Across The Tracks: Green Spaces in Durham

by Alyssa Cleveland

Stop Motion Video

Experiences and identity are integral to the way in which people construct their own realities. In my personal life, my identity has been a moving factor in the way I perceive daily occurrences, as well as larger societal phenomenons. Being a black woman growing up in the American south, I have not only experienced micro and macro-aggressions from people who have viewed my existence as subordinate to their own, but I have also borne witness to my larger community being treated as subordinate by the very institutions that are supposedly in place to protect them. These social and institutional mistreatment that I both experienced and witnessed molded my devotion to bringing people to understand the experiences of marginalized peoples. My activism is prompting conversation and solutions surrounding pressing issues through visual and written works of art. Through my activism and artistry, I strive to catalyze a change of mindset within individuals and in turn catalyze change in society through communicating the importance of issues that often go under the rug.

To understand my art and this piece in particular, it is important to note that the mere usage of an object or issue as the subject of a work of art is statement in and of itself. To view the object or issue as important enough to display as art or to use as the subject in a story is the first way my art is activism. After bringing attention to the object or issue that has struck me as noteworthy, the way in which I portray the subject of the piece through aesthetics or diction begins to construct the reality that I desire the viewer to come away with. While it would be rather naive for me to believe that my artwork has the sole power to change entire perceptions that have been formed after a substantial amount of opposing views, works of art have the power to reach the viewer on an emotional level that causes a connection to the subject that they had not experienced before. My art along with other pieces, both informative and artistic, that the viewer comes in contact with work together to construct the perception that that particular person has on the subject at hand, and thus, it shapes the actions that the person will have towards said subject.

As stated early, I am particularly interested in bringing attention to the experiences of people who are more times than not silenced by other people who find their existence subordinate. Along with being a social activist, I am also an environmentalist; while these two identities seem separate, it becomes increasingly difficult to divorce the two once issues of environmental oppression are unveiled. The issue I explore and uncover in this piece exemplifies the relationship between environmentalism and social activism.

Race and socioeconomic status play a vital role in the version of America the citizens will experience, and environmental aspects are on the list of differences that different groups of people experience. People of color and people earning lower income are the first to experience the consequences of environmental destruction due to the placement of their communities and the lack of resources to alleviate the damage that climate change will cause, both physically and socially. Communities which are home to black and brown tend to have poorer water and air quality as well; a trend that can be traced back to decisions made by big corporations and the government. When corporations are deciding where to place factories and plants that release harmful pollutants into the air, water, and soil of the neighboring communities, the poorer neighborhoods inhabited by people of color are deemed “sacrifice zones”, or areas which will bear the consequences of the corporation’s environmental practices. Already marginalized peoples are living in conditions that further distance their experience from their white counterparts, making the obstacles they must overcome in order to succeed far greater. People are not only experiencing discrimination socially and institutionally, but their very health is deemed expendable. The parts of the city that people earning lower incomes can live in are limited to the amount of money they make so it is not so simple of a solution for them to uproot their families, and neither should it be.

The differences in environmental conditions for neighboring communities can be seen from just driving through a city. It is usually easy to tell which community is wealthy not just by looking at infrastructure like houses and shopping development, but also in the amount of green spaces the areas possess. This stop motion video project serves as a way to call attention to the differences in abundance of green spaces and vegetation in white, higher income communities and their non-white counterparts. This difference of aesthetics has an adverse effect on the quality of life of the people living in the areas that do not have as much plant life. In the video, I use Durham as an example of this country-wide phenomenon, explaining the historical background that causes this discrepancy, but also explaining the health impacts that this issue causes.

I begin the video with an explanation of the environmental difference between wealthier neighborhood and the poorer counterparts. Parts of Durham that are further away from the urban center can be characterized as “urban forests”; lush vegetation is a noteworthy aspect of the aesthetic and prestige of the neighborhoods. There is an abundance of trees, bushes, and flora within housing neighborhoods and in front of city development, as well as a substantial amount of parks with open fields, hiking trails, and green as far as the eye can see. This green hue allows for the inhabitants to have a urban lifestyle without the burden of the aesthetics of concrete and brick that characterizes the areas closer to the urban center. Whereas just across the railroad tracks, it is almost as if human civilization has overtaken any type of green, wildlife. There is no grand presence of vegetation or green spaces in these communities, an obvious difference from the neighborhoods just down the road. Wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods such as Trinity Park, Forest Hills, and Sheridan Drive were found to have from 70-80% canopy coverage in a study done by Gregory Cooper, a Duke environmental management and forestry master’s student. Neighborhoods in East Durham where people of color and people of lower income status live such as Trinity Commons, Downtown, and Franklin Village were found to have as little as 2% canopy coverage (Cooper et al. 2016). This quantifiable difference in the amount of trees and bushes in areas of Durham, much like other types of discrimination, has a historical background.

The way in which it is decided where resources and infrastructure is allocated is based on boundary lines that date back to the 1920s. During the depression era, many people could no longer afford to buy new homes, or even to pay the mortgages that they already had. In order to stimulate the economy and ensure that people could stay in their homes, the government developed a system that worked as a loan service to citizens who did not have their own means to pay (Friend et al. 2016). Like any other loan service, the state and city governments had to decide who all was eligible to to receive a loan to ensure that the money would be paid back in full and in a timely manner. However, this lending selection was based in racism and xenophobia, because African-American people were systematically denied loans. This systematic discrimination is characterized as, “the utilization of…exclusionary lending policies that defined lower socioeconomic statuses and racial minority residents as hazardous bank investments”, by Louis Lee Woods in a Journal about inequities in the housing market during the 1920s-1950s (Woods et al. 2012). To further this lending bias, maps were created with district lines that outlined exactly where the people who were “hazardous” lived. Boundaries were drawn right along the railroad tracks which separated low and high income neighborhoods. An article that gives an overview of redlining by Will Michaels and Frank Stasio states that, “The so-called “risky” areas were usually low-income, African-American communities. This is widely considered the source of redlining, or denying benefits based on racial divides” (Michaels, Stasio et al. 2014). This district creation is also explained by Elizabeth Friend as, “…the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation program in the 1930s [delineating] regions deemed too risky for federal mortgage assistance, areas that were largely minority and low-income neighborhoods” (Friend et al. 2016). But what does redlining during the 1920s and 1930s have to do with today’s inequities? Surely, this dated system has been eradicated and people are given equal treatment no matter the placement of their home, their socioeconomic status, and their racial identity.

Contrary to this ideal statement, the lending bias of the 20s still impacts American citizens because these boundaries identifying the areas of the city where people of color and people of lower income status live were used, and indirectly still are used, when deciding how resources and infrastructure were, and still are, allocated. According to Friend, “These maps were also used by the City of Durham to direct tree-planting programs, resulting in lush canopies in wealthy white neighborhoods and sparse plantings in East Durham” (Friend et al. 2016). As stated earlier, the neighborhoods that had and still have a majority residency of people who identify as minorities were located in East Durham the urban center, while the wealthier neighborhoods were located on the urban outskirts of Durham. Since these boundaries were used to allocate vegetation plans, there was obviously a noticeable difference between the communities that not only weren’t given government loan assistance, but also weren’t given the same city planning and development. Cooper explains how this dated practice of resource allocation impacts today’s city development by stating, “For years, the protocol of the city has been to plant trees where there have been trees removed…” (Cooper et al. 2016). Thus, areas which are already lush and green continue to be this way because when the trees age, they are replaced exactly where they were already placed. The areas that already did not have canopy coverage continue to be barren because there is no push to request trees here and there are less trees that need to be replaced. The cycle of inequity continues as long as the protocol for development and infrastructure remains the same.

In the piece, I use the motif of breath in order to highlight the importance that breathe has on the health of the human being, and how this health is put in danger when people are not given equal access to environmental conditions that are conducive to good health. This significant difference in aesthetic and hue has effects on the overall quality of life that the people in the different areas experience. Environmental conditions certainly have the power to impact mental health due to the fact that the brain is affected by visuals. For centuries, “nature” has been defined as the untouched earth, and many early environmental movements were based solely on the fact that wildlife had awesticking powers over people and this stress reducing characteristic was valued. As an artist, I have studied how different colors and palettes create different moods and impact the viewer’s brain in different way to enlist different emotional responses. Green is used throughout art to represent the earth and the peace associated with “nature” being perceived as the opposite of man, and thus the opposite of war and conflict. Overall, the color green along with open space that vegetation and parks provide have stress reducing qualities which is an advantage of living in a community that possess green spaces. A study done on the long term effects of people living in green versus less green urban centers revealed that, “Moving to greener urban areas was associated with sustained mental health improvements, suggesting that environmental policies to increase urban green space may have sustainable public health benefits” (Alcock, Depledge, Fleming, Wheeler, White et al. 2013). The people studied moved from 80% to 60% green coverage and 60% to 80% coverage in order to test if moving to green or less green spaces had an impact on the inhabitants. The fact that people moving to greener spaces experienced improved mental sustainability suggests that the presence of vegetation and parks in general indeed has an effect on the overall mental health of citizens. Therefore, those who are not privileged enough to have an abundance of greenspace and tree coverage in their neighborhoods due to systematic practices will have less mental health benefit. Thus the cycle continues, because those who experience more marginalization in other areas of life have less access to stress reducing infrastructure in their own communities.

Along with aesthetics impacting mental health, the reduction of trees and green space also have an impact on air quality which in turn impacts the physical health of those living in the poorer conditions. Trees and other vegetation work to filter pollutants out of the air naturally; in urban centers there is usually a higher rate of air pollutants due to the increased population density and vehicles on the roads. So when communities that already have lower air quality have less green space, this continues the cycle of environmental degradation in these areas. Like other pollutants, air pollutants can have adverse effects on public health. As expected, there are many short term and long term respiratory problems tied on poor air quality. Issues such as asthma, damaged lung cells, emphysema, bronchitis, and even lung cancer. Children, women, and those already genetically prone to such diseases are especially sensitive to poor air quality. Unexpectedly, air quality can also have an effect on heart processes as well; therefore, the number of heart attacks are increased and overall lifespan is shortened for the people in areas where air quality is poor. An article on the racialization of pollution summarizes that, “…major racial and economic differences in exposures to specific particle ingredients, some of which are linked to asthma, cardiovascular problems and cancer…” can be seen in many new studies done on urban air quality (Katz et al. 2012). These differences in exposure to pollutants can be attributed to the differences between predominantly white and non-white neighborhoods. Not only are wealthier, white neighborhoods located away from urban center which experience less of the causes of pollutants, but they also have the plant life to filter the air. The inequity of green spaces is certainly a public health concern which needs solutions based in policy and protocol.

Since this issue began with institutional practices, it is logical that the solutions will be based in governmental changes as well. Cooper, the Duke environmental master’s student, suggests that the way to correct this bias is to design a protocol on tree placement that analyzes the canopy coverage that already exists in order to even the distribution of trees and parks across all of Durham (Cooper et al. 2016). This would ensure that trees are not just replanted in the same spots that they have been for years. While research and quantified results of injustice is one approach to prompt policy changes, there is always a grassroots approach to the same solution. The environmental justice sphere began as a grassroots movement that worked to bring attention to oppression involving the environment and people of color. Once it is recognized that the environment has direct and indirect impacts on public health, more common people will care about how their own actions contribute to climate change, poor air and water quality, and many other environmental issues. Environmental protection is often seen as a wealthy, white practice since these communities already embody the aesthetic of “eco-friendliness” and since black and brown communities are already facing countless other obstacles. However, as exemplified through the inequity of green spaces in durham, and in cities around the country, environmental issues have more impact on people of color and people of lower socioeconomic class, who are oftentimes not the people who are contributing the most to environmental destruction and waste because they simply cannot afford to.

Through my video, I hope to provoke emotions that lead people to grassroot actions such as taking part in movements such as the climate march or even living more sustainable lives as an act of personal activism. I strive to communicate that the rights of black and brown communities and people are tied to the survival and protection of the environment. While green is still a color of peace, earlier environmental movements had it wrong when justifying the importance of the environment based on the fact that it’s beauty stemmed from its “separation from man.” The environment is intrinsically tied to humans and our actions; we are living in the anthropocene because everything we do, even the way we treat others, has an impact on the environment. Not only does the environment deserve and require protection, but every person has the right to a clean environment and a long life span that is not hindered by pollutants and stress that could have been reduced by more greenery. If the government’s purpose is to protect its people, is it not consequently obligated to take measures that protect the environment that its people must live in? Should it not strive to provide a healthier future for its citizens and their children? The people who are in need of the most immediate protection are those who are socially and institutionally marginalized because as seen through this issues they will be the first to experience the consequences of environmental neglect, but even so, the rich ultimately cannot run from a changing earth.

Works Cited

Alcock, I., et al. “Longitudinal Effects on Mental Health of Moving to Greener and Less Green Urban Areas.” ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY, vol. 48, no. 2, 2014, pp. 1247-1255.

Designed by Contexture International | Http:// “Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis for Street Tree Plantings.” Durhams Urban Forest. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

Friend, Elizabeth. “Depression-Era Redlining Leaves Parts Of Durham Less Green.” WUNC. N.p., 10 June 2016. Web. 03 May 2017.

Katz, Cheryl. “Unequal Exposures: People in Poor, Non-white Neighborhoods Breathe More Hazardous Particles.” Unequal Exposures: People in Poor, Non-white Neighborhoods Breathe More Hazardous Particles — Environmental Health News. N.p., 1 Nov. 2012. Web. 02 May 2017.

Michaels, Will, and Frank Stasio. “Mapping Inequality: How Redlining Is Still Affecting Inner Cities.” WUNC. N.p., 26 June 2016. Web. 03 May 2017.