Creating Sustainable Cities: The San Francisco Bay Area and New York City Are Leading the Way
Angela Greene has a tough job: she and her workcrew scale the rooftops of Richmond, California to run wires, lay racks, and bend metal piping. Yet in the end, when she unfurls a gleaming solar panel over her community, it feels easy to save the planet.
After being laid off from her former job at a printing business, Greene went through a vocational training program and then joined Solar Richmond, an organization that is bringing sustainable energy along with new jobs to the heavily black and Latino port city.
To the 47 year-old single mom, her new work as a project manager means more than a steady income. “I'm actually helping my community—showing people in the community that there are things here for us to do,” Greene says. “There’s good things happening here.”
Those good things place Richmond at a new forefront in the environmental movement, far from the embattled rainforests and melting polar ice caps that dominate the news. Many cities have spawned “greening” initiatives to test new concepts of sustainable development, and the political momentum behind them is growing.
New York City recently launched a multi-year plan to ramp up energy efficiency, reduce pollution and cut emissions. And across California, local governments have mapped out eco-friendly development policies that complement new state legislation to control greenhouse-gas emissions.
But amid the political green rush, grassroots groups want to ensure that the plans engage marginal communities, where both people and the environment suffer systemic exploitation and neglect. From downtown Oakland to the South Bronx, activists are trying to align environmental solutions with goals of equity and inclusion.
Nwamaka Agbo with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a San Francisco Bay Area activist organization, says the future of the burgeoning movement around climate change hinges on how far it reaches outside the environmentalist in-crowd.
“If the top ten percent are doing everything that's hot and sexy—with the solar panels and the hybrids and biodiesel—but don't invest in these other communities that don't have as much money or don't have as pretty of a reputation,” she says, “then all the efforts will be undone.”
Activists are wary that the green solutions pitched by policymakers and the largely white, mainstream environmental movement may perpetuate, or even deepen, economic and racial stratification. They point to a common trajectory of other urban “development” efforts over the past generation: an infusion of business-friendly capital spurs a wave of gentrification, rents rise, and low-income households are pushed out to make way for a new privileged class.
An ironic dimension to the politics of greening is that the poor and people of color are often hit hardest by the consequences of industrial and human activity—from hurricanes to toxic brownfields.
So what happens when shutting down a smog-churning power plant cleans up the air but wipes out local jobs, or idyllic “green space” is generated by razing low-income housing?
“Very often, efforts to improve environmental quality, especially at local level, have functioned unintentionally—and sometimes intentionally—to gentrify neighborhoods and displace poor people,” says Raquel Pinderhughes, a professor of urban planning at San Francisco State University.
New York City environmentalists view Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s greening initiative, PlaNYC, with cautious optimism. While it includes progressive initiatives like cleaning up water systems and retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, the plan gives little insight on how to ensure that green benefits span equitably across the city’s uneven social landscape; the New York metro area leads the nation in income inequality.
“The plan is a really positive thing for New York City,” says Jack Dafoe of Urban Agenda, a research and policy group focused on job development in the environmental sectors. “The question is, though, can we do something to address the fact that New York City is increasingly a city of the haves and the have-nots?”
Part of the problem, advocates say, is that disenfranchised communities lack the necessary political clout for participating in development policy debates.
Dwaine Lee, a program manager for the New York-based environmental-action group Sustainable South Bronx, said the same forces that render underserved communities vulnerable environmentally also disempower them politically.
“Being marginalized, with a lot of economic disadvantages and inequities, we don't get to participate in the green battle,” he says, “because a lot of us are just more worried about how we’re going to eat and live.”
On the West Coast, grassroots groups have tried to push seldom-heard voices into the urban-greening arena through the Bay Area Social Equity Caucus. Initiated as part of a broader business, government and environmental coalition known as the Bay Area Alliance, the Caucus has evolved to represent more than 75 community-based organizations, ranging from youth groups to environmental-justice advocates. The collaboration helped forge a “compact” for equitable sustainable development, adopted by nine counties in 2003. Their blueprint includes not only emissions reduction and toxic cleanup, but also affordable housing, public transportation and job development as components of a sustainable city.
Traditionally, says Caucus director Connie Galambos Malloy, “that environmental conversation has been more of a privileged conversation, unless it's been for a community that's already in crisis”—such as an asthma epidemic or a rash of lead poisoning. By bringing questions of equity to the table, she says, “we’re trying to get on the preventative end.”
Outside the realm of solar-powered suburban homes and hybrid SUVs, progressive urban planners see innovative design as a way to make environmentalism relevant to struggling communities. The idea is to create compact urban neighborhoods with a dense mix of economically diverse homes and businesses.
That vision is unfolding on 23rd Avenue in Oakland, a city historically beset with air pollution and poverty. Community groups have partnered with the nonprofit planning organization Urban Ecology on a redevelopment plan to transform the depressed strip into a bustling pedestrian corridor. The project aims to counter Oakland’s legacy of blight by creating open public areas, community art spaces, and affordable housing.
Urban Ecology Design Director Katherine Melcher says marginalized communities can be drawn into "smart growth"-based initiatives once they realize that a sustainable environment is inherently a more livable place.
“If you go into these neighborhoods and say: having a grocery store within walking distance, having your kids being able to play outside, is going to make them healthier,” she says, “then it's not just this abstract ‘environment.’ It's improving lives.”
Transportation is another spot on the green urban grid where equity and ecology intersect. The Bay Area-based Transportation and Land Use Coalition has called on the region’s transportation planning commission to establish an integrated network of railways, bus lines and pedestrian zones situated alongside affordable housing developments. The group also advocates the implementation of progressive taxes on car use to finance transit-infrastructure improvements, with built-in subsidies to offset the cost for lower-income drivers.
Policy Director Jeff Hobson says that while the tide of population growth in the Bay Area is unstoppable, “it’s a question of how we're going to get in there and shape it—to make sure the growth that does happen is going to be reinvesting in making vibrant, walkable urban neighborhoods really work.”
Activists want to link underserved communities to greening agendas not just as beneficiaries, but as active contributors, who will drive the work of restoring the country’s urban environment.
The emerging green sectors—which range from bicycle repair to organic food production to home weatherization—could be a seedbed for grassroots environmentalism in underserved populations.
New research on “green-collar jobs,” led by Pinderhughes, Urban Agenda, and the Ella Baker Center, has projected major growth potential in New York City and the Bay Area, especially as local, state and national policies pressure consumers and businesses to scale back energy use.
The studies also found that entry-level green-collar jobs offer relatively high benefits like health coverage, living wages, and in some cases, union membership. And the jobs are accessible; many provide on-the-job training and opportunities to advance in the field.
Oakland became one of the first cities to spearhead a local green-collar workforce last summer, with a pilot “green jobs corps.” Designed in collaboration with the Ella Baker Center and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union, the program is specifically geared toward low-income people facing barriers to employment, such as youth previously involved with the criminal-justice system, or immigrants with limited English-language skills.
Aaron Lehmer of the Ella Baker Center’s Green-Collar Jobs Campaign says the Oakland initiative should be a model for government-supported green development throughout urban America.
“A lot of the industry transformation that we see happening is being driven by public policy,” Lehmer says. “And so for the government to set goals like that, and not invest in the human resources that are going to be needed to actually fulfill those goals, is just only going halfway, if that.”
• A successful green roof installation makes for one very happy customer and more environmental awareness in his neighborhood. Photograph by J.Burling Chase for SSBx •
Washington recently gave green-jobs a federal boost, with legislation to sponsor workforce development in the renewable-energy and energy-efficiency sectors nationwide.
In the South Bronx, Dwaine Lee pursues a homegrown green career path. After years of working at various unfulfilling low-wage jobs, he enrolled last year in Sustainable South Bronx’s Environmental Stewardship Training program. The intensive 10-week green-collar skills course has moved dozens of New Yorkers from unemployment into ecological restoration work with conservancies, the parks department, and other environmental sectors.
Now at Sustainable South Bronx, Lee lays the groundwork for an emerging “greenway” project, which will develop open spaces and tree-lined, car-free pathways along the waterfront while cutting traffic pollution in beleaguered neighborhoods. He also helps install “green roofs”—mini-fields atop buildings that control heat and stormwater and conserve energy. Leading a work team in his urban habitat, the 38 year-old Brooklyn native cleans, gardens, and above all, sets an example.
“We will be there to do what we do every day,” Lee says, “and people notice. And I think that's where it starts: with the realization seeping through the community that somebody actually cares enough to be out here doing this.”
Back in Richmond, people notice Angela Greene, too—perched on a rooftop, plugging her city into the sun. “People in the neighborhood, they see me up there,” she says. “All of them want to know: what are we doing, what is it about? So, being able to introduce something new, like it was introduced to me—something that's right here in our community that you can also get involved in—it's rewarding.”
About the Author
Michelle Chen works and plays in New York City. Formerly on staff at the independent, now-defunct, news publication, The NewStandard, her other recent occupations include living in Shanghai as a Fulbright research fellow, freelance writing and dish-washing. Her work has also appeared in Extra!, Legal Affairs, City Limits and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain.