Environmental Justice Activist Majora Carter Discusses Need to 'Green the Ghetto' at U.Va.'s Annual Howland Memorial Lecture

March 18, 2008 – As founder and executive director of the Sustainable South Bronx organization, Majora Carter works to improve the environmental conditions and urban landscape of her hometown, New York City's South Bronx. Her extensive efforts to provide environmental justice to the citizens in one of the country's most neglected communities made Carter a fitting choice to deliver the annual Howland Memorial Lecture, sponsored by the University of Virginia's School of Architecture.

Established in 1985 in memory of the late Benjamin J. Howland Jr., a U.Va. professor of landscape architecture from 1975 to 1983, the series focuses on public service and features lecturers whose work has shaped the American public landscape. In her talk titled "Green the Ghetto: Why, How, and What Happens if We Don't," Carter outlined her organization's efforts to environmentally and economically revive the South Bronx and promote sustainable practices in similar communities around the world.

She began her lecture by pointing out the obstacles she has faced simply because of where she grew up.

"Statistically speaking, I really should not be here at all," Carter said. "I grew up in the South Bronx, which is the land of urban blight." She went on to add, "I live in a city that is the richest in the world. And yet I live in the community that is the poorest congressional district in the country."

Years of redlining, disinvestment, highway development and poor urban planning in the middle of the 20th century transformed the working-class, mostly white neighborhood where her parents settled into the South Bronx Carter has known since youth. She described the community as sometimes reminiscent of a "war zone" and recounted how her brother survived two tours in Vietnam, only to be killed in the next neighborhood the summer after he came home.

After earning a bachelor's degree in film from Wesleyan University and a master's degree in creative writing from New York University, Carter brought her creative talents back to her hometown. She worked to promote community arts projects before realizing that what her neighbors really needed were improvements in their physical surroundings, which had been overstrained by the industrial and waste management demands of the rest of New York City.

"No community should bear the brunt of environmental burden and not enjoy any environmental benefits," Carter said. "Race and class are the best indicators of where you are going to find the good space, like parks and trees, and where you are going to find the bad stuff like ... waste facilities and sewage sludge pelletizing plants."

Her lecture outlined how the poor environmental conditions in the South Bronx cause high rates of childhood asthma, obesity and type 2 diabetes and contribute to learning disabilities and crime. The community also suffers from a lack of green areas and riverfront recreational options.

Growing up, Carter knew her town was on the Bronx River, but she rarely glimpsed it because of the industry lining the waterway. This situation led to Sustainable South Bronx's first improvement project, the creation of the Hunts Point Riverside Park, which features a fishing and recreation pier.

"It really inspired our community to think, 'What else could we do?'" Carter said. "Do we have to constantly see ourselves the way that we are seen by folks who think that the South Bronx is full of nothing but pimps and pushers and prostitutes? Can we define, through the creation of a space like this, how we feel about ourselves?"

The park was the first step in the Sustainable South Bronx's proposed South Bronx Greenway, a series of waterfront esplanades and on-street bike paths throughout the community.

The group also runs the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training, a "green collar," or environmental, job-training program. Other projects include promoting green roof construction, efforts to bring eco-friendly manufacturing and solid waste management to the South Bronx, and the proposed removal of the unfinished and largely unused 1.25-mile Sheridan Expressway.

The group's most ambitious project, the "Sheridan Swap" would replace the highway with 28 acres of riverfront housing and commercial, retail and public space. To complete the project, Sustainable South Bronx has joined forces with the South Bronx River Watershed Alliance and the U.Va. Landscape Architecture Department. According to Kristina Hill, a professor in that department, two of its graduate studios have spent this semester creating design plans for the space.

"When you take out a scar like that, you have to replace it like a skin graft," Hill said. "What we are doing is proposing what the fabrics could be, what the choices are for how to rebuild that and make it a center instead of a margin."

Landscape architecture professor Makie Suzuki's studio is working on the project's public space, including a market and performance area, while Hill's students are designing ways to organize the housing, commercial and open space that benefit the health of the river. The students will have traveled to New York three times by the end of the semester.

"It is really exciting to work with students with really high-level skills, showing us what the possibilities could be for that piece of land," Carter said, adding that the relationship will continue in future semesters. The students' proposed plans are now part of the project's environmental impact statement.

While the landscape architecture faculty and students in attendance undoubtedly appreciated the planning ideas discussed in the lecture, three attendees were particularly excited by what Carter had to say: Howland's widow, Sue, and two of his daughters, Pam and Jane.

"He was so interested in all these things that make the world better," Sue Howland said of her husband, who worked at the National Park Service for 35 years and completed one of the first major park planning projects on the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. "I know he would be very proud of having this woman here today, who has just done a great job."

— By Catherine Conkle