Environmental Literature | Social Justice | Sustainable Futures

Across the Tracks: A Discrepancy of Green Spaces

March 3rd, 2017 | Posted by Alyssa Cleveland in Uncategorized


Science and society, two seemingly opposing spheres, are undeniably interconnected, and this can only be seen once the fact that humans and the environment are not antagonists is acknowledged. Once this is understood, it is possible to dissect issues of the environment in terms of the impact they have on humans and society; history and sociology combine with biology and earth science to create a deeper awareness of the world and its people. Unveiling the issue of how redlining in Durham leads to predominantly black neighborhoods becoming subjected to experiencing the detrimental effects of having less green space than their predominantly white counterparts will serve as a case study of this notion.

Blast to the Past

A delve into history is imperative to understanding current events and societal aspects. To understand why certain neighborhoods are deemed sacrifice zones, or areas that can be allotted more environmental degradation than other seemingly more important areas, it is essential to uncover institutional, geographical oppression of the past. During the depression era, as a means of halting homes from being foreclosed, there were governmental initiatives to provide bonds for American people to pay their mortgage. Except, much like any other time in history, there was an exclusive definition of what it meant to be American and what level of protection the government would provide its citizens. Will Michaels and Frank Stacio highlight this discriminative aspect of the loaning process by stating that, “…in larger cities, the government drew boundaries between neighborhoods that were eligible and ineligible for new loans. The so-called ‘risky’ areas were usually low income, African-American communities.” Thus, the African-American community suffered through the depression with no assistance from the same government that was setting out to stimulate economic prosperity in neighborhoods just down the road. This seemingly aged practice has followed the black community to present day institutionalized discrimination, including environmental oppression. These same boundaries are used in current decisions made on allocations of resources during infrastructure planning.

Lack of Green? What Does that Even Mean?

            While nature is not the first image that pops into a person’s head when thinking of infrastructure, the planning of parks and tree plantings is intertwined with decisions on where to place roads and buildings. Since the “risky area” based boundaries excluded African-American communities from receiving governmental benefits, this same exclusion occurs when the government is deciding which areas will be rich, green urban forests and which areas will be desolate, grey urban deserts. Elizabeth Friend elaborates on this phenomenon by explaining, “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,” she also adds, “…East Durham has 40 percent less tree canopy coverage than the traditionally higher-income neighborhoods like Trinity Park, a direct result of redlining.” This case plays into the notion that certain areas of the environment can be sacrificed for the sake of human civilization. It is seemingly thought that making the white neighborhoods’ greenery abundant will off-set the environmental effects of depriving entire communities of adequate vegetation. Or have the environmental effects of this practice even crossed the policy makers’ minds? If they realize or not, any action taken on the environment is connected to issues of other areas; which is why the melting of arctic ice is not caused by actions taking place directly in this region of the world. Essentially, taking environmental risks in one area will affect the quality of the environment in other areas, but it should not take the thought of environmental behavior being connected to see how depriving certain communities of greenery due to traces of decades old racism and class discrimination is problematic. This issue exemplifies how the social aspects of a human cannot be isolated from environmental issues and vice versa.

The Issue Does Not Stop There

As if this inequity wasn’t enough, the lack of greenery in a community brings arise to other issues involving not only the environment, but also health and economic issues adversely impacting the people in these areas. With a bias of green infrastructure comes a bias of air quality, home prices, and overall mental happiness. Early environmental movements were based on the notion that nature was awestriking and needed to be preserved for the pure aesthetic value it provided mankind. In low income, non-white communities, the freedom and peace provided by the aesthetic qualities of vegetation is stripped away. This issue does not stop here because a non-aesthetically pleasing community leads to a drop in the value of the homes in these areas. On top of all of that, without trees to produce oxygen and reduce the carbon dioxide, the air quality in the corresponding area decrease; thus, the people in these already marginalized groups are forced to breathe in far more harmful pollutants that lead to asthma and deaths related to heart attacks and respiratory issues. Cheryl Katz reported in 2012 that, “Communities of color and those with low education and high poverty and unemployment face greater health risks even if their air quality meets federal health standards.” Poorer communities in America, and all over the world, are the first to experience the effects of environmental neglect due to the fact that they do not have the resources or governmental assistance the wealthier communities have to avoid and compensate for the effects occurring. Imagine being systematically beat down a system due to the color of your skin, your socioeconomic class, or even your gender, and then having to return to a home in a neighborhood that looks and feels like an entirely different world compared to the lush, green neighborhoods down the road. It is almost as if the opposing green and grey communities parallel the civil and social atmospheres for privileged and marginalized people living in the same nation, except each group knowing an entirely different America.

Implications + Moving forward

While seemingly backwards, it is necessary to once again look to the past in order to understand the present situation, thus reshaping thought about moving forward. It would be easy to wonder why the people in these communities have not spoken out about these injustices in order to bring about change, and if they even know there is a difference between their community and the communities down the road. Historically people of color and of lower economic classes are fully aware of the injustices occurring in their backyards, their voice are muffled out by the desires of people who could make a change. J. Robert Cox suggests that, “the arrangements and procedures of power may undermine the respect accorded to such individuals by narrowly defining the acceptable rhetorical norms of environmental decision making.” That is to say that the people in these communities often speak out against these inequities, but are shut down by the notion that they do not know what they are talking about due to their emotional connection to the issue.

Brian Palmer’s ideas support the notion that you must look back to understand the present by stating, “Communities of color have been battling this injustice for decades. To understand environmental justice, it’s worth looking back at the events that helped launch the movement in the first place.” The foundation of the environmental justice field was established during the civil rights movement as people spoke against the environmental inequities that were occurring alongside other more visible injustices. Once it is understood that environmental oppression stretches back into the civil rights movement, there can be systematic changes made that parallel the institutional changes that have been made during this movement that alleviated some of the more apparent discrimination that was occurring at the time. Greg Cooper suggests in a report published in 2016 that the city planners in Durham should take advantage of most of the trees aging to redistribute the green infrastructure which will in turn correct the bias that stems back to redlining of the depression era.

In order to move forward, there must first be an acceptance of the events of the past that are still impacting the lives of American people. Next, the government must place value in the right to a clean environment and adjust or create systems that protect this right. Even so, without a clear understanding of the fact that the human and the environment are interwoven, the right cannot exist purely out of the verity that perceptions of realities begin with the construction of related objects. As long as the environment is constructed as being separate from the human, it will continue to be perceived as having immense expendability and manipulability. This parallels the truth that as long as people of color are constructed by xenophobic and paternalistic terms, they will continue to be perceived as a group that is expendable. The degrading actions taken on both the environment and people of color unveil the vile perceptions of both entities that undoubtedly need to be address and reconstructed.




Works Cited

Cox, Robert, and Phaedra C. Pezullo. “Chapter 10 Environmental Justice and Climate Justice Movements.” Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2016. N. pag. Print.

Designed by Contexture International | Http://www.contextureintl.com. “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 Mar. 2017.

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

Palmer, Brian. “The History of Environmental Justice in Five Minutes.” NRDC. N.p., 18 May 2016. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

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