The Contradictions of Environmental Gentrification

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– Posted on behalf of A.R.:

In a recent debate in Milwaukee, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders said: “”As I understand it, the African American community lost half of their wealth as a result of the Wall Street collapse [during the most recent economic recession].” A large part of that wealth was held in the form of homes lost to foreclosure. The Urban Displacement project notes that 5 percent of homes in the Hoover-Foster neighborhood of Oakland were foreclosed between 2006 and 2014. This neighborhood has also been home to the highest concentration of Black households in the MacArthur area. Even among those who were able to keep their homes, more than three in four homeowners were mortgage-burdened in 2013 (meaning they paid more than 30% of their income on their mortgage).

According to the UrbanDisplacement.org map, Hoover-Foster is “at risk of gentrification or displacement” while other areas in MacArthur, such as Longfellow and Pill Hill, are experiencing “advanced gentrification.” In addition to experiencing a shift in racial composition, MacArthur is also the site of a new transit-oriented development near the BART station. The Master Plan consists of five phases. The first focuses on infrastructure improvements including bike and pedestrian-friendly paths as well as beautification projects of the entry plaza. The second phase will add 90 new affordable housing units through a project with BRIDGE Housing, while phases three to five will include market-rate housing as well as commercial and retail space.

These types of transit-oriented developments attract state and federal funding and are considered “sustainable” because they are thought to increase transit-use and thus decrease VMT. Unfortunately, these developments are often marketed not towards transit-dependent or existing residents, but towards whiter, higher-income households with cars, one of many examples of the “contradictory relationship of sustainable policies to inequitable urban redevelopment” described by Checker (2011: 214).

I feel that the evolution of terminology plays a role in the de-politicization of environmental justice and the move toward technocratic dialogue. You have environmental/climate justice, then you have “smart growth” then “sustainability” then “livability” then “equitable development,” and as Brentin Mock points out: they are all often used interchangeably. Yet each of them sits in a different place along the triangle/prism and they all have different sets of values depending on who is using them and it seems our role as planners to expose these values and to bring back the role of “justice” in sustainability.

One of the only examples I have been exposed to of an equity- and people of color-centered vision of sustainability is the work of Oakland “artivist” Favianna Rodriguez. She was one of the first people I heard to really link racial, immigrant, gender and economic justice with environmental justice. She does so by calling out the ways in which sustainability discourses often lack serious equity considerations, leaving out those communities most directly impacted by environmental burdens and most susceptible to climate change-related catastrophes. In a 2008 piece titled “GREEN IS NOT WHITE!” she writes, how in the “booming multi-billion dollar ‘green’ market, immigrant workers and people of color are left out of decision making [procedural], while working in some of the most toxic industries in the country [substantive]. Green jobs and healthier communities cannot be just a luxury for affluent whites. They are a necessity for working class people and communities of color.” Through this lens, the mainstream “green” movement lacks both procedural and substantive equity, but centering those most impacted by capitalist exploitations is only the route to a truly “just city.”

It is not low-income residents that challenge the contradictions presented by “environmental gentrification,” but the right also exploits these contradictions in attempts to divert attention away from climate change entirely. Some folks celebrated the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio finally won an Oscar while other folks were happy to see him use the platform to assert that, “global warming is real.” But a Fox News article, circulated by some climate change deniers, was quick to point out the hypocritical nature of DiCaprio’s “environmentally-friendly” lifestyle choices. Though he bikes and drives electric cars, he also allegedly took six private flights from Los Angeles to New York in a six-week period in 2014—the same year he rented a yacht from the deputy prime minister of the UAE that purportedly burns through $16,438 worth of fuel a day to watch the World Cup with his friends. These value conflicts playing out at the micro-level of an individual are illustrious of those that play out at the city- and regional-level. If “green amenities” are reserved only for those with yachts and second homes and not for those who collect and recycle cans for a living, my answer to Checker’s question “how sustainable is sustainability?” is not very sustainable.

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