Months before the coronavirus pandemic took New York by hold, its toughest criminal and climate justice advocates filled the Chambers of City Hall. During a landmark January hearing, 30 stakeholders testified in support of the Renewable Rikers Act, a long-sought pathway to shutter the notoriously corrupt jail complex. If passed, the three-bill legislative package ensures that Rikers Island is never again used for carceral purposes. It also authorises feasibility studies to develop a renewable energy hub and wastewater treatment plant there.
The proposal requires urban planning to address a painful social history while charting future sustainability. In doing so, it raises powerful questions about environmental justice, institutional memory, and planning’s ethical responsibility to advance racial equity.
Tamika Graham testified on behalf of JustLeadershipUSA that day. The national non-profit fights mass incarceration by fostering community development. Graham, a lifetime New Yorker, is at the forefront of their #CLOSERikers campaign. She said that green infrastructure could be transformative if formerly incarcerated people were prioritised in the jobs created to develop it.
“I survived Rikers, but Rikers will not survive me,” she went on. “Let the healing begin.”
Satellite view of the jail complex on New York City’s Rikers Island from Google maps.
The prison-island landfill built
A 2014 report by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York shows just what a feat surviving Rikers is. It documents the extensive injuries that detainees have long experienced there, often by the hands of guards. Among them are broken jaws, noses and orbital bones; long bone fractures; and lacerations requiring stitches. Unsurprisingly, Rikers’ former medical chief Homer Venters has since become an activist. He wrote a book last year exposing the jail system’s incalculable negligences—relaying, for instance, the tragic death of Carlos Mercado. Carlos was denied medical care during intake, despite being in diabetic ketoacidosis. Working on Rikers taught Venters that, “the most serious health risk of incarceration is death.”
Beyond its deep-seeded culture of violence, Rikers Island is also an environmental disaster. Only 20% natural land, the island has historically been built out with garbage and ash, often by the forced labour of prisoners. Today, the decomposing landfill releases toxins that are deadly in high concentrations, and the injustice of methane exposure is compounded when considering who the majority of detainees are. A striking 91% are Black or Latino. 79% have not even been convicted of a crime. They are awaiting trial, innocent under the law, but cannot afford to pay bail fees. On Rikers Island, poverty means disposability—or worse, biological punishment.
U.S. Geological Survey, conversion to PNG by uploader (Herr Satz)., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In 2012, six cancer-stricken employees and the widow of a Rikers guard sued the City of New York in the Bronx Supreme Court, claiming that officials knew jail staff were being exposed to dangerous toxins but did nothing to protect them. Today, JustLeadershipUSA frames Rikers Island not as an isolated case but as a product of systemic failures. Their campaign outlines histories of neoliberal urban policy, neighbourhood disinvestment, and tough-on-crime policing to show that mass incarceration is the infrastructure of modern American racism, and Rikers Island is its poster child.
The island was settled back in 1664 by a family of Dutch slaveholders, whose name was later Anglicised from Rycken to Riker. Their most prominent descendent, Richard, eventually became New York City Recorder. Queens Council Member Costa Constantinides, whose district includes Rikers Island, now heads the Committee on Environmental Protection. In his testimony, Constantinides recalled how Richard Riker became famous: For using his power over the courts to assist kidnappers of free Black Americans and unlawfully sell them to Southern slave traders.
“Abolitionists at the time even called Riker and his cronies the Kidnapping Club,” Constantinides said. “This history is inextricably linked with the brutal jail complex that still bears his name years later.”
The possibility of restoration
Constantinides and his supporters frame Renewable Rikers as an opportunity to enact restorative justice through the built environment. But any honest effort at accountability today has a lot to reckon with. Rikers Island offers a blatantly obvious example of what happens when multiple power systems crystallise in one place. The afterlives of slavery, the social ignorance of austerity, the endurance of environmental history, and the structural racism of our justice system have long been maintained there. Mothers lost their children and children lost their parents there. All of this was avoidable, yet urban planning made it possible.
Currently 440 acres, Rikers Island was originally just 50. During the Master Building era of Robert Moses, expanding the island with landfill solved two problems: Dealing with a growing prison population and cleaning up city streets. While realising his vision of an expressway world, unfettered development elsewhere bulldozed neighbourhoods and gutted social services. Meanwhile, a mythic, opportunistic New York rose into the centre of global capital. Its most vulnerable were left to bear the environmental health burdens of industry. Their struggles were often inadequately treated, experienced silently and out of sight.
Before making promises of restorative justice, we must sit with the enormity of preventable loss. We must look inward, particularly at the histories that our profession is implicated in. And we must uncover how social, economic and ecological systems connect the sites of our work to related problems in other places. There is no justice for any unjust death. How do we, as planners, begin to account for this?
It has to start with a code of ethics. Craig Wilkins recently asked why architecture does not have its own Hippocratic oath, and I absolutely extend his provocation to urban planning. After all, it was no coincidence when New York’s poorest neighbourhoods—the same ones that have been most devastated by Rikers—were hit hardest by Covid-19. And it was certainly no surprise when Rikers Island became the epicentre of the epicentre. Cities can no longer be designed around financial return and human ego. These logics are determining life outcomes. Not every project is Renewable Rikers, but every site is embedded in power structures that it can either uphold or dismantle. Let’s be critical and courageous enough to spearhead the latter.
Against exceptionality, toward environmental justice
Paying careful attention to history expands our understanding of which communities have been directly impacted by Rikers Island—and therefore, what voices should be at the table when it comes to the eventual development of green infrastructure. Initial studies by the CUNY Center for Urban Environmental Reform project that, if renewables were sited on just one quarter of Rikers Island, they would generate enough clean energy to render obsolete all of the city’s aging coal-fired plants. Imperatively, these are generally housed in the same neighbourhoods that most Rikers detainees come from. They’re also responsible for the high rates of asthma, cancer and heart disease that are prevalent throughout Queens and the Bronx.
Claudia Coger heads the Astoria Houses Residents Association. Her public housing development sits between two power plants and under a helicopter pass that cues a crosswind.
“We are inundated by this aura,” she said. “We eat, sleep, breathe pollution daily. Our children are absent from school at least 20 days in the year because of asthma attacks. And the [price of] medication for asthma is out of reach for most people living in public housing. This polluted air can at least be subsidised with the solar energy plant that is recommended for Rikers Island.”
Harvey Murphey, another JustLeadershipUSA organiser and Rikers Island survivor, similarly stressed the impact that green infrastructure could have in his neighbourhood.
“I live in the Bronx and my community smells right now as I speak,” Murphy said. “Hunts Point smells like a body is out there for some reason. So this right here is amazing. I’m so anxious I want to leave and go … educate people about this.”
If Renewable Rikers could truly shut down New York City’s peaker plants, over 200 acres of land would be freed up in some of its most-polluted and most-policed areas. Room could be made for public housing, parks and desperately needed social services. Through proper community consultation, neighbourhoods could dictate their needs on their terms. Intervention could be made into the same cycles of urban poverty that historically carried people to Rikers. Public education initiatives could memorialise the site. Its name could finally be changed. If, as Tamika Graham suggests, justice-involved individuals were centred in the job opportunities created, restoration could very well be realised through the planning system.
This is the kind of imaginative, redistributive and socially relevant urban practice that pandemic recovery will require. While repairing what has been lost—and addressing climate crisis on the horizon—planning can no longer posture as apolitical.
Image of CLOSERikers campaigners via JustLeadershipUSA.