Green the Ghetto

Revitalizing urban communities requires developing a local economy that utilizes the skills of its residents. This means casting off an economic model that masks the talents and creativity of individuals by exploiting workers, endangering public health, and consuming open space.

Often the most threatened are communities of color that have suffered economic collapse or the flight of the middle class. In the South Bronx these persistent problems were met with the siting of industrial and waste-handling facilities as a means to create economic opportunities. Instead they have created a myriad of public health problems and stripped the power of the community to build its own institutions. Now the South Bronx is struggling with an asthma rate 7 times higher then the national average, 40 percent of New York City’s commercial waste, and less then 1/2 acre of open space per 1,000 residents, which contributes to the growing incidence of obesity.

Building a new economy is first of all about rebuilding a sense of pride in the neighborhoods of the South Bronx. Opening new green space in the heavily developed area gives community members a place to congregate, exercise, and engage with their neighbors. These informal interactions begin to develop alliances of people and organizations who will then initiate community actions.

A life-long resident of the Hunts Point neighborhood in the South Bronx, Majora Carter started Sustainable South Bronx as a means of opposing the unfair burden imposed by outside regulation and of leveraging the changes that will lead to a safe and sustainable community for her neighbors. The mission of Sustainable South Bronx is to achieve “environmental justice through innovative, economically sustainable projects that are informed by community needs.” Carter knows that it is necessary to oppose the regulations that harm the residents of her community, but she also believes that power lies in “giving our community permission to dream, to plan for healthy air, healthy jobs, healthy children, and safe streets.”

The programs of Sustainable South Bronx not only create a more liveable environment for residents, they are transforming the very things that degraded their community into new jobs and added value.

The organization’s keystone project is a community-led plan for a pedestrian/bicycle greenway to provide much needed open space, waterfront access, and opportunities for mixed-use economic development. These measures will reconnect neighborhoods that have long been divided by dangerous thoroughfares and industrial development.

Sustainable South Bronx advocates for the just siting of new power stations but also seeks ways to decrease the need for these new structures. For example, it acts as a consultant for the installation of “green roofs.” By placing soil and vegetation on roofs, costs associated with cooling are reduced, the speed of rainwater runoff is slowed, air quality is improved, and rooftop-grown vegetables thrive. By decreasing the local need for electricity these installations give support to the fight against locating more power plants in the South Bronx.

The “Green the Ghetto” initiative is expanding the job market for environmental professionals. Rather then lose jobs to outside contracts Sustainable South Bronx developed the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training program. The 10-week program trains individuals in riverine and estuarine restoration, plant identification, and nursery management. Trainees also obtain valuable certification. The skills they gain enable them to improve the health of their community.

Sustainable South Bronx is involved with partnering organizations in bringing additional “green collar jobs” to their area. The planned Bronx Industrial Recycling Park will house a collection of businesses in which the waste and by-products of one business can be the raw material for another one. The Park will reduce the generation and export of waste from The Bronx, assist in shutting down existing truck-reliant waste-transfer stations in the South Bronx, and provide 300-500 quality jobs to residents.

Majora Carter has shaped a positive environment where residents can again take pride in their community. She is a powerful voice for an environmentalism that includes social and economic concerns.

Majora Carter, Charles Turner, and Michael Shuman will be speaking at the Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures on October 27, 2007, at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Tickets are 20 BerkShares or 20 dollars and 15 BerkShares/15 dollars for members/students/seniors.