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Localism as a launchpad for sustainable communities

Majora Carter says ‘you don’t have to move neighbourhood to live in a better one’

Footprint recently attended a talk by American environmental justice advocate Majora Carter. Organised and hosted by the US Embassy in London, the talk forms part of the ‘Wychwood Dialogues’, a series of discussions on public policy. Previous talks include Peter Byck talking about his film Carbon Nation. Introducing the talk, US Deputy Chief of Mission Barbara Stephenson, noted that Majora’s efforts demonstrate that local governments must radically rethink their approach to urban development.

Majora Carter

Majora Carter

Majora’s ‘celebrity’ is a product of her work in her native South Bronx, which during the 1990s was a hotspot for negative environmental and economic activity. Setting up Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx) in 2001, her earliest project involved obtaining a US Forestry grant and mayoral backing to regenerate the Bronx waterfront slated to become a dump. The resulting Hunts Point Riverside Park has set a standard for the South Bronx Greenway, a masterplan that received $1.25 million planning backing for its development from the Federal Department of Transportation’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) programme. Majora was named a MacArthur fellow in 2005 and her Ted talk, Greening the ghetto, was one of the original six talks that launched Ted.com in 2006.

Hunts Point Riverside Park. Photo: Environmental Geographies

Hunts Point Riverside Park. Photo: Environmental Geographies

Propelled by a belief in the economic benefits of ‘greening the city’ and improving green infrastructure, SSBx set up the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training (BEST) initiative, creating ‘green-collar’ jobs in wetlands cleanup and decontamination to reduce unemployment. The programme is a nationally-lauded success – in its early years,  85% of BEST graduates were employed in green jobs while 10% returned to education.

South Bronx Greenway: Lafayette Avenue Streetscape

South Bronx Greenway: Lafayette Avenue Streetscape

Similarly, SSBx helped establish a green roofs company SmartRoofs LLC to aid in ‘greening the city’. Aside from the therapeutic and drainage advantages of increasing green roofs in the area, the scheme has led to a tax rebate of $4 per square foot of installed roof.

South Bronx Greenway: Lafayette Avenue Streetscape

South Bronx Greenway: Lafayette Avenue Streetscape

Currently Majora operates through the Majora Carter Group, a private consulting firm she established in 2008 tooffer environmental solutions that are ‘grounded in a progressive economic development approach’. One ambition is to address the tendency for gentrification to oust poorer members from a regenerated community – they hope to harness the benefits of regeneration in a quest for environmental equality, using localised ‘green collar’ jobs to create a diversified neighbourhood.

'Uptown Girl Power Mural' in Hunts Point, South Bronx. Credit: Shea Hazarian

‘Uptown Girl Power Mural’ in Hunts Point, South Bronx. Credit: Shea Hazarian

It is clear that Majora and her colleagues embrace sustainability in the fullness of the word, from ecology and environment right through social and economic issues. She suggested that what is directly relevant in the UK is the economic power and social return of green investment – especially in the current context of government decentralisation.

This approach relies on bespoke neighbourhood improvement, but ultimately requires the organisation and passion of people rooted in their own community. What Majora’s work really represents is the potential to catalyse urban change from a grassroots level, operating under the mantra, ‘Equality is the driver of prosperity. Projects are the drivers of policy.’

Majora Carter and the US DCM Barbara Stephenson

Majora Carter and the US DCM Barbara Stephenson

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