Environmentally Friendly—and Fair, Too

Julian Agyeman advocates in a new book for bringing notions of equity and social justice to sustainability
Julian Agyeman
“This is the nub of the concept of just sustainabilities: we mustn’t think only about 'green,' such as the environmental or health aspects . . . we must think about the social justice aspects,” says Julian Agyeman. Photo: Yoon S. Byun
September 12, 2013

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Most of us think sustainability is about energy, water, waste and maybe agriculture. That’s only half the story, says Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning. What’s often left out of the conversation is the relationship between environmental quality and human equality or social justice.

In his new book, Just Sustainabilities: Policy, Planning and Practice (Zed Books, 2013), Agyeman shows how sustainability can be—and should be—allied with larger goals.

Take city streets. For most urban planners, making roads more sustainable consists of adding bicycle lanes. But Agyeman argues that what’s needed is a more holistic approach that engenders what he calls spatial justice or “the democratization of streets” by taking into consideration all users of the thoroughfares.

Most bike lanes cater to just one group of people who pedal—those he calls the young, speedy and prosperous cyclists—while ignoring the needs of  “invisible cyclists,” such as “the elderly African-American man or the elderly Chinese-American woman,” who bicycle because that is their only transportation. Taking into consideration the needs of both kinds of users is one example of how planners can achieve justice and sustainability.

Linking equity and sustainability isn’t difficult, but the planning must be intentional, says Agyeman, who sat down with Tufts Now to talk about his new book.

Tufts Now: Define just sustainabilities.

It is about improving people’s quality of life now and in the future, in a just and equitable manner, while living with the limits of supporting ecosystems. It’s not some reimagining of social justice; this is social justice within an explicitly understood notion of the need to live within environmental limits.

To demonstrate the potential of this theory, you compare a main street in Gothenburg, Sweden, and Mass. Ave. in Cambridge. How did you come up with that?

Most streets in the United States are almost entirely conduits for vehicles, mainly private cars. So it was striking to me sitting in a coffee shop in Gothenburg and looking out on Södra Vägen, which is about the same width as Mass. Ave., where private vehicles were constrained to about 15 percent of the streetscape. On Mass. Ave., private vehicles take up 80 percent. And it got me thinking: how do the Swedes do this?

Gothenburg’s main street looks different from most U.S. main streets.What they’ve done is imposed spatial justice on the streets. They have reallocated rights to space by giving the greatest rights to pedestrians, cyclists and people riding the transit systems that flow up and down the middle of the road, and they have allocated the fewest rights to car drivers. We’re beginning to do this in parts of the United States—on Broadway in New York, in Portland, Ore., in San Francisco. There is going to be a new cycle track down Beacon Street in Somerville and Cambridge, protected by a median. We’re beginning to think the unthinkable here in the United States: constraining the rights of the driver. And I’m fine with that. Because for me, a major challenge of the sustainable city is taming the private vehicle.

We need to start thinking in a more collaborative way about how we design our cities, about how we make cities more livable, more walkable.

How would you retrofit older cities to fit this mold?

It’s not just thinking about physically retrofitting; it’s getting decision makers to reimagine what their community could look like, and actually believe that it could change. Copenhagen is considered a mecca for transformed urban living, but the Danes in the 1960s were not on board with this. They said, “We’re not Italians; we want to drive our cars.” But the Danes have been changing the nature of their cities very cleverly and incrementally over the last 40 years. And now in Copenhagen, the modal split is in favor of cyclists, public transportation and pedestrians.

How did they make that happen?

I have noticed that cites that really make change are places where there is a synergistic coalition for change, often involving a powerful mayor—like Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg in New York City—along with a transportation commissioner such as Janette Sadik-Khan, an enlightened consultant like Jan Gehl and very engaged social movement organizations.

Can it be done here in auto-heavy eastern Massachusetts?

A good example of a mayor in Massachusetts who really gets it is Mayor Joseph Curtatone in Somerville. He’s moving ahead on urban farms, some very enlightened cycling provisions, rethinking urban parks. He’s thinking about public policy on happiness and well-being. I think maybe there is a new generation of mayors who can start to see the possibilities in this kind of thinking.

You give an example in the book of bike lanes being sustainable but not always just. How can they be both?

The classic case is in Portland, Ore. Along North Williams Avenue, a major street in the once largely African-American Albina neighborhood, the bike lanes started coming in. There was a lot of anger in the community. People said, “We’ve been cycling for decades, and now that the white yuppie gentifiers are coming in, you’re putting bike lanes in. We’re not disagreeing with that, but why didn’t you do it when we were first here?”

My critique in the book is that a lot of cycling organizations cater to cyclists, not those who simply cycle. I argue that there’s a big social justice issue here, that they are missing a constituency—the people who do not choose to cycle, but have to cycle because they cannot afford any other form of transportation.

This is the nub of the concept of just sustainabilities: we mustn’t think only about “green,” such as the environmental or health aspects of cycling; we must think about the social justice aspects of cycling. If we can pull those together, we can really build movements almost like we’ve never seen since the civil rights movement, movements that really address social justice and the environment.

Another issue you write about is food—that just and sustainable food is about more than being good locavores.

One of the problems of the local food movement has been it has been dominated by the scientific and nutritional aspects of food, and not the cultural and symbolic aspects. I also think the mantra that a lot of ecologically minded agriculture people have—that this is Massachusetts and we should only grow what “should” be grown in Massachusetts—is wrong.

A Hmong farmer in Lowell, for instance, wants to grow culturally appropriate and culturally significant foods. If we say you can’t be a member of the sustainable food movement because you don’t grow local Massachusetts food, we’ll lose people. And the movement will be seen at worst as racist or at best as culturally exclusive. We need to broaden our concept of “local” along many lines. [Editor’s note: See “Not My Revolution,” about Agyeman’s 2011 book Cultivating Food Justice.]

Are these kinds of changes simply wishful thinking?

You have a millennial generation, which is seeing things very differently from my generation. They are not buying cars in anything like the numbers their parents were. They want the utility of the product, but not necessarily the ownership. So it ends up being about sharing. And cities are all about sharing—sharing space, sharing sidewalks, sharing all kinds of stuff.

In Bogotá, Colombia, they built a 17-kilometer bicycle and pedestrian corridor connecting lower-income communities to jobs, public services and shopping. What’s very interesting is that the then mayor of Bogotá didn’t talk about sustainability; he talked about equity. But their plans and programs have created a more sustainable city.

I think what we’ve got is a system ripe for transformation. And some of the changes we might not recognize as transformational straight away, from Zipcar, Airbnb and Couchsurfing to major cities like Seoul, which plans to make the sharing economy available to all citizens by expanding sharing infrastructure, promoting existing sharing enterprises, incubating sharing economy startups, utilizing idle public resources and providing more access to data. So I can see many mini-transformations, and maybe through a series of tipping points, they could become a critical mass, and then change becomes cascading.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu 

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