Sustainable South Bronx: Designing Pathways to a Sustainable Community
By Jaime Stein, Miquela Craytor and Sheila Somashekhar
Issue 3 Spring 2010
Sustainable South Bronx (SSBX) is a grassroots movement, which is empowering the local Bronx community one project at a time.Their work is closing the gap between the wealthy and the poor who, in many ways, face greater risks when it comes to climate change. SSBX puts the power in the hands of the local community through their Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training (BEST) Academy, which provides green-collar job training to community members, many of whom receive public assistance or were formerly incarcerated. This article explores how design and architecture have touched the lives of the SSBX community.
Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx) is a non-profit community-based organization created in 2001 to champion hope and opportunity for the people of the South Bronx and other urban communities. They take an innovative, solutions-driven approach to the economic and environmental issues that affect the residents of urban areas. Their comprehensive programs work to create a strong network of support for these communities, both now and in the future. They are public advocates, inspiring the members of urban communities to improve their economic conditions through education and job training. They specialize in environmental solutions, preparing workers for jobs in the growing green economy while laying the groundwork for cleaner, healthier urban communities.
Creating climate-safe economies will require that the most vulnerable communities are provided with employment options that enable their communities to enjoy economic wellbeing while enabling more equitable access to education, health care, child care, fresh foods, green space and jobs that restore and renew. Pathways out of poverty should not create negative social, environmental and economic externalities.
Our current market structure does not consider the true cost of doing business. Rather, it allows the externalization of the cost of doing business. Communities therefore bear the cost of cleaning up environmental pollution or gearing up for climate change. Often, the most disadvantaged communities bear the largest cost of clean up and experience the greatest negative impact of pollution on health and wellbeing. Consequently, diminishing the quality of the community and often eroding social capital and natural capital.
Climate-safe economies must be linked to sustainable economic development which emphasizes economic return, equity and environment. Too often environmental and economic benefits are seen as conflicting goals. Thankfully, we do not have to choose between a strong environment and a strong economy. Job creation does not have to depend on the depletion of natural resources. In fact, careers in environmental remediation, that enable the greening of current industry and utilize new energy technologies are all examples of the synergistic links between a strong economy and a healthy environment. These careers, which encompass design-savvy skills such as green roof engineering and landscape design, are representative pathways out of poverty that can help lead to a sustainable economy. As we begin to implement new carbon neutral technologies, remediate the damage already done, and then engage industry and strive for carbon neutrality, we can put people to work, to build human capital and create community resilience.
The Vulnerability of Low Income and Resource-Poor Communities
Designing resilience into communities is essential for wellbeing and for disaster preparedness. When we begin to examine communities most at risk to sea level rise and tidal surge, we begin to see patterns in the way land is used. These at-risk communities are typically low-lying and coastal. The emerging land use patterns reveal concentrations of polluting facilities, the very facilities that contribute to climate change in these at-risk communities. During the industrial revolution operational need for water and waterfront access led to the formation of industrial hubs in low-lying coastal zones, families seeking jobs formed communities around the industry. As wealth amassed for some, a desire for distance from polluting industries helped contribute to class and color segregation. Affluent white communities moved away from industry, while low income communities, predominately communities of color, remained to share local air, water and public space with polluting facilities.
Often, the most disadvantaged communities bear the largest cost of clean up and have pollution impact the health and wellbeing of their community.
The combination of existing zoning and lack of political power within the communities results in a concentration of polluting industrial facilities. The communities become easy targets for the sitting of industrial uses because development officials neglect to ensure that no community gets more than its fair share of pollution.
This pattern and cycle is not unique to industrial development within the United States; it also affects resource-poor communities across the globe, which are often hit first and worst by the harmful effects of climate change. Communities in New Orleans, Indonesia and most recently, the Philippines, have captured global attention in their struggles with the complete devastation that results from severe wet weather events, events which we are sure to see with greater frequency in our climate-challenged future. The sighting of oil and petrochemical refineries along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge resulted in the creation of “Cancer Alley,” a corridor of low-income, resource-poor communities with rates of cancer and respiratory ailments higher than the national average. When the water rises in communities such as Cancer Alley, strong tides and winds stir up decades of polluted sediment and carry it into the surrounding community, resulting in a devastating need for massive environmental remediation.
Designed Vulnerability in Hunts Point
The South Bronx is one of the poorest congressional districts in the United States. The Hunts Point neighborhood of the South Bronx is a low-lying peninsula where the Bronx River meets the Long Island Sound and this area stands to be hit first and worst by climate change. The Hunts Point shoreline hosts the world’s second largest food distribution center, a waste water treatment plant, numerous open-air waste transfer stations, a sewage sludge pelletization plant, a prison barge and a host of metal scrappers, ad hoc auto body shops and truck depots. In an average week, 60,000 trucks pass through Hunts Point.
Living within this diesel truck-dependent industry is a residential community. The community is one of color, mostly young men and women struggling to support their families and dealing with underemployment rates of 26%. 40% of Hunts Point residents live below the poverty line and according to the New York City Department of City Planning, 55.8% of the population received public assistance in 2008. Sharing the air, water and public space with all these polluting industries has had severe and alarming health impacts: one in four children has asthma and adults face high rates of diabetes and obesity.
Reimagining Community Development: Green Jobs to Rehab Bad Design
Although the South Bronx is surrounded by industry and its consequences, its residents continue to live in poverty. The existing industries provide few job opportunities for the community. The living wage jobs generated by these industries are not jobs that the community is prepared for and local employers are not trained to see the social and economic benefits of hiring and training a local workforce.
Sustainable South Bronx is engaged in training individuals to meet the needs of local employers, as well as promoting the development of sustainable businesses which hire locally. Their approach is multi-level. The organization works with local industry and industry regulators to promote and legislate cleaner business practices and they provide job training and skills development opportunities for the local community to meet employer’s needs.
In 2002, Sustainable South Bronx created the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training (BEST) Academy, which is recognized as a national model for green-collar job training and placement.
Going forward, not every job will be a green job. As the world transitions to more truly green economies, we cannot dismiss current industries, no matter how poorly designed and polluting they are, because doing so will wipe out our nation’s existing employment base. However, we can engage existing industries, recognize their importance as employers, and train a local workforce to work with them to green their practices. We can create vibrant communities whose residents are invested in rather than opposed to the success of their local businesses. We can prepare for climate change and build resilience as we attempt to remediate the impact of poor business practice on communities and our environment.
In 2002, Sustainable South Bronx created the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training (BEST) Academy, which is recognized as a national model for green-collar job training and placement. BEST Academy consists of two programs, BEST ECO, which prepares students for ecological restoration and horticultural maintenance work, and BEST for Buildings, which focuses on skills related to energy efficiency in existing buildings. Students in both programs graduate with several certifications, job readiness preparation, and a powerful understanding of the importance of transitioning to a green economy. The 12- and 17-week programs prepare disengaged individuals for green job opportunities. Most BEST Academy participants are from low-income communities like the South Bronx. They are predominantly individuals who are receiving some form of public assistance, and approximately 30% of all participants were formerly incarcerated.
The entire community benefits from the increased number of residents who have marketable skills and can now contribute to the economic revitalization of the neighborhood. Well-trained and supported green workers are critical to the emerging green economy, and to making that economy have a positive impact on low-income communities.
Graduates from the BEST Academy are able to obtain employment in fields that have historically been difficult to enter, including horticulture, landscape contracting, bioremediation and weatherization. BEST Academy has developed links to employers such as the New York City Parks Department, Central Park Conservancy, private landscapers and environmental engineering firms.
An essential element to BEST Academy’s success has been developing relationships with employers. Many of the critical certifications students receive are specified by potential employers, some of whom provide a training role, resulting in a positive feedback loop wherein the trainers can also become the potential employers.
Using Design to Regenerate
The Pratt Design Incubator Partners with SSBx: A community partnership informs human-centered design solutionsIn the summer of 2009, Sustainable South Bronx asked the Pratt Design Incubator Program to partner with community members on the design of outdoor furniture for the proposed Greenway Project, a strip of green space proposed for the industrial neighborhood. An interdisciplinary team including industrial designers, architect, environmental designer and urban planner gathered to brainstorm solutions with South Bronx inhabitants. A workshop with local youth and a block party helped inform the designers as to how the community envisioned the new outdoor space. Prototypes were presented to the community members to elicit further feedback for refinement of the design solutions.
In addition to training a local workforce, Sustainable South Bronx advocates for and implements new projects in which design provides innovative solutions to engage and enable the residents of resource-poor communities. Back in 2001, with sister organization The Point Community Development Corporation, Sustainable South Bronx sought to green the community while creating jobs. Its efforts resulted in the visioning and planning of the South Bronx Greenway. The Greenway, set to begin construction in Spring of 2010, will consist of miles of planted recreational paths, creating safe pedestrian and cyclist connections to the waterfront and throughout Hunts Point. The Greenway, a collaborative effort involving the Office of the Mayor of the City of New York and the New York City Economic Development Corporation, is an investment in green infrastructure, which when completed will require a trained workforce, ideally, BEST ECO graduates, to create and maintain this urban green space. The Greenway is an example of how the design community can increase economic value by adapting existing infrastructure and using local resources while addressing the challenges of climate change. Throughout the process, landscape designers, architects, industrial and furniture designers worked alongside community members to create a vision for the Greenway. Through this collaboration, community members were able to claim ownership of the new green industry within their community while learning the potential synergies between environment and economy.
There is enormous potential for the design community to reimagine current and new industries to include many more sustainable projects like the Greenway. With communities and designers working together, we can begin to reinvigorate existing industries by streamlining resource flows and achieving energy efficiency. Additionally, we can design industries and processes that employ many, rather than only a few, individuals. Together, we can design operating processes with less waste and fewer emissions while concentrating on expanding the synergies between the goods produced and the local workforce and purchasing power.
There are countless local models that provide replicable solutions for creating community resilience in the face of climate change. Now is the time to apply lessons learned locally to the broader community of designers who are shaping our world. We need critical thinking and action by leaders who are willing to apply those local solutions as the means to drive the necessary change at a broader scale. The choices design professionals make represent an extraordinary opportunity to open the door to economic and social prosperity through environmental innovation. There are vast opportunities in which to apply our local models globally and use our experience to transform design methods in order to start moving toward the creation of climate-safe communities that are economically viable and, above all, resilient.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Building Sustainable Communities
Identify vulnerable communities
Reach out to local employers
Identify job opportunities
Train students for challenges
Consider design solutions
Instill a sense of personal value in the minds of employees
Restore pride and wellbeing in community
Begin again in a new community
About the Authors:
Jaime Stein is an environmental scientist with a Master’s Degree in Environmental Systems Management from Pratt Institute. Her professional background is in biomedical research focusing on TB influenza and HIV. Jaime developed her community organizing skills during her Peace Corps service in Burkina Faso, West Africa, where she led a team of forty community health care workers to achieve better regional health. Jaime has a particular interest in the public health impacts of the built environment and believes in the potential for urban life to enhance public health. In addition to her work with Sustainable South Bronx, Jaime is the Coordinator of the Environmental Systems Management Program at Pratt Institute and an adjunct professor within the Design Management Program.
Sheila Somashekhar joined Sustainable South Bronx after receiving her Master’s Degree in Urban Planning and Public Health from the University of Michigan where she collaborated on the development of a sustainability resource center in Detroit with Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice and the Southeast Michigan Sustainable Business Forum. Her graduate work has involved environmental justice, brownfield redevelopment, the built environment and obesity, and youth recreation needs.
Miquela Craytor is the Executive Director of Sustainable South Bronx. Recognized for her work in both local and national circles, she has contributed to the Presidential Climate Action Plan, served as a Global Green Urbanism Leader and the Aspen Institute Environmental Forum Scholar, is on the NYC Apollo Alliance Steering Committee and was honored by the Bronx Chamber of Commerce as an Environmental Leader. Prior to her current position, Ms. Craytor was the Deputy Director of Sustainable South Bronx. Ms. Craytor was previously a Senior Planner of Economic Development at Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, the economic development consultants to the Office of the Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, Jr. Craytor earned a Master’s Degree with honors in City and Regional Planning from Pratt Institute. She holds a Bachelor of Arts, with Honors, in Planning and Public Policy and Management with a minor in History from the Honors College of the University of Oregon.