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"Race, Poverty, and Sustainable Communities,"

by Carl Anthony January/February 2001 issue of Poverty & Race

The movement for sustainable communities could give an important boost to the struggle for racial and economic justice in the United States. But without incorporating the quest for racial and economic justice, and significant leadership from communities of color and their allies, this movement may at best be irrelevant to the fight against racism. At worst, it could be more of a liability than an asset. Fortunately, a new cadre of social justice activists and thinkers is emerging, seeking to address the challenges of sustainable development. They are pursuing new strategies to link grassroots struggles of disenfranchised communities in neighborhoods and workplaces to the politics of sustainability at the metropolitan regional level.

The sustainability movement is a series of loosely organized efforts to address local and international environmental problems and reduce the negative impacts of human consumption and waste on the natural world. Advocates hope to strengthen community-based efforts to tackle sustainability issues. Supporters say they are also committed to eliminating poverty, especially in the Third World. Across the United States, this movement is allied with recently emerging efforts called “smart growth,” which seek metropolitan solutions to intractable urban problems.

The first elements of the sustainability movement grew out of a series of international conferences beginning in 1972, sponsored by the United Nations. Global concern for the environment reached a fever pitch during the 1980s and led to conflicts between environmental groups from industrial nations and governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in the Third World. Third World nations saw the antigrowth environmental agenda as just another way to prevent them from attaining their goals of economic development. Seeking to resolve this conflict, the UN set up the World Commission on Environment and Development, which published its report, Our Common Future, in 1987. The report defined sustainable development as a pattern of development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

“African Americans have a long history of solidarity with the global community and with peoples who have struggled with justice and fairness,” notes Clarence Lusane in his important book, Race in the Global Era. “In the period ahead, new opportunities and challenges to global participation abound,” he writes. Global perspectives on environment and development, however, often overlook the impacts of poverty within industrial nations. The struggle for racial and economic justice in the U.S. requires strengthening community-based organizations while dismantling residential apartheid, generating good jobs and combating growing wage inequality among workers. To achieve these outcomes, scholars and practitioners are seeking employment, education and family support systems, and new strategies for metropolitan regional cooperation within the United States.

Poverty and Environmental Concerns

During the last two decades, grassroots struggles for environmental justice have begun to focus public attention on connections between poverty and the environment in the United States. As a concept, environmental justice affirms the use value of life in all its manifestations, against the interests of wealth, power and technology — a very appealing perspective. To date, however, most of these struggles have been oppositional. The movement to link conservation with appropriate patterns of development could strengthen environmental justice efforts at building new allies, further transforming both the environmental and social justice debates, and bringing substantial new resources to impoverished communities.

At a domestic regional level, advocates of sustainable communities are fighting to stop suburban sprawl. Opposition to uncoordinated development on the metropolitan fringe is spreading like wildfire and has emerged as a major political force across the country. Much of what has been written about sprawl, however, has been framed from the perspectives of environmentalists and white suburban residents. Typically, environmental groups see sprawl as poorly planned real estate development destroying wildlife habitat, plants, animals and natural ecosystems. In recent years, throughout the nation, suburban citizen groups, fed up with Walmarts, ugly housing developments, traffic jams and air pollution, have placed over 200 successful growth management initiatives on the ballot. Elected officials grappling with sales and property taxes are alarmed by the negative impact of sprawl on public revenues. A new breed of architects and urban designers sees the potential for new patterns of metropolitan form. This trend is sparking an alliance between environmentalists and developers for better urban design, more compact, pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented development, and metropolitan regional coordination, including reinvestment in the inner city—a new development pragmatism dubbed “Smart Growth.”

The Racial Dimension

But another new breed of environmental justice advocates, while sympathetic to these concerns, comes at the issue of sprawl from a different perspective. They understand that institutional racism has shaped metropolitan growth patterns, and that any effective solution must come to terms with race. They are willing to explore new relationships with advocates of sustainable development. Manuel Pastor, Director of Latin American Studies at the University of California-Santa Cruz, points out: “Linking to regional economic dynamism may be a powerful antidote to what have been ineffective strategies to attract investment to poor areas. After all, wealthy suburbs are not only jobs-rich—they are connection-rich for individuals from inner-city locales.”

To be sure, there are limitations to efforts at building alliances between advocates of racial justice and the movement for sustainable communities. After a decade of efforts to generate racial diversity within the environmental movement, the leaders and political base of these organizations are still overwhelmingly white.

There is also a cultural disconnect between advocates of sustainability and organizations struggling in neighborhoods and workplaces to achieve racial and economic justice. While the sustainability movement shares with social justice advocates a deep suspicion of free-market capitalism as a solution to the major challenges of our time, advocates of social and racial justice are forced to be less utopian and far more pragmatic about jobs and economic opportunity.

Advocates of sustainable development rely heavily on technological innovation, such as waste reduction and recycling, energy efficiency and renewables, transportation planning and traffic management as solutions for community problems — as if building healthy communities were primarily a plumbing problem. They also suggest changing individual lifestyles, such as learning to raise one’s own food, walking rather than riding in automobiles, and throwing away credit cards.

Important as these proposals are, they may appear quixotic, perhaps even insulting, in the everyday world of the urban poor, ironically forced to take such measures in the absence of alternatives. As Rutgers University professor Robert Lake has noted, “A vista of shuttered factories, deserted shopping malls, deteriorating infrastructure, depopulated cities and abandoned toxic waste dumps does not welcome discussion of limits, carrying capacity, ecological footprints or environmental constraints.”

Despite lip-service to supporting cultural diversity and eliminating poverty, strategies to accomplish such objectives are usually missing from the environmental movement’s otherwise voluminous outpouring of research and publications.

Problematic Alliances

A more problematic prospect is that an alliance between business and environmental interests may provide the rationale for public policies that override and set back the quest for racial and economic justice. A regional analysis of gentrification and community stability undertaken in the San Francisco Bay Area by the Urban Habitat Program, for example, shows that implementation of urban growth boundaries protecting open space and wildlife habitat on the suburban fringe may well drive up land values in the inner cities. Without countervailing measures, such a policy will force displacement of communities of color now residing in central urban areas.

As a case in point, Oakland’s Mayor Jerry Brown, responding to encouragement to make the city more livable, has initiated a campaign to bring 10,000 new residents into downtown by the year 2003. From a conventional environmental perspective, this effort is cause for celebration. The infill strategy will cut down on suburban sprawl, by making higher-density market-rate housing available to populations who would normally seek out housing opportunities in suburban locations. The plan will make efficient use of existing infrastructure, promoting 24-hour use of a pedestrian-friendly downtown. Thus, it will help reduce traffic congestion, squandering of energy, pollution of air and water, and the loss of biodiversity on the suburban fringe. Businesses will benefit from the mayor’s leadership. Telecommunications, software/multimedia, biotechnology and food processing firms are being offered a ten-year tax holiday to relocate to the city in order to be near where employees will live. Big-name developers are vying for free land to build in Oakland’s downtown.

The future of 6,000 current residents of Oakland’s downtown—mostly poor people of color—is also at stake. With careful planning, they could also benefit from new development downtown. Unfortunately, however, new investment in the area, driven by regional pressures, will raise land values and rents. This could bring gentrification and displacement into neighborhoods like West Oakland, Chinatown and Lake Merritt. No planning is currently being done by the city to meet the needs of these residents.

A New Metropolitan Agenda

Racial, economic and environmental justice advocates around the country are beginning to grapple with such challenges and opportunities of sustainable development at the metropolitan scale. They are seeking ways to link grassroots struggles of disenfranchised communities in neighborhoods and workplaces to the politics of what has been called the new metropolitan agenda.

Four new trends are opening up metropolitan politics as a terrain of struggle for advocates of racial and economic justice. The first is a nation-wide confrontation between powerful suburban constituencies and developers on the issue of sprawl. This clash, driven by suburban efforts to protect property values, status and amenities, and to reduce the inconvenience of traffic congestion, converges with a larger environmental agenda to protect and conserve land, air, water quality, energy and biodiversity. Second, corporate interests need greater collaboration between local jurisdictions in order to promote economic development and competitiveness in a rapidly changing global market place. Third is the growing awareness that suburban communities are not monolithic. In his study of 29 metropolitan regions throughout the United States, for example, Myron Orfield has persuasively argued that the economic interests of older suburban communities are more aligned with core cities than with the outer suburbs. These insights open the possibility of greater collaboration between communities of color and the white working class. Finally, internal racial diversity within communities of color, stratification along class and geographic lines, suggests that the political model of inner cities versus suburbs no longer matches reality.

The central question is: will smart growth policies curb suburban sprawl at the expense of inner-city communities of color, or can social activists and their allies fashion a version of sustainable communities at the metropolitan scale to realize new visions of racial and economic justice?

Carl Anthony Executive Director of the Urban Habitat Program (PO Box 29908, Presidio Sta., San Francisco, CA 94129), is an urban planner, architect and environmental justice organizer

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