EIA’s role in changing the face of the city: Environmental impact assessment and urban form in New York

By Dana Feingold

A common misconception of environmental impact assessment (EIA) is that it focuses solely on the natural environment, while in reality there is often a strong focus on the built environment.  In New York City, environmental assessments are conducted under the City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) act, which requires analysis of several factors that relate to urban form.  As such, during the EIA process, communication between the proponent and the lead agency can result in significant changes to the physical design of a project.  Zoning map changes, also known as rezonings, have a particularly strong potential to change the face of the city, and because rezonings in NYC must go through CEQR review, EIA is also in a strong position of influence.

Some building aspects controllable by zoning.  Source: NYC DCP

New York City’s Zoning Resolution was passed in 1961 for the purpose of “regulating the height and bulk of buildings … [and] the density of population, and regulating and restricting the location of trades and industries” [1].  In 2011, Amanda Burden, in her ninth year as the director of the New York City Department of City Planning (DCP), explained that “zoning is the language of the physical city: it is a three-dimensional blueprint for what any area of the city can become” [2].  In the 50 years between the above statements, there has been a shift in perception of zoning; it is increasingly seen as a design tool rather than a regulatory tool.  Between 2002 and 2013, DCP under Burden’s direction, rezoned over 35 percent of New York [3].  By the end of her tenure at DCP, the New York Times estimates that DCP will have rezoned about 40 percent of the city [4].  “Cities never stand still,” declared Burden, “neither should zoning” [2].  The map below depicts the location and size of the areas affected by these rezonings.

Source: NYC DCP.  Available in an interactive format here

Urban design is considered in several areas of CEQR analysis, including urban design, neighborhood character, and shadows.  The urban design section of a CEQR environmental impact assessment assesses changes to streets and sidewalks, the size and shape of buildings, visual resources, open space, natural features, and wind.  The neighborhood character section assesses the different elements that give neighborhoods their distinct personalities and examines whether a proposed project may result in adverse impacts to elements that define a neighborhood’s character.  The shadows section considers the interaction between a proposed development and the shadows it may cast on open spaces, historic and cultural resources, or open spaces [5].


CEQR technical analysis areas.  Source: NYC Mayors Office of Environmental Coordination [5]

A rezoning may be proposed by a private developer or by a city agency, often DCP.  In either situation, DCP is the lead agency and helps guide the EIA process, and Burden, as DCP’s director, is in a place of strong influence.  Developers complain about DCP’s intervention in their design process, and Burden has been known to argue with developers about everything from building height to the location and type of decorative plantings outside of their buildings [6].

With large swaths of the city being rezoned and with each rezoning undergoing environmental review, the EIA process plays a significant role in shaping New York City.   The city is a built environment, after all, so why should environmental impacts refer to wildlife habitat and not human habitat?

For more of Amanda Burden’s perspective, watch the following speech she gave in São Paulo, Brazil, in 2008, on how “aggressive pro-active government action can create a more livable city:”


[1] New York City Planning Commission and Department of City Planning. 1961. The City of New York Zoning Maps and Resolution.

[2] DCP (Department of City Planning). 2011. Zoning Handbook.

[3] Karni, Annie.  Who will fill Amanda Burden’s shoes?  Crain’s New York, 17 May 2013. Accessed 18 January 2014: http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20130517/REAL_ESTATE/130519892/who-will-fill-amanda-burdens-shoes

[4] Satow, Julie.  Amanda Burden Wants to Remake New York. She Has 19 Months Left.  New York Times, 19 May 2012.  Accessed 18 January 2014: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/20/nyregion/amanda-burden-planning-commissioner-is-remaking-new-york-city.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[5] NYC Mayors Office of Environmental Coordination.  2012.  CEQR Technical Manual.  Accessed 19 January 2014: http://www.nyc.gov/html/oec/html/ceqr/technical_manual_2012.shtml

[6] Gordon, Meryl.  Champion of Cities. Wall Street Journal, 23 June 2011.  Accessed 18 January 2014:   http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304186404576388122537294568


One thought on “EIA’s role in changing the face of the city: Environmental impact assessment and urban form in New York

  1. It great to see that in some urban jurisdictions (like NYC) Environmental Assessment is an important part of urban planning! Thanks for sharing your insights Dana!

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