Sunday, September 9, 2007

Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Environmental Justice (SCEJ), Introduction, Chapters 1 and 4

Since I have no background or familiarity with the history of EJ movements or principles, I had to do some catch-up reading, so I read the introduction followed by chapters one and four. What I learned was that I’ve cared about EJ for a long time—in fact, I would say that my main career objective (good-quality affordable housing) is rooted in EJ; I just didn’t know the term for it.

What I appreciated about the reading was Agyeman’s rigorous methodology and disciplined thinking (the lack of which I found somewhat onerous in Hallsmith’s writing). The Introduction briefly outlines the commonalities and schisms between EJ and sustainability, stemming primarily from the sustainability movement’s failure to include social equity among its goals. And while I agree with this assessment in theory, I might counter that argument by pointing out that at a decentralized, grassroots level, many advocates for sustainability are likely to also support EJ movements. I imagine that one possible reason for this is because on a national level, organizations like WWF or the Sierra Club must remain focused on furthering their mission, and the fundraising and membership structures that support the financial goals of the organization may be sufficiently sensitive to dissuade major change to the mission. The reason, then, that the interconnectedness between the two movements would play out on a local level is one, the absence of fundraising imperatives, and two, the ability to more clearly see the relationship between EJ and sustainability in the context of one local issue. Agyeman goes on to develop this notion (crystallized as JSP) in Chapter 1 vis-à-vis the Mystic Watershed problem, and in Chapter 4 by giving the backgrounds of various organizations around the country that particularly embody the principles of JSP through their dual foci of environmental sustainability and social equity.

Clearly, the rationale and approach as outlined by Ken Reardon is heavily weighted toward a JSP. It proposes using the participatory principles of EJ to motivate sustainable, equitable solutions to community challenges. From my perspective as a future real estate developer hoping to work on large-scale, mixed-use and mixed-income projects, participatory planning is de rigeur: there is simply no other way to go about getting all the various community approvals, permits, and financing needed to develop these massive projects. To fail to include community stakeholders would be fatal. However, the one aspect of participatory planning and other deliberative inclusionary processes that I take issue with is the time horizon. Ordinary citizens have to realize that time is money, and most offers have an expiration date embedded in them. No business entity is going to wait indefinitely for a community to decide what’s important, to whom, and what the rules are. The need to be proactive about establishing values and vision is critical to being able to attract (fend off) the right (wrong) opportunities as they arise; the alternative is to stagnate, to be closed off to any opportunity for change, and ultimately fail to thrive.

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