Social justice as the path to sustainable development


What would a more just and equitable United States look like in 2042? I would like to think it would look like sustainable development operating at the neighborhood level across the country, and that this would necessarily be occurring in a world that is finally moving closer to sustainability on a global scale. Globally and nationally, the poor are not major polluters—they consume less, drive less, waste less. Yet, at the global scale, wealthy, high consumption, nations account for the majority of pollutants. This has been paralleled within the U.S., with the continued location of polluting industries in areas of little political resistance or displacement of poor communities in favor of the interests of those with more economic power.

The most quoted definition of sustainability, from the World Commission on Environment and Development report, “Our Common Future” ( displays a concern for justice and equity in the concept of sustainable development by calling for an improved quality of life for everyone on one hand and meeting all the needs of those living in the present and those yet to be born.

While theoretical reflections about sustainability fill the literature and ad hoc efforts to measure sustainability abound, the fight for a just environment has operated in the real world in the social action and political organizing of communities. In the U.S. these have typically been poor citizens of color, and poor people in general, resisting the locating of toxic waste or polluting industries in their communities.

The fight reflects the resistance to what scholars have called the political economy of electoral strategy that promotes economic growth through land use patterns. The fight against the status quo has facilitated coalition building between sustainability advocates and social justice advocates, and there has been progress in terms of official policy responses to address environmental injustice at the federal level starting in the 1990s.

Conceptually, environment, economy and equity live in an uneasy balance though all three are needed in the sustainability equation, for social tensions caused by economic inequity undermine environmental stewardship. In the U.S, decision-making around where to site hazardous facilities, locally undesirable land uses (LULUs), and where to promote new urban development has historically excluded the groups most affected, while privileging business concerns and turning the profit motive into government priorities. This pattern has left a legacy of hazardous and undesirable facilities located in vulnerable communities already suffering from intensive capital underinvestment.

However, as Robert Bullard and others have documented, the concerns of environmental justice proponents soon moved beyond merely documenting the correlation of waste facility locations and their adverse impacts on the public health and well-being of neighborhoods of color to fighting the mechanisms that produce these disparities. These mechanisms included the legacy of legal racial segregation, discriminatory land uses, uneven law enforcement, exclusionary forms of decision making and economic deprivation, among other factors.

In fact, there is a distinct observable parallel between the social construction of space in the South African apartheid context, for example, which paralleled the American landscape with its history of de jure and de facto apartheid in residential segregation, Jim Crow laws and the institutional drivers of suburbanization. Those concerned with racial injustice in the United States made the connection between racism and the production of space through the environmental justice movement. Justice from this perspective is not only about reducing distributional inequity in space, but eliminating the conditions that produce injustice (such as overconsumption and the lack of participatory governance) in the first place.

The environmental justice movement and scholarship in the U.S. has been successfully able to link environment, class, race and gender into a coherent argument about the uneven exposure to environmental risks faced by individuals and communities. It is this civil rights framework that has allowed the movement to go beyond race to include anyone who is deprived of their environmental rights, so to speak, including the poor, immigrants, women, and children, which has been especially important in spreading the movement beyond America.

Scholars and advocates like Julian Agyeman and Robert Bullard have pointed out how the environmental justice framework has allowed for the recognition of the connection between environmental and social exclusion and exploitation. The concern of environmental justice advocates with a just environment and better quality of life and the processes that produce social inequality, have the best chance for pushing the sustainability agenda forward, as the concept of a just environment and better quality of life has the ability to mobilize a broad coalition of people.

For a socially just society to emerge in 2042, the systemic causes of environmental injustice must be addressed. As Graham Haughton and other environmental sustainability scholars have noted, sustainable development means redressing the cost transference within the current economic and political order that allows negative environmental impacts to be displaced, out of sight to poor (and, increasingly, immigrant) communities of color within the United States and around the world. Haughton identifies four types of environmental equity—intra-generational, intergenerational, geographical, and procedural—that we could use to evaluate our vision of a just society.

The realization of sustainable development will begin to be manifest on local and global scales, when all people are assured a minimal quality of life through the meeting of their basic needs, increased exposure to environmental “goods” and decreased exposure to “bads”, access to economic opportunity, and transformation away from political economic decisionmaking processes increase pollution and allow its costs to be transferred to socially and geographically distant spaces.

Much of the progress of environmental justice has been its success in locally mobilizing communities and advancing scholarship that untangles the links between social institutions and unjust outcomes. In practice, however, the movement in the U.S. has seen the unpredictable nature of legal decisions due to narrow interpretations of discriminatory intent and some reluctance on the part of the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce Title VI elimination of discrimination in its contracting due to pressure from the various states. The hope for 2042 lies in broad coalition building.

The most promising development along these lines that could lead to a just society in 2042 might be the broad right to the city movement ( , and its concerns with spatial justice. Ultimately, redressing past racial injustice and its manifestation as present spatial injustice means formalizing the rights of people who are poor, disenfranchised (through the lack of immigration documentation or interaction with the criminal justice system), and ethnically diverse, to claim space (–an act necessarily predicated on the state’s recognition of the universal right to a place in society, and a quality of life that includes a clean environment, access to health care, quality education, and shared investment dollars. The question of just what a society would look like is pertinent for anyone concerned with social equity. To achieve a just society, we should have a vision of it. For me, it would look like sustainable development realized.

[Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the Race Talk blog of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity on May 27, 2012]


Critical infrastructure planning: How can we keep natural hazards from becoming disasters?



Last year I came across a City Lab article on Federal infrastructure funding for dams was a good food for thought.

I reflected on a piece I wrote in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake for no longer published Race-Talk blog of the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University (I’ll re-publish that piece on this blog). In that article, I pointed out the link between land use decisionmaking and the disporportionate impacts of natural disasters on the poor both between and within countries, citing earlier work on poverty and vulnerability by scholars Martine and Guzman in the aftermath of the devasation of Hurriance Mitch in central America.

And history repeats itself…(This is frustratingly and tragically too true for Houston and past research and warnings on flood risk there).

Going back to the dam failure that prompted the City Lab article: Aside from the terrible potential consequences for the 200,000 evacuees at the time if the Oroville Dam just outside of Sacramento didn’ hold, the quote that jumped out to me from the article at the time, among many:

“Of the nation’s 87,359 dams (as of 2013), about 17 percent (14,726 dams) are classified as high hazard potential—meaning that failure would result in loss of human life.”

They’re not all failing, but those are the 17% that absolutely cannot fail.

President Obama signed a Water Infrastructure Improvement Act bill into law before he left office, so thankfully there will be some grant money available for those high hazard dams, but the two main points of the article are that 1) the need to fix up Oroville damn has been known since at least 2005 and the state of California didn’t want to invest and convinced the Federal government to table the matter, and 2) Trump’s whole “one billion dollar” infrastructure plan (not sure if there really is a plan at this point) is based on tax credits for private investment. Not likely to drive the kind of investment our aging and critical infrastructure needs.

We’ve seen this in the limitations of the private market approach to rebuilding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which disproportionately have negative impacts on the ability of income poor individuals and households to recover. A good overview of how market solutions end up huring the poor can be found in the case studies of post-disaster recovery in New Orleans and New York, by Gotham and Greenberg in their 2008 article, “From 9/11 to 8/29: Post-disaster recovery and rebuilding in New York and New Orleans” published in the journal Social Forces.

The state is a bulwark against the vagaries of the market, and also plays a critical role in ensuring that rebuilding, maintenance, and operations of infrastructure and related services are equitable in terms of who is serviced, impacts, and costs.

The recent hurricanes to strike Houston, the Gulf, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean also illustrate the challenges of infrastructure, and how we are neglecting one form of invisible infrastructure, something my colleagues at Berkeley (Harrison Fraker and former DCRP faculty Vicki Elmer) have labeled “Fifth Infrastructure,” harnessing the natural features of the landscape itself (floodplains, wetlands, open spaces and more). In this article, they show how fifth infrastructure can be used to create decentralized micro-utilities that use less water, generate energy from waste, and eliminate emissions at the scale of the neighborhood.

I’ve worked on projects utilizing anaerobic bio-digestion at the household level in African cities, in Nigeria, I set up a demonstration project with the wonderful boundary-pushing planner, TH Culhane and a team of colleagues from Nigeria and Germany.

The demo was an innovation of the balcony biodigester model developed by the Appropriate Rural Technology Institute (ARTI) out of India. It has great potential to meet waste management and energy needs for households, and so it was wonderful to see described by Fraker and Elmer a fully integrated concept operating at the mesoscale of the neighborhood.

In many parts of the world, flood management in the face of climate change is about destroying the homes and neighborhoods of the poor who live in non-durable housing, while building walls around the city, and paradoxically making the problem worse by allowing developers to build in natural flood plains. Better regulations, affordable and sustainable housing integrated in the urban core are part of the solution, as are new approaches and technologies that harness fifth infrastructure. Another colleague at Berkeley in Landscape Architecture, Kristina Hill, has mapped out typologies of coastal infrastructure that range from static to dynamic, walls to landforms. She wrote a good recent op-ed on Houston and Hurricane Harvey, too.

As long as we keep ignoring the promise and perils of the landscape in our planning, design, and construction, we’ll continue to court tragedy and face challenges in meeting the infrastructural needs of ever-growing urbanized regions.

As planners, if we combine an ethic that respects life and the primacy of the biosphere in its life-sustaining properties (a la Manfred Max-Neef), principles of equity and true engagement and co-learning with the communities we serve, along with the approaches of our colleagues in landscape architecture and urban design, and the possibilities of technologies and land we will find we have many more options at our disposal for shaping cities than we think.

The Contradictions of Environmental Gentrification


– 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 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.

We’re Back!


A new semester of Sustainable Communities at the University of California, Berkeley has kicked off and we will be posting new articles soon. We encourage you to check out some of the earlier discussions from spring 2014, such as creating an alternative sustainable economy, food justice, and examples of equitable development, among many other topics. There are thought provoking articles, links to resources, and discussion in the comments. This semester we look forward to continuing the questions raised by the idea of creating “sustainable communities.” We are particularly interested in the central role that equity plays in achieving sustainability (e.g. intergenerational, intragenerational, interspecies, procedural and so forth) and how sustainable development looks across the globe and at different scales.

Here in California, the drought remains an acute problem in terms of the states water resources, the tensions between the sustainable uses of water (agricultural, industrial, residential) and the stark reality of inequality in accessing potable water leaving homes without water for months , in the central part of the state. This emergency represents the urgency in meeting the enormous challenge of planning sustainable communities.

Stay tuned!

Is this Africa’s version of Elysium?


Elysium refers to the Matt Damon movie about a privatized space colony for the wealthy. A recent article, New, privatized African city heralds climate apartheid, in the Guardian about the Eko Atlantic project to build an ultra modern city off the coast of Lagos, was shared by a student in this semester’s undergraduate planning for sustainability class.

The Guardian’s title is provocative, the project is controversial, but there are many sides to the argument (see the passionate comments below the article). Follow the link above to read the article, and learn more about Eko Atlantic project here, here and here.

You can get a feel for the scope of the venture in this video: