You Don’t Have to Move Out of Your Neighborhood to Live in a Better One

Majora Carter

Majora Carter: How to break the cycle of environmental injustice and build happier communities.

Imagine a neighborhood with clean air, safe places for children to play, and abundant green spaces—all the attributes of a healthy community. Many people lack these basic amenities and I ask myself, why? Are these fundamental needs not the rights of all people?

Majora Carter has spent a large part of her life fighting for environmental justice and promoting the idea that “you don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one.” As a child growing up in the South Bronx, she watched her once thriving neighborhood disintegrate under the weight of poverty, industrial waste, and the worst kind of urban planning. Subsequently, pollution rose, health rates declined, and the economy weakened. Carter began fighting for the revitalization of the South Bronx and secured a $1.25 million federal grant to redevelop the south Bronx waterfront to bring environmental improvements to her community. 

To continue this fight, Carter founded Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx), a nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming underserved urban communities into sustainable places to live. Her work at SSBx boosted the creation of environmental education programs, green job training, and community projects. Carter now serves as the President of the Majora Carter Group, where she concentrates her efforts on environmental remediation with clients.

People like Majora Carter make me believe that a healthy and sustainable community is indeed attainable for all people. Her work promotes the idea that a collaborative model where government, developers (business and industry), and community unite to create environmental justice is possible. A clean green economy can exist where all people can thrive and live healthy sustainable lives.

Joanna Gangi: There is a major social equity gap in the environmental movement. Why do you think that has been the case? What can we do to make our movement more inclusive?

Majora Carter: Most real social change in societies comes from the advancement of equality. The American Revolution, the Suffrage movement, Labor Rights, Civil Rights, even the Internet.

The environmental movement has traditionally left people behind in environmental sacrifice zones, which are almost always populated by poor people—usually non-white, but not always.

So, for instance, while the environmental movement may have had past successes in getting land preserved or making automobile emissions cleaner, it has not worked as hard to ensure that working-class people living near preserved land can make a living through sustainable stewardship of the area; nor have the oil refineries near where poor people live become any less toxic.

If we had located our power, waste, transport, and mega-agriculture infrastructure near wealthy people like we have with poor people, we would have had a clean, green economy decades ago. Instead, the environmental movement turned its back on the point sources of greenhouse gases and pollution in favor of their own backyards and favorite animal species. The public health stats illustrate this phenomenon quite clearly.

If we can turn the “environmental” movement into an “environmental equality” movement, I believe new allies will come on board with more passion and tenacity than we’ve seen before. Clean air, water, and land is not evenly distributed. Poor people are more likely to breathe dirtier air, drink dirtier water, and live, work, or go to school on toxic soils.

The hunger for equality will always be greater than support for Cap and Trade or some other effort that’s not directly tied to the lives of people. If we bring everyone together for environmental equality, many of the traditional environmentalists’ goals will surely be met as well.

Joanna Gangi: As you have said, economic degradation begets environmental degradation, which begets social degradation. What do you see as the key leverage points for breaking that cycle?

Majora Carter: I think comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of the long term consequences of environmental management is the best place to start. For example, look at coal country in West Virginia: You have a traditionally poor rural area, so you can assume the people there have little to no political power. Mountain top removal strip mining moves in and destroys their water table and their air quality while producing very few jobs. So now they have no cheap clean water supply, dirty air, and continuing unemployment. It adds up to hopelessness, which leads to drug and alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, poor school performance among kids, increased teen pregnancy, etc.

Judy Bonds illustration

Mountain Memories: Interview with Judy Bonds
Before she died, West Virginia activist Judy Bonds gave this interview about fighting to save her home from mountaintop removal coal mining.

These problems all cost a lot to combat, but the company pulling the coal out of the area does not pay; taxpayers do. If we look at the two to four years’ worth of coal energy produced in such an operation, against all the social and environmental services costs in the context of quality, it’s not economic development in any rational sense of the word.

I think this template can be applied to everything from shopping malls to feed lots. Positive alternatives to bad projects will make better economic sense when we first look at the fallout from inequalities among our fellow Americans that a given proposal might produce.

Joanna Gangi: What is your message to people living in underserved neighborhoods who want to make a difference, but may not know where to start or have the appropriate resources?

Majora Carter: Your local elected officials and your fire, police, and parks departments are there for you and most of them really do care—but you have to engage them in a constructive manner. Start by talking among your friends about what you would like to see different in your area. This is not just for “underserved” neighborhoods—all communities can benefit from some intelligent discussion.

So, if it’s a traffic light that doesn’t give enough time to cross a dangerous intersection, a truck route near residences, not enough green space, or locating a landfill, power plant, or other noxious infrastructure near people, it all matters.

Start with the people responsible for your area and see what you can accomplish. Not everyone will respond, but that might mean your approach is not appropriate for what they can do. Make sure you ask, they will probably say yes. Positive momentum can go a long way.

When I wrote a $1.25 million federal transportation planning grant, I had no idea what I was doing. But I kept the conversation alive in various settings and asked for help. People came out of the bureaucratic woodwork to guide the process and help shape the language for the system. It worked, and today the project has secured over $20 million in local funds and another $30 million in Federal Stimulus funding (shovel ready). This is more money for a project designed with positive community impacts in mind than the South Bronx has seen in almost a century.

But it all started with regular people talking constructively to one another.

Joanna Gangi: You’ve said that the economic and environmental injustices inflicted on the South Bronx were a direct product of urban planning. When you look at large scale urban planning projects going on now, do you see signs of improvement?

Majora Carter: Not really. I think the use of eminent domain to promote purely private development is a disturbing national trend. Government-subsidized stadium construction is often lurking in the shadows of these undemocratic land deals. In my hometown, we watched with disbelief as New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg and our former borough president, Adolfo Carrion, supported a new Yankee stadium to be built on an 18-acre public park with trees over 100 years old—all gone now. This is the richest baseball team in a part of the city with the lowest parks-to-people ratio. And now both of these characters are running around the country promoting themselves as “green.” I can’t think of any current large scale projects that are going to bring about more equality.

The real intelligent planning and execution is happening on a community/neighborhood level. This is where the real heroes are, but they remain largely unsung. I am currently putting together a new TV series with Sundance Channel to highlight these innovative attempts.

Joanna Gangi: You’ve identified the players involved in making the triple bottom line work for development projects: developer, community, government. Can you think of an example when these three entities have really come together for the greater good?

Majora Carter: Yes, of course. My favorite is Bogotá, Colombia. In the late ’90s while Enrique Peñalosa was mayor, he took a hard look at how much money was going into transport infrastructure and who was benefiting. He didn’t have much money to work with, so he looked for low cost investments that would produce the highest quality of life impact.

Penalosa Mayor Photo by Megapolis2024
How to Build a Happy City: Interview with Enrique Peñalosa
The former Bogotá mayor is convincing city planners from Beijing to Mexico City to create lively public spaces that center around people and community, not cars.

His administration purchased large tracts of suburban land, beyond the slums that ringed the city. The DOT connected the land via bike and pedestrian routes to local shopping areas and mass transit hubs—but no automobile access except for emergency and delivery vehicles.

In a short time, developers were putting private investments into housing along these non-auto routes. Simple, resident-generated community improvements were implemented in the existing poor neighborhoods, while relatively higher income Bogotaños occupied most of the new housing.

Bike repair and juice stands opened along the route—owned and operated by previously unemployed people. Police spent less time on car theft and more time on community. Public health improved. Everybody gained, and I hear it’s gotten even better since I was there in 2005.

Joanna Gangi: The International Living Building Institute is hosting the Living City Design Competition. The competition calls on designers, students, and activists from around the world to create inspiring but realistic visions for the future of civilization. Competition teams will conceptually retrofit existing cities, demonstrating how real communities might transform their relationship with the resources that sustain them. What do you think the most important consideration should be for teams working on this competition? Do you think communities like yours in the South Bronx would be interested in this kind of visioning process?

Majora Carter: I think that people in communities across America, who currently experience environmental inequality, would be interested in seeing the teams demonstrate how to transform the relationship with resources that sustain others. How do we remove the unequal environmental burdens that currently befall some people disproportionately?

Beyond that, locally maintained horticultural infrastructure should be integrated into all new and renovated buildings and landscape design. The technology is there to utilize greywater, manage stormwater runoff, incorporate high-yield agricultural systems, reduce the urban heat island effect, and more.

The effects of smart policies that incorporate those environmental services’ cost savings would be a great thing to see—what would the government savings over the typical 20-year municipal bond issue be?

Joanna Gangi: Your personal story is a major source of inspiration to many people who have felt marginalized by the green movement. What have you learned along the way that surprised you the most?

Majora Carter: I learned that my message plays just as well in “red” states as they do in “blue” states, based on the heartfelt personal reactions I get. I come from the most urban place in the U.S., but I have directly comparable experiences to people in rural areas and places in between. The solutions are often based in shared experience, too. I am so happy to see that an idea like “you don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one” is gaining ground everywhere!


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