The Concrete Jungle: Where Dreams—or Climate Nightmares—Are Made Of

In Alicia Keys and Jay-Z’s 2009 hit song, “Empire State of Mind,” they describe New York City as the concrete jungle where dreams are made of. For some New Yorkers, those dreams include saving their planet by first, saving their city. From Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvescent (also known as BedStuy) being the most climate-disadvantaged neighborhood in NYC to Manhattan’s Washington Heights residents advocating for real grass over astroturf, micro-communities are taking a stand for climate justice in The Big Apple.

“BedStuy is the #1 climate-disadvantaged part of New York City because of the lack of greenspace,” says Nicole Loher, Climate Communications Strategist, Researcher & Lecturer, and NYU Adjunct Professor, “Look at heat maps overlayed with income levels in New York City. There’s a reason why rich people live near Central Park. People have a better quality of living in those spaces from a climate perspective.” This quality of living includes improved air quality which means breathing cleaner air which then means improved mental and physical health. 

NYC climate advocates like Loher fight for more green spaces because they believe that breathing fresh air should not be a privilege. Some New Yorkers’ concrete jungle experience is where dreams are made of, while others experience more of a nightmare.

The concrete jungle might sound charming in a song lyric, but the carbon dioxide emissions in concrete-dense neighborhoods are far from charming. Cement production is responsible for more than 8% of global C02 emissions. This means that New York City experiences the urban heat island effect. Scientists and engineers are developing climate-friendly cement, a cement that aims to emit zero carbon emissions.

Uptown Washington Heights is home to Bennett Park, a neighborhood park at the highest natural point in Manhattan. This greenspace is surrounded by more than a dozen (mostly residential) buildings offering a playground, numerous benches, and a community-sourced lending library. 

Bennett Park is currently under construction to install astroturf where real grass once grew. Locals are actively protesting the astroturf installation, begging the parks department to consider real grass to preserve their community’s greenspace. Astroturf is made of microplastics which get significantly hotter than real grass. “The density of these concrete buildings absorb and radiate heat faster than a greenspace would,” Loher continues. Given what we know about how greenspaces help cool the concrete-dense areas, climate advocates suggest artificial grass that’s known to increase heat is not the best choice to further climate justice. 

Perhaps the advocacy of micro-communities like BedStuy and Washington Heights give New Yorkers a real chance to keep dreaming—and breathing— in the concrete jungle. A little less concrete and a little more jungle, if you will.