This is an extended and edited version of a brief presentation I recently gave at a dinner for the DC Green Muslims, a group of environmentally minded Muslims from around the Washington Metropolitan area. The discussion was geared around the concept of space and my portion of the program dealt with community space. I tried to guide the topic away from the euphoric and existential and focus more on the failures of ‘green’ and to make some criticisms of the green movement’s current community development paradigm, which I see as not taking into account the realities of disparate communities, specifically, the urban poor and communities of color.
At the most basic level, a community space is somewhere that people live and work together. School, mosques, grocery stores and neighborhood are all community spaces in that people come together to create place, and that space is defined by its individual component parts. For example, one can say that a neighborhood is defined by the sum of all the buildings, roads, parks and trees which it contains. Remove any single part of the equation and you have altered that community space to some degree. Of course, altering is not always a negative thing and many communities need to be developed and changed in order to become more sustainable and livable.
In the era of environmental degradation, ‘green’ discourse seems almost unchallengeable precisely because an alternative model is so badly needed. Certainly, those who are not too fond of the environmental movement come up with their usual complaints, but internal criticism if rare, and where it is found, it has yet to pick up any steam. This is because planting trees, opening cafes, building walkways, using recycled bags to do our shopping, planting community gardens, installing solar panels on traffic lights, all these things are needed in order to develop a community space and make it sustainable.
But what often goes unnoticed and sometimes even ignored is the idea that no matter our intentions, the present green development paradigm has dramatic consequences on the urban poor. In order for the green movement to be successful in developing sustainable community spaces, the community which is most impacted and which defines the space MUST be at the forefront of all projects.
In Islam, our deeds are judged by our intentions. Good rarely comes from a bad intention. The Prophet Muhammad (saw) said: “Surely actions are by intentions and each will get that for which they intend.”
But what if a good intention actually produces a negative consequence for some? Examples of this abound here in DC and in urban centers around the country where the dominant green discourse is said to clean up areas and promote sustainability while actually accelerating the process of gentrification. Communities may be developed but seldom do the current residents of these spaces benefit from such development.
The reason that the urban poor are often left out of the equation is because the development paradigm began not as a movement to make cities more sustainable, but rather, to stop the spread of and reverse the process of urban sprawl. This movement, almost from inception was led by the middle and upper class. Susana Almanza, in her article, Removing the Poor through Land Use and Planning published in Race, Poverty and the Environment, asserts:
People of color, the poor, and the working poor were not at the table and thus, the impacts on these communities did not receive meaningful consideration. Urban planners and developers began developing the urban core as if people of color were not living in them. New zoning codes and policies were adopted to make room for the new urbanisism. Communities of color throughout the United States began to see condos, lofts, McMansions, and live/work buildings pop up in low-income and people of color neighborhoods. A tidal wave of gentrification began to engulf people of color communities.
Columbia Heights is but one example.
B. Jesse Clarke, editor of Race, Poverty and the Environment admits to me that the current system is doing nothing more then “greenwashing and smart development at the expense of established poor communities.” The solution, according to Clarke, is to put political power in the hands of the poor and communities of color who have historically been disenfranchised.
In short, “it takes political power to win social and economic rights for communities of color and low income people”, a power which often takes a backseat while we figure out the next project that will make us feel good about ourselves. The fundamental issue is that the green movement is perceived as, and in many ways actually is, a movement of the elite, or rather, to be less critical, a movement that is, more often then not, led by those who have the ability and the time to care.
If we are to move beyond just feeling good about ourselves because we recycle, reuse and reduce and towards developing communities, the urban poor, the residents of these neighborhoods MUST be at the forefront and we MUST work towards their political rights and their power. Unfortunately, the poor often don’t have the means or ends to participate, just as they do not have the means to shop at Trader Joe’s or buy organic products.
If the people most impacted by environmental degradation are not considered, then green projects ultimately fail in their goal of sustainability. We must make sure that our good intentions result in good deeds which benefit the poor rather then making their communities unlivable.
photo credit http://flickr.com/photos/baldheretic/, http://flickr.com/photos/carbonnyc/