Designing Greenspaces…and Addressing Capitalism


On Thursday, April 17th, we discussed the issue of designing greenspace systems in urban areas by reflecting on the New York City model and by referring to past readings and our own experiences.

In “Adopting a modern ecological view of the metropolitan area”, the authors address the challenge of designing ecologically-sound and livable urban areas by providing a more contemporary framework for planning that considers five key ecological principles:

    1. Content (of ecosystems)
    2. Context (interactions based on location, adjacency and neighborhood)
    3. Dynamics (changing circumstances based on succession and disturbances)
    4. Heterogeneity (diversity of habitats, species)
    5. Hierarchy (dividing areas into functional components operating at different scales)

In general, the ideas of “structure” and “function” run throughout the paper as the authors describe the various ways in which planners can consider ecosystems in their design. In reflecting upon the article’s notion of ecologically-considerate planning, we asked ourselves:

  • To what extent must planners understand all of the different aspects of planning and design to effectively plan for sustainable cities?
  • What is the (potential) tension between sociological vs. environmental perspectives in city planning? (e.g., the “woody understory” debate – where one side has the goal of maintaining “safety” and enhancing “social activities”, while the other side considers ecological processes and habitats more important)
  • What is the ideal function or meaning of greenspaces in cities? What are some examples of “good” or “bad” ways of designing greenspace for sustainability?

The following is a summary of our responses:

  • As “planners” (etc.) it is important for us to have a base understanding of different biological functions so that we know how to move forward. This could mean by working with others who have the expertise and skills, finding the resources to make integrated plans happen, and/or doing the work ourselves. It’s hard to be trained in “everything”; our work is more about specialization and then collaboration. It’s good to think of this work as “transdisciplinary” – crossing boundaries of expertise.
  • Some cities are beginning to create more integrated systems and green infrastructure is becoming a bigger focus in more cities (e.g., the City of Philadelphia and the STAR index both address sociological and environmental factors). However, political will is always a main factor (e.g., the Mayor and other key players, big news events and climate disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, etc. can have big impacts).
  • Usually we default to caring more about social relations than environmental concerns (safety vs. new growth). At the same time, how the space is defined and designed also has an impact on who is using that green space (hippies hiding in the trees of Golden Gate park are harassing neighbors??). Also, meth pipes in Buena Vista park.
  • What are the benefits of large natural spaces vs. small spaces? Are there legitimate concerns of comfort, access and safety – or are unsubstantiated fears or the effects of capitalism bigger drivers? What about connectivity and distribution of green space?

Building off that last question, we then did a straw poll using the diagrams below to start a conversation about the ideal design of green space in relation to urban space (focusing more on the concept – not literally checkerboard designs).

CP 254

Many voted for option C, with some around options D and B, and one or two around A and E.

Some of the perspectives presented included:

  • Option A: Density is  good for concentrating human areas (like Manhattan)
  • Option A: More connectivity within the gray and the green spaces means less disruption
  • Option E doesn’t differentiate between spaces and accepts that we are a part of nature
  • Option E: this is how people are idealizing the future of cities and interactions. Would E look like Brooklyn, where parks are everywhere? Would option E avoid slum settlements?
  • Would option C allow for more communal or shared spaces?
  • Option C: Could it enable better management of spaces? Would it be possible to have community investment in the maintenance of green space? However, examples in Oakland illustrate the current challenges for that occurring (Lafayette vs. Frank Ogawa plaza)

For our last reflections on green space design, a few put forth the following ideas and questions:

  • We don’t want to design open space based on the need to exclude certain people
  • The idea of green space as an “other” can be problematic and a false dichotomy
  • Jane Jacobs quote: “Parks don’t act on community, they reflect it”. On the flip side, how much can design act upon people?

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GRAB BAG QUESTION: Lastly, we went around and shared our videos and stories about alternative economic models to (or versions within) capitalism. Please share your resources and videos in the comments!


Exploring the Nexus: Bringing Together Sustainability, Environmental Justice and Equity.


I. Our discussion leaders asked: Are stakeholders useful or esoteric? 

According to this week’s readings, you need income equality and participation to achieve sustainability.  Students’ opinions on this ranged from that meaningful participation is necessary in order to strengthen democracy, for government accountability, and to accurately give voice to the lived experience of environmental and social exposures, vulnerabilities, and resilience. Some felt there has to be a mid-level of organizational engagement, not just grassroots or the federal level, but the heads of organizations.  It’s hard to change when the executive bodies in the middle level, when their interest is to keep the system running.

A classmate encouraged us to question what is the role of government, grassroots movements and hybrids: involve community in a tokenistic way, or integrate them into the structure, and do they work together?  If community is too integrated into the structure of government, will they be eventually co-opted?  Is there a need for community to be outside of the government for accountability purposes, or do we want to strive for a government truly “of the people”?  Or as a hybrid, perhaps there is need for the “inside-outside” game? 

II.  Our facilitators put up a conceptual model of how they think sustainability plays out for us to consider:

Theory–>  Mentality–> Politics–> Norms and Institutions–> Practice–> Physicality

We were asked to engage critically with it.  I would like people to respond to their ideas on whether this model holds with their lived and work experiences around sustainability as we’ve been discussing it.

For example, we could consider an alternative conceptual model:

Power and privilege–> Institutions and systems–> politics–>  practice–> physicality–> mentality–> institutions and systems

(ie. Our institutions and systems are created as a way to maintain current or emerging orders of power and privilege and economies.  These systems determine the politics needed to maintain them, which determine our practice, which leads to the physical world we create, including environmental, social, and economic inequities.  This physicality creates the mentality, including the unconscious implicit bias we discussed that causes us to recreate the institutions and systems that keep business as usual.)

III.  We discussed several dichotomies that arose from the readings:

  • Reality vs. utopia
  • Theory vs. experience
  • Urgency vs. normativity

Re. reality vs. utopia, a classmate suggested we should be “radically rewriting what we consider capital, where there is not someone at the short end of the stick”.  Please respond to what reimagining this new form of sustainable capital could look like.

IV.  Narrative and stories:

One strategy we discussed was communicating your story of the daily and immediate experience of environmental degradation, not the oil spill in the ocean, but the daily experience and priorities of most families.  For example, that you can wipe the soot off of your window each day in West Oakland and also know someone near you experiencing asthma.  For framing, public health has been powerful in understanding how it impacts you personally or your community.

Our readings said that there had to be an EJ movement that creates a constituency that demands sustainability.  Do people have ideas about why we don’t currently have a health movement that demands health equity as part of sustainability?  Esp. if this is a lever point for sustainability?  Or perhaps people have ideas about how to create a health movement to forward sustainability.

V.  Equity at the core of sustainability:

Prof. Acey laid out the historical creation of racialized space and de facto segregation with the help of discriminatory policies and city planning.

  • In 1868, after slavery, the 14th Amendment was adopted that enforced federal law over states rights in providing a level of protection to everyone.
  • Racial covenants which restricted people’s ability to sell houses to non-whites and Jews (who were not then considered “white”).
  • Redlining
  • Not investing in low-income inner core neighborhoods.
  • Low income and people of color couldn’t get loans to invest in their communities and also couldn’t move out.
  • Metropolitan filtering where people with economic or race privilege moved to new housing stock on outskirts, while the old stock in inner city declines with VOCs, lead, etc.

If you put up the map from the 1930s showing old redlined neighborhoods and current maps of predatory lending, it’s a perfect correlation.  It’s reverse redlining.  The institutions leading to the unequal exposure and bads are still there, and we have to still wrestle with them now to create sustainable communities.  Clearly in the predatory lending crisis, the banks are the main institution implicated.  What are the other institutions that currently produce these disparities in an ongoing way?

Reflections: Justainability & Urban Environment Problems


Here are some of the thoughts I had after reading the three papers. Please note the (italic) text and provide examples, disagreements or anything I have missed.


Addressing environmental problems is a concern for several international development organizations. The paper discuses the definition of “environmental” problems as one of the obstacles to proper handling of the problem and allocating appropriate funding. Although this is true to a large extent, it is valid to argue that international aid is also bound by geopolitical forces and interest of the donating agency. Providing funding to address environmental problems is usually part of a larger cooperation agreement between governments or international agencies and therefore is derived by the interest and the agenda of the international agency.

The definition is indeed a problem and this wide range (broad Vs narrow) of understanding plays a role in identifying and measuring the success of the program.

The challenges addressed in this paper seem to be common across the developing world. From previous experience I can reflect and provide examples as follow:

(1) Decision by central government is taken far from the location context and with absence of good knowledge of the context.

— the central government in Egypt developed a prototype for housing for the poor and named it (Taweteen). Spreading it out to remote areas of the country makes it extremely irrelevant and not suitable for the local tribes in the southern border near Sudan. This is because the lack of suitable design and absent of knowledge of the local conditions in such a remote area.

(2) Broad definitions is a problem, especially that most f the environmental and health issues are related to lack of infrastructures (i.e. water & sanitation).

— the environmental component of upgrading project end up of being a construction project instead of looking at the real environmental issues and resolve it. Again the absence of (appropriate technology) sometimes lead environmental improvement programs to be limited to installing pipes and provide urban utilities without proper needs assessment.

(3) Stand alone initiatives Vs Main stream: The paper here argues that main stream is more important. Although this seem to be valid to a large extent. It is important not to ignore specific conditions where stand alone initiatives can also be equally important. Especially in initiatives that are newly introduced and can not be part of the original development framework. A good example is the initiatives of developing green stars for tourism establishments that consider all sustainability elements. It would not be a successful one if addressed as a continuation of the existing rating system. (Folks, if you have other examples, please share)

(4) Pressure from Northern environmentalist.

— Either it is a blind copy of the developed world or a post colonial influence or looking forward to implementing good environmental practices from the North, the gap remains wide between the targeted and the achievable practices. A good step forward to transfer the good practices within the same region before looking forward to importing what might not work well from the North.

The table in the paper is consistent in addressing the hazardous and the grouping by “scale” seem to be one of the appropriate categorizations to address the environmental hazards.


I enjoyed this paper so much. And I fully agree that in absence of economic justice and political will, all sustainability efforts are wasted and become individual initiatives.

Although racial segregation might not be the main problem in some parts of the world, class segregation remain the dominating scheme in many countries. So even if the paper is about race, the injustice remain a challenge in many countries around the world.

“Greening is not only our responsibility, it is our right”

an amazing statement that, to me, a philosophy that I have taken in my life and it is the main principle of several NGOs I engaged with. The challenge here seems for the first while to be a (technical) concern (what and how to make it Green). While in fact, and from experience in several development countries, it has a political side where greening is against the interest of major stakeholders and capital control group.

Green economy and sharing wealth is an entire dilemma and without this level of realization, developing countries will not move forward. It should start from the country constitution, the country leadership, the top management in governments and corporates. Otherwise it will remain a nice green tag that will be limited to success stories on a website.


In the first paragraph this sentence stroked me: “… the urban poor are less directly dependent on natural resources for their livelihood…..”  Although I understand the argument here, but I think it doesn’t seem valid to generalize. Do you agree with me? Or you think we can generalize? Any Examples?

Helping the poor shall not be contradicting with protecting the future. I am not sure why the argument is framed in such a manner. The poor in urban favelas or squatters are for example encouraging on agriculture land in many countries (i.e. the Nile Delta in Cairo) and helping them out as poor is actually in synergy with protecting the Nile Delta.