By Grace Mitchell Tada, ASLA
“This book is a call to action.”
It is that invocation from Alison Sant that propels the narratives in her book — From the Ground Up: Local Efforts to Create Resilient Cities. She presents how people in cities across the U.S. are creating equitable communities that can withstand the changes wrought by climate change. Sant features places and projects that depend on community-grounded efforts to realize their outcomes, though she notes strong grassroots activism and community involvement can’t affect change alone. The most successful examples she relates “bring together the energy of community activists, the organization of advocacy groups, the power of city government, and the reach of federal environmental policy.” And, importantly, they do so in ways suited to their city.
Sant is a partner and co-founder of the Studio for Urban Projects, and its interdisciplinary interests are apparent in the various project types, organizations, and individuals included in her book. From activists and community organizers, landscape architects and city planners, policy makers and city officials, Sant’s cast of characters demonstrate the complexity and nuance that go into creating urban change. It’s the details from her interviews that make this book a valuable tool. Seeing how change is made allows readers to understand how, in their own communities, they too might be able to forge fruitful relationships to dismantle racist histories in favor of equity while equipping their city to handle climate change.
The book is organized into four sections, each tackling a different domain of the built environment. “Reclaim the Streets” showcases cities that are re-imagining streets to accommodate more than vehicular traffic. “Tear up the Concrete” highlights places that are embracing their role in their watersheds, whether by removing concrete or installing green infrastructure. In “Plant the City,” Sant presents how cities are encouraging tree planting. And “Adapt the Shoreline” illustrates how rising sea levels are altering cities’ relationships to their waterfront. The common thread throughout the sections: the understanding that any change striving for equity within our urban environments must be rooted in its community.
In New York, that community rootedness was critical when introducing Citi Bike to Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. The neighborhood, where the majority of residents are Black and have household incomes below NYC’s median, has few public transit options, yet most residents initially did not use the bike share program.
Then the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, a community-based organization, and other partners collaborated with Citi Bike, creating communications campaigns that spotlighted residents of colors who rode the bikes. Within a year, Citi Bike trips in the neighborhood ballooned, as did membership. “Bike share only became relevant to the community of Bedford-Stuyvesant once it was shaped by the community intended to use it,” Sant writes.
The same can be said about green infrastructure. Sant recounts how various cities are shifting to become “sponges for stormwater.” In New Orleans, community leaders are teaching their neighborhoods to add green infrastructure—rain garden and bioswales, street trees and permeable paving. But there’s more to it: “What is most important to me is to make sure that people had tangible assets on their property and for them to understand its functionality…the pumps, the drains, and the canals,” said Angela Chalk, executive director of Healthy Community Services. “By understanding this, we can take charge of ourselves.”
Mami Hara, ASLA, CEO at U.S. Water Alliance, writes in a contributing essay that “without community support and effective supporting policies and practices, green infrastructure can be an agent of displacement.”
The boon of tree planting has long been a part of American history. Benefits of urban tree planting have become further understood over time. From creating beauty, reducing noise pollution, mitigating the urban heat island effect, and increasing groundwater infiltration, urban trees have myriad benefits. Yet, Sant points out, like other urban amenities, trees, too, do not have equitable dispersal. Less affluent neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color do not have as many trees.
Sant chronicles efforts in Washington, D.C., and New York City to increase their urban tree canopies, which span community activists’ efforts, public-private partnerships, and public investment in street trees and public parks. Baltimore, too, is working to grow the city’s canopy, but perhaps more novel, however, is Baltimore’s use of urban wood. “Utilizing dead trees is as important as tending live ones, especially in the context of climate change,” Sant writes. Trees are usually seen as waste and sent to landfills where they release carbon.
To alleviate this issue, the U.S. Forest Service and local partners have established the Baltimore Wood Project. The program offers living-wage jobs to residents—many formerly incarcerated—who work to deconstruct some of the thousands of abandoned buildings in the city while salvaging their materials. It’s met success, both in its extremely low recidivism rate, and in its environmental impact. As a result, Baltimore’s sustainability plan emphasizes workforce development programs like this one.
In the book’s final section, Sant addresses three cities—San Francisco, New York, and New Orleans—built atop former wetlands. As sea levels rise, each must brace themselves for a much wetter future—especially because those buffering wetlands are no longer present to lessen incoming tides and storm surges. The projects Sant compiles here, too, are based in robustly leveraging community support.
In San Francisco, like in many other cities, the communities most at risk of flooding are low-income, and often neighborhoods of color. Sant details the community processes leading to Hunters Point Shoreline Park and India Basin Shoreline Park, which included landscape architects with RHAA Landscape Architects and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, respectively. Both are in Bayview–Hunter’s Point, a historically Black waterfront neighborhood, and it was critical that their designs reflected its community while making space for rising waters. Jacqueline Flin, a Bayview native who now works for APRI, said involving the community throughout the process ensures that the park “is being grown from within and that the community takes ownership of it.”
On the opposite coast, the Billion Oyster Project, which strives to grow one billion water-filtering oysters in the New York–New Jersey Harbor Estuary, also necessarily demands the public’s assistance, from monitoring reef structures to putting them together. SCAPE’s post-Superstorm Sandy project, Living Breakwaters, which employs oyster restoration practices, has furthered public understanding about how nature-based strategies can mitigate the effects of sea-level rise.
“The only way to adapt, while keeping the biodiversity of estuaries and oceans intact, is by adopting radically anticipatory methods based on mimicking natural processes,” writes University of California at Berkeley professor Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA, in a guest essay. “When that doesn’t work, managing retreat is a better strategy than building rigid defenses that create exacerbated risks of catastrophic failure.”
Sant wrote this book during the earlier days of the Covid-19 pandemic, and during the racial reckoning that arose following the murder of George Floyd. She writes of the changes that we witnessed in cities, such as the “new ways of making streets for people.” Despite all the awfulness of 2020, there was a moment when it seemed the world would be irrevocably different: certainly we would more equitably, and more sustainably, inhabit cities moving forward.
National expert on the built environment and equity Tamika L. Butler speaks to that hope in her contributing essay: “It feels like we might be building something new, from the ground up.” Yet she also expresses the hesitancy that many of us likely feel now as we watch the world slip back into pre-2020 habits: “But what if it is all a façade? What if we build something up just to fortify the foundation of White supremacy that was already there?”
And this is the call to action: May the anger and the grief, the state of emergency of the pandemic, and the work that Sant so carefully describes prompt us to act—toward true change.