Majora Carter, activist and founder of Sustainable South Bronx and the Majora Carter Group, gave a presentation at the National Building Museum calling for environmental justice for inner-city communities. Her plan includes smarter (and fairer) growth, community involvement in transportation planning (no more highways through communities), fairer distribution of waste and sewage processing facilities, and more parks, green roofs, and greenways. To make this happen, Carter calls for a boost to local green job training programs, which are crucial to creating and maintaining the community infrastructure needed for more sustainable inner-city communities. A key part of building healthy, more sustainable inner-city communities is training inner-city residents for green jobs, which “can’t be outsourced” and provide new skills and a way out of poverty or prison.
After organizing the development of the Hunts Point Riverside Park in the South Bronx, Carter won a USD 1.2 million transportation planning grant focused on mapping out a network of greenways (linear parks) using existing infrastructure. Under her plan, street underpaths and other existing networks would turn into bike paths and trails linking local communities to existing parks. To create the community infrastructure to support the new green infrastructure, Carter created the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training program, which has a 85 percent placement rate. More than 10 percent have also gone on to college from the program.
“Robert Moses, a highway addict,” was held up as an example of a “dumb growth planner” by Carter. While the Bronx Expressway improves life for car users traveling from Westchester into work in Manhattan, the highway cut right through the South Bronx community. As a result, the South Bronx “lost more than 500,000” from its population. Additional “red lining” or “no loan zones” helped depress the area around the expressway, which, in turn, led to a community economic reversal, environmental degradation, and the infamous drug wars of the 1980’s. “Arson became profitable” and numerous buildings were gutted. “Playgrounds were also removed because of liability risks.” Carter argues that environmental degradation quickly followed after the economic downturn.
The South Bronx currently holds 40 percent of New York City’s waste facilities, 100 percent of the Bronx’s waste facilities, four electric power plants, and multiple sewage treatment centers. “Environmental justice means that communities can’t bear the brunt of all the environmental costs without receiving some of the benefits,” contends Carter. Interestingly, she thinks that if these waste and other undesirable facilities had been placed in richer areas they would have been more environmentally-sound from the get-go. These communities would have had little tolerance for the pollution and negative effects of the facilities on housing prices.
For inner-city communities that already have waste facilities, Carter thinks it’s important to turn the existing burden into an economic opportunity. She is looking at models for “eco-centers” in which waste can be sorted and recycled. “Most of the waste leaves the community to go to landfill or is incinerated.” The benefits, like the cost of housing the waste, should instead go to the community.
“Sustainability doesn’t only belong to treehuggers,” says Carter. To prove that people can profit from sustainability, Carter created a for-profit company focused on green roof system development. Green roofs cool and clean the air, cut building energy costs, and mitigate stormwater run-off, removing stress from overburdened water and sewage infrastructure. On the policy side, Carter worked to create green roof tax abatements in New York City, which, she says, helped to grow a local green roof installation industry. “To prove I am not crazy” about the value of green roofs, Carter pointed to a recent EPA study that argues that natural horticultural infrastructure in the form of green roofs is a more effective way, “dollar for dollar,” of dealing with stormwater than other systems.
Through the Majora Carter Group, her consulting firm, Carter is also working with a community in northern North Carolina to create a new approach to climate change adaptation that involves dealing with waste from agricultural run-off and “mega-hog farms” and creating an environmental economic development strategy. Carter is partnering with urban farmers in inner-city Detroit who seek to sell the produce they are growing in abandoned lots. With them, she is creating an investment fund and cooperative so these urban farmers can sell locally to the Detroit region. Lastly, Carter points to the need for a new smart grid that can work like the Internet, enabling inner-city producers of energy to contribute (and sell) their locally-produced wind or solar energy back to the grid.
Also, check out an interview with Majora Carter on the role designers can play in revitalizing communities.