Just Cause

Environmental justice highlights urban planning conference

By Bill Dries

The concept of environmental justice is joining the issue of sustainability in new discussions about planning and the way cities like Memphis should work.

Areas like this stretch of Jefferson Avenue west of Cleveland Street are urban areas that the concept of “just sustainability” be applied, according to Tufts University professor Dr. Julian Agyeman.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Local and regional planners meet Friday, April 19, at the University of Memphis to talk about “just sustainability” with the Tufts University planner who has been writing about it for the last decade.

“Unless there is a social justice base to sustainability, I can’t really see us developing truly sustainable communities,” said Julian Agyeman, professor and chairman of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University in Boston. “The concept of a just sustainability does not negate environmental sustainability. It even strengthens it. It recognizes that we have environmental limits. But it also recognizes that much of the discussion around sustainability has what I call an equity deficit.”

Agyeman is the keynote speaker at the 2013 Mid-South Planning and Zoning Institute at the Fogelman Executive Conference Center.

The institute is an annual event by the University of Memphis Graduate Program in City and Regional Planning.

Agyeman speaks at 9:15 a.m. and leads a panel discussion following his remarks.

The conference runs from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

“We cannot put social justice and environmental protection in silos. We’ve done that for too long. It hasn’t worked. We need to think anew,” Agyeman said of a discussion in which he won’t purport to have all the answers but will offer some common points that may apply from one city to the next.

That includes the problem of food deserts – urban areas that do not have supermarkets or grocery stores offering fresh produce and other foods that promote healthy lifestyles.

“The way to build a strong food movement is for us to understand and help those people in food deserts,” Agyeman said. “That might not mean putting a supermarket in the food desert. It might mean empowering those mom-and-pop corner stores to start providing some more healthy foods.”

Agyeman writes specifically about joining the concepts of food movements and food deserts in his most recent book “Cultivating Food Justice.”

Dr. Julian Agyeman of Tufts University is keynote speaker at Friday’s Mid-South Planning and Zoning Institute.

(Photo Courtesy of Kelvin Ma, Tufts Photo)

“If you look at the alternative food movement, it’s predominantly a white middle class movement,” he said. “We are arguing in the book, the people most impacted by the way that the current industrial food system operates … are low income and often minority people in food desert areas. If we want to build a truly representative progressive food movement we need to work with and across those artificial barriers, which seem to have been erected between the sort of Whole Foods crowd and the crowd that eats fatty foods and lives in food deserts.”

Bike lanes are another area where the two concepts merge – sometimes colliding – and bump into other hot-button issues.

“You see a bike lane going into a neighborhood, you know that young middle class white residents are moving in and the city is preparing for their entry,” he said noting that in Boston critics of bike lanes refer to them as “gentrification super highways.”

“How do we mitigate against area regeneration, which leads to house price rise, which leads to the displacement of people who have been someplace for decades?”

The issue has been present locally for years from the city’s move away from large public housing developments to their conversion as mixed-use, mixed-income development. It also includes discussions about whether certain areas of the city need bike lanes more than a better functioning public transportation system.

“We’ve picked the low-hanging fruit of sustainability,” Agyeman said. “We’ve done the easy stuff. Now really the rubber hits the road when we start to deal with issues of equity and who gets what. Not just who gets what now but who gets what in the future. … That’s the real test of sustainability.”

The concept may evolve further. Agyeman notes recent interest in the concept of “resiliency.”

That is the idea that cities and communities should be planned and designed with the idea of being able to endure changes in technologies including the loss of a major employer or industry to changes in cultures and even climate.

“I don’t think it’s going to take over sustainability, but I think resilience is a part of sustainability,” Agyeman said.

What has declined in prominence is the concept of environmental justice whose peak Agyeman puts during Bill Clinton’s administration.

“In order to keep the justice and equity debate going, I have reinserted the concept of environmental justice into what is now the dominant policy and planning discourse, which is sustainability,” he said. “It’s a robust culture. Don’t let anybody tell you it’s a fly-by-night concept. It’s been around for 33 years and we are still defining what exactly it means.”