April 15, 2012
Growing up in a poll uted steel town in the 1970s had a big impact on the director of CUNY Law’s new Center for Urban Environmental Reform (CUER).
“I’ve seen firsthand what happens to people who worked [in the steel mills] and who lived near them,” recalled Professor Rebecca Bratspies. “I’ve seen how that shapes the lives of people who don’t have the information and the power to make choices.”
Influenced by what was going on in her hometown of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and the expanding environmental movement in the ’70s, Bratspies formed strong ideas about the urban environment and how to keep it safe for those who live in it.
That’s where CUER (pronounced “cure”) comes in.
“What I wanted to do was to create a center for thinking in a holistic way about what it means to try to regulate the urban environment, what interests we are trying to promote, and who needs to be involved in the process,” she said.
Conceived by Bratspies and approved by the faculty and the University’s board of trustees just last summer, the center aims to keep the city’s environmental protection and environmental justice in the public eye.
“It’s both a center to develop thinking about regulating the urban environment, and a portal for activists—a place where people can go for information and for suggestions about how to get involved,” Bratspies said.
The center’s website, which is in development, will be a conduit for online advocacy and education. For instance, it will collect information about decisions being made in the city and the state and let people know what the deadlines are for various actions and how they can participate in the decisionmaking process. The website will also post research and give advocates policy tools.
Bratspies has other innovative ideas, including publishing a kind of environmental comic book with a multimedia component that will make the regulatory process more transparent; it will also serve as a how-to guide so people can learn how to participate.
“We are the City University of New York. We do a wonderful job dealing with many important urban issues at the Law School, but we haven’t focused in the past on the urban environment,” said Bratspies, who hopes that CUER will fill that need.
Like CUNY Law’s other justice initiatives, the center seeks to empower historically underserved communities, including immigrants, people of color, and the urban poor. CUER hopes to make people aware that environmental justice is a critical aspect of social justice and that communities are entitled to participate fully and meaningfully in decisions that affect them—what Bratspies calls environmental democracy.
Those decisions include the allocation of “environmental goods,” like access to green space, and “environmental bads,” like placement of pollution-creating facilities. Consider how neighborhoods like the South Bronx have been on the short end of the environmental stick regarding pollution and air quality.
“We ought not to have a society where the environmental hazards that people are exposed to are divided up along lines of race and class and economic prosperity,” she said. “We need to educate and advocate.”
Part of that process will come through public events, like last fall’s panel on hydrofracking, the controversial process through which natural gas is extracted from shale. In the center’s first event, panelists—including environmental lawyer Lem Srolovic from the New York State Attorney General’s Office and Eric Weltman of Food & Water Watch—examined the many issues related to fracking and the potential water and air pollution that come with it. The dialog comes at a critical time, since the Department of Environmental Protection is drafting its environmental impact assessment, which will govern the process going forward. A video of the event is posted on YouTube in three parts.
“The New York City water supply could be in jeopardy if hydrofracking doesn’t occur in an environmentally responsible manner,” said Bratspies. “I thought it was important that CUNY have an event to bring these issues to students and the public. This is not something that’s happening upstate; this is something that’s happening that will affect all of us.”
As CUER rounds out its first year, Bratspies hopes to continue the dialog with experts and to reach out to different communities so they can all work in concert. That means bringing together city policymakers, scholars, and community activists to get a sense of what makes regulating the urban environment so unusual, why it can be so challenging for environmental statutes to address the city’s problems, and what can be done.
Looking ahead in the short term, the center could expand its staff. It’s currently run by just Bratspies and librarian Sarah Lamdan, aided by two student researchers. Bratspies will look to hire work-study students next year.
In the long term, Bratspies hopes to be able to raise funds to offer partial or full scholarships to students interested in urban environmental law.
“My hope is that the center will help people see just how critical environmental issues are to our mission of law in the service of human needs and our mission of diversifying the legal profession,” she said.
Those aspirations aside, for Bratspies, there’s a lot more riding on CUER.
“I have a 5-year-old. I look at her, and I think, what is her world going to be?” she said. “She lives in New York, and there are thousands upon thousands of kids like her here in this city. I want them to have a safe, healthy place to be.”
– Paul Lin