FirstPerson: Changing of the Green Guard: Majora Carter's Organization, Sustainable South Bronx, Challenges Residents to Demand a Higher Quality of Life. by Extension, She Is Calling into Question Traditional Approaches to Environmentalism

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In the late 1990s, Majora Carter learned of a plan to truck in nearly half of New York City's municipal waste through her South Bronx neighborhood, which was already choked with more than one-third of the city's construction and demolition waste, not to mention the tens of thousands of diesel trucks weekly entering and exiting the Hunts Point produce and meat markets.

In response, Carter founded Sustainable South Bronx, a nonprofit environmental justice solutions organization formed not only to block noxious proposals, but also to advance the "environmental and economic rebirth" of the South Bronx and, by extension, places like it everywhere.

In doing so, Carter challenged the conventional notion of the "environmentalist" as white, upper-class, and male.

Among her organization's signature projects is the South Bronx Greenway, an 11-mile pedestrian path and bikeway that provides local entrepreneurial opportunities, low-impact stormwater management, increased local property values for homeowners, alternative transportation options, and safe public spaces that integrate physical activity into the daily lives of local residents.

In addition to providing critical open space to neighborhoods that were more accustomed to burdensome regional transport, waste, and power infrastructure, Carter positioned her agency to equip New York City residents with the green-collar skills that her projects would demand.

P&R Executive Editor Douglas Vaira had an opportunity to talk with Carter about how her work has changed the image of the South Bronx--and altered the face of environmentalism.

Parks & Recreation: What was the energy behind your founding Sustainable South Bronx in 2001?

Majora Carter: It was actually a lack of energy or, more accurately, a vacuum that formed after our victory against the [Mayor Rudolph] Ginliani waste plan. We had successfully mobilized people around public health concerns related to asthma from all of the diesel exhaust that was concentrated on top of us, and would have only worsened under the government-backed plan. But always playing defense is not a great position, so we gathered concerned citizens in public forums and encouraged them to dream of a community they would like to live in.

Things that many people take for granted were seemingly unattainable in the South Bronx at that time: clean air, trees, safe parks, and good, nontoxic jobs. But emboldened with their mission, I felt it was necessary to get projects on the ground that people could see and benefit from ASAP.

Connecting people to positive momentum was the first step in getting the South Bronx to demand more for itself. Addressing the two main concerns of a clean environment and job creation have always been the driving philosophy behind our training, business development, and policy work.

P&R: There are lots of options for improving a community's mental and physical health. Why did you choose a greenway?

Carter: Part of it was sheer desperation; we needed to show a visionary alternative to the polluting infrastructure that the city was hell-bent to site on our waterfront. We chose to fight destruction with creation.

Also, transportation is a major headache in New York City. Congestion might seem like a hassle to most people, but for the folks living next to stalled or heavy traffic, it's a slow death sentence, literally. Columbia University has shown that proximity to exhaust sources, like trucks, cars, and power plants, causes learning disabilities in children. Add poverty, and that often means jail. Greenway systems like the ones I had observed in Europe and most specifically in Bogota, Colombia, demonstrated the enormous local economic potential of greenways, and the numerous health benefits, as well. …

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