Sustainability moves low-income neighborhoods from the fringe

Sustainability moves low-income neighborhoods from the fringe

Old bike image by Kostenko Maxim via Shutterstock.

Cities have gotten increased attention in the ongoing UN deliberations on a new set of global sustainable development goals, but too often one key dimension of sustainability is underappreciated — equity. In this blog, reporter Sarah Glazer speaks with urban sustainability officials and experts about efforts in the U.S. to green cities and meet economic and social needs. 

When Paul Young sets off on a bike lane in his hometown of Memphis, he'll pretty soon run into a dangerous intersection where the lane ends abruptly and the sidewalks are in disrepair.

More likely than not, it will be in one of the many low income, predominantly black neighborhoods left behind by white flight in the 1980s — where high crime followed the neglect of buildings and streets.

As administrator of the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Sustainability, Young is trying to change all that. Young is part of a growing trend among sustainability directors in cities around the country, who are honing in on the most deprived pockets of their city when planning such environmental improvements as bikeways, community gardens and energy efficiency retrofits.

"I should be able to ride my bike from downtown Memphis to anywhere in the region if I pleased — without having to be in the same lane as a car," said Young, noting that while more than 70 miles of bike lanes have been installed under Mayor A.C. Wharton, they won't necessarily get cyclists safely from inner city Memphis to their jobs. "It's all about connecting employment areas with housing centers and rethinking our 20th century model of cars, cars, cars."

Memphis is participating in an ambitious plan to create some 300 miles of bikeways, greenways and walking trails in the region that includes neighboring Mississippi and Arkansas.

As part of its new approach to planning, it formed a social equity group drawn from minority neighborhoods, which Young calls "our pulse to make sure we're bringing neighborhood grass roots organizations into the process."

For example, the network now plans to connect trails and bikeways with express bus routes in low-income neighborhoods to help people get to work.

A computerized "livability dashboard" will allow you to click on your neighborhood to check how it measures up — from the location of bike lanes to "food swamps," blocks where fast-food joints dominate and fresh produce is hard to find.

The dashboard is emblematic of a broad effort among cities to map areas of environmental need matched to income. Chicago was one of the first big cities to pioneer this approach. While mapping "heat islands" that needed tree-planting several years ago, the city found that blocks without shade tended to be in low-income neighborhoods.

Building on that idea, Chicago recently conducted a sophisticated mapping exercise to find energy inefficient buildings, measuring how much residents and commercial owners were spending block by block, using electricity and gas utility data.

The city found energy spending per square foot tended to be greater in low-income neighborhoods, according to Aaron Joseph, Chicago's deputy sustainability director.

Using that data, "we targeted low-income areas with housing stock where we saw we could help people retrofit their homes or install other energy efficiency measures," Joseph said. The city has connected homeowners with utility and nonprofit retrofit programs, setting up a new call center to direct residents to the right programs, resulting in the retrofits of thousands of units, according to Joseph.

Smaller cities are also tackling inequality among their citizens seriously. San Jose sits near ultra-wealthy residential areas of Silicon Valley, where organic food stores abound, but many of San Jose's Latino immigrant neighborhoods don't have a store that sells fresh vegetables or fruit, making fresh produce expensive and inaccessible.

As a result, "if you have to feed a family of five, it's cheaper to go to McDonald's than buy fresh vegetables," said Dayana Salazar, professor of urban and regional planning at San Jose State University.

To rectify that, the city, working with San Jose State, has set a goal of growing sustainable food within one-half mile of every resident. With the permission of private owners, the project has planted food gardens in the yards of private homes and apartments in dozens of low-income neighborhoods. One shared gardens at a 10-unit apartment building can provide about 80 percent of residents' fresh produce needs.

"Most of this is private land, so it's very much a bottoms-up approach that helps garner political support because it's not taking tax dollars," said Jo Zientek, San Jose's deputy director of environment services, who said other cities have been intrigued with San Jose's low-budget way of providing healthy food.

Minneapolis also has been looking at locating more community gardens and bike paths in low-income communities as a health benefit for residents, according to the city's sustainability director, Gayle Prest. Minneapolis is one of nine cities that recently sent sustainability staff under the auspices of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network to visit Portland, Ore., considered a leader in incorporating equity considerations in its planning.

Prest said she was particularly struck by Portland's toolkit for training city employees to consider the needs of low-income and minority neighborhoods when making decisions.

Most recently, Portland has invited neighborhood and minority groups to the table as it updates its climate action plan, according to Desirée Williams-Rajee, equity specialist for Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

"Some of the actions we changed are looking at the impacts of green building on renters — not just owners," said Williams-Rajee, making sure the benefits of energy savings are passed on to those who can't afford to make the necessary energy efficiency investments.

"When I came into this field, sustainability was about justice as much as environment," said Williams-Rajee. "I feel like we're catching up, looking at the leg of social equity more strongly than in the past."

This article originally appeared at the NRDC Switchboard. Old bike image by Kostenko Maxim via Shutterstock.