (PM2.5) is estimated to contribute to more than 2,000 deaths and just under 6,000 emergency room visits and hospitalizations for cardiovascular and respiratory disease each year. All neighborhoods are affected by these health impacts, but they disproportionately occur in high-poverty communities. Air quality in New York City is determined by local policies and regulations, as well as State and federal regulations that govern the fuel efficiency of the vehicles on our roads, the fuel choices of power plants upwind of the city, and the regulation of the transportation system, among other sectors. The City will continue to improve air quality through more stringent regulations increased electrification, and the greening of the City’s building stock.

  • Enforce the updated Air Pollution Control Code using a health-equity lens
    Over the next four years, New York City will expand initiatives to curtail vehicular emissions, working with the New York City Council to introduce legislation that will further restrict engine idling, particularly for vehicles with secondary engines. We will also launch an aggressive anti-idling outreach campaign targeted at stakeholders responsible for heavy-duty vehicles that produce the greatest emissions — such as school bus operators, and truck delivery fleet owners — and focus on neighborhoods with the greatest air quality impacts. In addition, we will increase control of previously unregulated sources of particulate matter emissions by exploring new options for infrastructure to control emissions from commercial charbroilers, expanding oversight to establishments that were originally exempt, and further lowering the threshold of charbroil meat pounds per week in order to continue realizing air quality improvements. The City will also continue the Clean Heat Initiative to support the transition to cleaner heating fuels, with a focus on environmental justice communities.
  • Identify additional targeted air quality improvements through data collection and analysis, and community engagement
    Since December 2008, DOHMH has monitored criteria for air pollutants at street-level sites around the city through the New York City Community Air Survey, which provides essential data on air quality. In 2017, the City funded the construction of 10 real-time streaming PM2.5 sampling units to be deployed and maintained at critical locations throughout New York City to augment our understanding of how levels of pollution vary throughout the day across the City’s diverse neighborhoods. The City will continue to invest in its data infrastructure by deploying cutting-edge technologies.
  • Release and promote a Citizen Science Tool kit
    In 2017, DOHMH collaborated with CUNY Queens College to pilot air-quality monitoring programs with two place-based organizations, and are creating a tool kit for groups to collect data to advocate for resources. The City will release and promote the tool kit among community groups seeking an understanding of air pollution patterns in their neighborhoods, and provide an opportunity for participants to exchange ideas and data, and improve the state of air-quality-related citizen science.
  • Advance climate leadership initiatives with health equity and air quality co-benefits as prioritization criteria
    DOHMH will continue to provide health impact data and air quality surveillance to support an equity and health-focused implementation of transportation, energy efficiency, and waste programs, including congestion pricing, building energy mandates, and commercial waste zones.
  • Advocate for State and federal regulatory reforms to address pollution sources beyond local control
    Forty-five percent of fine particulate matter in the city comes from emission sources outside the city. Faced with threatened and actual rollbacks of key environmental protections, New York City will continue to forcefully advocate for State and federal air quality regulations, and document local impacts from deregulation. Similarly, in light of federal assaults on science, the City and other localities must lead the way in air quality and sustainability initiatives, as well as expanded research, collaboration, data sharing, and development of professionals in applied science. The City will continue to advocate for federal regulatory reforms, and has joined seven other states in a lawsuit to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to clamp down on pollution coming from Rustbelt states.

Air Quality and Health

New York City has substantially decreased dangerous PM2.5 particles over the past decade. As air quality improves, health incidents attributable to the noxious emissions such as heart or lung disease are expected to decline.

Source: DOHMH


Map displaying increase of PM2.5 particles over the past decade.


Improve The Quality Of Our Waterways

New York Harbor is cleaner and healthier today than it has been in more than a century, thanks to the nation’s most ambitious green infrastructure program, significant investments into the City’s wastewater system, and a steady decrease in water consumption over the past three decades. Today, New Yorkers enjoy more recreational opportunities and the return of wetlands and wondrous aquatic life such as humpback whales, harbor seals, dolphins, and birds, including herons and egrets. And as habitats are restored and oyster populations return, the harbor is better able to filter water and protect coastlines from storms. The City will continue to reduce and prevent pollution to protect the harbor and connected waterways through capital investments, regulation, and partnerships with community groups and industry.

  • Expand the green infrastructure program
    Green infrastructure softens the city’s built environment, naturally absorbing stormwater and diverting it from the sewers and wastewater treatment plants. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has constructed more than 4,000 green infrastructure assets, including rain gardens and permeable pavers. To further this effort, the City will partner with other City agencies to expand the right-of-way program into medians and other new areas, launch an incentive program for private property, and launch an “Adopt-a-Rain Garden” program. In addition, DEP will expand the Mid-Island Bluebelt (a wetland that receives and filters stormwater) in Staten Island, and explore opportunities to install Bluebelts in other advantageous locations citywide.
  • Expand sewer infrastructure in underserved areas
    Some parts of the City lack a completely built-out sewer system and often experience street flooding. In 2015, the City launched an unprecedented investment of $1.5 billion over 10 years to expand the sewer network in Southeast Queens, which will help mitigate flooding. The City will continue to use this investment to expand access to sewer infrastructure in currently underserved areas.
  • Implement water recirculation projects
    DEP is becoming a leader in resource recovery and an essential partner in the circular economy. Every year, City-owned properties use drinking water for activities wherein recycled water could be used, such as irrigation and refilling lakes inside public parks. To conserve potable water, the City will implement water recirculation projects in Central Park. Projects such as this will encourage large water consumers to substitute at least some of their potable water with recycled water, which will reduce both demand for drinking water resources and water discharged into New York Harbor.
  • Reduce floatables in City waters
    In early 2019, DEP launched “Fatberg Free NYC” a public awareness campaign to discourage the improper disposal of grease, “flushable” toilet wipes, and other items such as floss and paper towels, called “Trash it. Don’t Flush it.”  Working with local communities, DEP will continue its work to reduce “floatables” through targeted beach and park clean ups, anti-litter advertisements, and a plastic-bag exchange program.
Illustration displaying how fatbergs form when grease, wipes, and other stuff get flushed, clogging pipes and draining wallets

Fatbergs form when grease, wipes, and other stuff get flushed, clogging pipes and draining wallets. Source: City of New York

NYC Nature Goals 2050

The Natural Areas Conservancy, with the NYC Parks Department, convened a coalition of more than 75 organizations from different sectors and disciplines including academia, nonprofits, government, local stewards and environmental justice groups, and the private sector to advance the cause of urban nature in New York City. Over five years, the coalition met frequently to develop shared goals and targets, based on the common belief that urban nature is vital to both our collective wellness and happiness, and the sustainability of our city. The coalition also wrote a Declaration of Rights to New York City Nature: a bill of rights for good local nature. The connective tissue among all the participating organization is five foundational conservation and restoration goals. They include:

  • Support for biodiversity and habitat
  • Provision and enhancement of clean air and water
  • Resilience and protection from coastal storms
  • Connectivity for plants and animals
  • Inspiration for city residents

To achieve the five principal goals by 2050, the Nature Goals coalition also identified 25 actionable targets to guide conservation efforts in New York City. The overall aim of the coalition is to ensure all New Yorkers experience the benefits of nature in their home city and local community by 2050. To learn more about Nature Goals 2050, please visit:

Protect, Restore, And Conserve The City’s Natural Environment

New York City is located in an estuary, where ocean and river meet to create a highly productive ecosystem. While it is not always apparent, the metropolitan area is home to abundant plant and animal life. Yet New York’s ecological history is not a simple tale of decline, as evidenced by improving air and water quality and the recent return of wildlife. We must carefully conserve and manage our natural environment to strengthen our region’s ecology and cultural heritage. Long-term conservation of our wild natural areas is also an essential part of New York City becoming resilient in the face of climate change. At the same time, we can make these beautiful spaces more accessible for New Yorkers to enjoy.

  • Manage and revitalize New York City’s urban forest
    Our urban forest, composed of trees in streets, parks, and forested areas, offers many benefits for New York City. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and remove air pollutants, lower summertime temperatures, provide shade, and help retain stormwater. To protect, maintain, and enhance the city’s tree canopy, the City will continue to implement its Forest Management Framework, a long-term plan to fully support management and restoration efforts in forested natural areas citywide. We will plant street trees in neighborhoods with high vulnerability to heat, and, on streets and in parks, replace trees that die or are downed by extreme weather and pests (see more in Thriving Neighborhoods).
  • Increase access to the City’s natural areas
    The City will make a concerted effort to make its natural areas more accessible to New Yorkers, beginning with an analysis of impediments and opportunities to experience natural areas that examines factors such as access points, public transit routes, proximity to communities, and trail signage.The City will also expand environmental education by highlighting the city’s diverse ecosystems in school curriculums, and continue to offer Urban Park Ranger programming to connect youth to natural areas through nature-based activities and hikes. We will continue to standardize and improve walking trails in parks with sensitive ecosystems to improve accessibility and reduce environmental impacts. The City will also develop illustrative wayfinding guidance to make natural areas easily navigable and welcoming to diverse audiences.The City is advancing initiatives to manage, protect, and restore coastal and freshwater wetlands and streams, which provide such benefits as neighborhood cooling, habitat for fish and wildlife, and opportunities for recreation and access to nature. Tibbetts Brook, in particular, represents a great opportunity for the City to restore a vital natural area to greater ecological health while simultaneously providing recreational benefits through a greenway. This conservation and education work is complemented by WildlifeNYC, the City’s initiative to raise public awareness about how to safely enjoy — and coexist with — the hundreds of different species that call New York City home.