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The Role of Buildings in Environmental Justice


The built environment in NYC plays a significant role in environmental justice. How our cities and towns are designed, built, and maintained can create environmental hazards and exacerbate existing health disparities. This post aims to spread knowledge of how harmful pollution is to human health, especially for minority and low-income communities. Mitigating the effects of climate change requires identifying and addressing the disproportionate impacts of environmental harms and burdens on communities of color and low-income communities. To decarbonize the built environment is to create equitable sustainability and to fight for environmental justice.


Hazy clouds weave through skyscrapers, intertwining New York City's dense grid of apartments, delis, and traffic. Although, this smog that weighs over the city is far more hazardous than any cloud. Smog, or air pollution, is heavily sourced from burning fossil fuels by buildings, averaging 55 tons of NOx emissions each day.

The health effects of air pollution are undeniably detrimental. Research from Harvard University discovered that in 2018, air pollution from burning fossil fuels was responsible for 1 in 5 deaths globally- significantly higher than suggested by previous research. The director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in NYC quotes that "air pollution is now recognized as the leading environmental cause of death globally." 

Health Effects of PM2.5

Short Term Effects  Long Term Effects 
Eye, nose, throat, & lung irritation Worsened medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease 
Coughing & Sneezing  Increased rates of chronic bronchitis 
Runny nose  Reduced lung function 
Shortness of Breath Increased mortality from lung cancer & heart disease 

New York State holds the leading number of premature deaths in the United States from fuel combustion in (both residential and commercial) buildings, with 1,940 premature deaths in 2017. Of those, 1,114 premature deaths occurred in NYC, amounting to over 57% of the total in NY. Based on this data, the negative impacts of air pollution on health are correlated, although they are not felt equally by all demographic groups. Minority and low-income communities face significant disparities in environmental degradation and pollution. In NYC, communities of color are 17 percent more exposed to PM2.5 than the population average- heavily sourced from residential gas combustion. 

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The asymmetries of exposure to air pollution in NYC synergize environmental and social justice. Efforts towards mitigating the effects of climate change address the inequalities of its consequential effects. The built environment is where most live, work, and play; however, it's adversely nurturing communities as residential and commercial buildings account for over 70 percent of NY's GHG emissions. Thus, mitigating the detrimental effects of air pollution and climate change requires decarbonizing the built environments, especially those in communities of color. 

However, all is not lost! New York is on track to meet its required targets of a carbon-neutral economy by 2050 and a zero-emission electrical sector by 2040. The state is still committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 85% from 1990 levels by 2050 while ensuring that disadvantaged areas get at least 35% and ideally 40% of the benefits of clean energy investments. The health benefits from decarbonization will not only raise life expectancy by several years in highly polluted cities today but can also increase productivity and economic output. For the frontline and low-income minority communities suffering the most from the negative consequences of poor air quality and climate change, these climate solutions may also promote racial and economic justice. 

Building managers and company owners may directly impact environmental justice by ensuring that your facility conforms with local legislation and that your building systems are up to date. It all boils down to the general well-being of building occupants and improving the environment. To find out what improvements you can make for your building, speak with one of our energy engineers.

Additionally, USL Technology, a minority-owned company, is dedicated to supporting New York's minority communities through passion projects and mentorship initiatives. To learn how you can become involved, visit our website.



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