Separate but Eco: Livable Communities for Whom?

New plans and developments, such as the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Plan pictured above, are great for the environment, but what impact does it have on the community it's placed in? Image via City Planning

Note: The authors are active advocates in the urban sustainability movement, focusing on non-motorized transportation in low-income urban areas. As mixed race women of color, we believe that we are in a unique position to bridge the advocacy communities trying to better conditions for the urban poor and for the environment. In this series, we draw on our experiences in the bicycle and environmental movements to shed light on the unfortunate divides we have noticed between urban sustainability communities and low-income communities of color.

When environmental advocates talk about urban sustainability, we often focus on how people use space and how we can encourage design that has a lesser impact on the environment.  How do people get around, are there single or mixed use developments, how can we minimize commutes between work, the grocery store, and home? Rarely do we mention class differences in who lives in the same neighborhoods or, crucially, the issue of segregation and how discrimination has shaped where Americans live and with whom they associate.

Surely we’re aware of the legacies of 1950’s white flight and urban redevelopment, where cars enabled Americans to flee the supposed contamination of newly integrating city centers. We know about the subsequent trend where city agencies labeled those neighborhoods left behind as “blighted slums” ripe for redevelopment. And yet we remain silent about the parallel between these twentieth century traumas and our current interest in promoting urban sustainability in these same areas through large scale economic redevelopment. Because race and class inequalities have been left out of the conversation, eco-friendly developments that aim to increase property values and, consequently, reduce affordable housing stock, get promoted as the key to urban sustainability.

Sustaining the ethnic and cultural diversity of our shared spaces should be an explicit priority of the environmental movement, and this means confronting the trend toward making “eco-friendly” neighborhoods primarily exclusive enclaves of wealth. We have seen this in countless neighborhoods in Los Angeles, New York, and Portland, where bike lanes often get striped in “up and coming” neighborhoods only after more affluent residents move in.

In some neighborhoods, diverse communities inhabit the same shared spaces, exposing people to different ways of life and creating an exciting atmosphere. Central Los Angeles has many such neighborhoods. Yet we often talk about these neighborhoods in terms that could erase the diversity that makes them so valuable. Their “green” features (like density and proximity to transit and commerce), have become marketable amenities, but as housing costs rise in neighborhoods like Koreatown, East Hollywood, Pico Union, and Boyle Heights, will the diverse communities who live in these spaces survive or disappear?

The point is not to criticize the flourishing of environmentally conscious lifestyles in LA, but to recognize that sustainable practices such as bicycling can take more than one form. We reject the idea that only built environments that fit a “new urbanist” cookie cutter model can be sustainable and livable. In practice, though, the “livable places” created by developers for affluent residents are seen as more worthy of public investment than those utilized by immigrants and people of color. In a paradigm where long-standing neighborhoods exist as playgrounds for the imaginations of urban designers rather than as places created by the people who live in them, bike lanes and other green improvements often have less to do with actual people on bikes or transit and more to do with their value as green infrastructure.

One clear example of the divide between green and low-income communities is the fight for affordable AND sustainable housing and development in Chinatown. Chinatown youth and SEACA (Southeast Asian Community Alliance) are currently leading a campaign to advocate for the inclusion of affordable housing within the Cornfield Arroyo Seco specific plan update (known as “CASP”). The plan, first introduced in 2007, was a shining model of sustainability, encouraging transit-oriented development near three Gold Line train stations and adjacent to the LA River,  recommending bike lanes and lowering parking requirements for housing developments. The problem was that many existing low-income Chinese, Vietnamese, and Latino residents who could have truly benefited from their neighborhood becoming more environmentally sound were likely to be displaced. The plan encouraged market rate housing stock and provided no incentives for affordable housing in the area.

We need to recognize and respect how people are making communities work in places we have historically labeled as blighted slums. New urban designs for “livable communities” strongly resemble existing cultural norms in low-income, transit dependent communities. These norms include community porch spaces, diverse groups interacting in public spaces, and the frequent use of transit, walking; basically, living carfree. LA artist and urban planner and LA Streetsblog contributor, James Rojas has long documented the unofficial ways that Latinos in East LA have created sustainable public spaces, such as the Evergreen Cemetery walking track. Is the repackaging of pre-existing realities of many low-income urban areas into eco amenities marketed to middle class, white professionals creating a type of lifestyle politics that perpetuates inequality? Will we create neighborhoods that are separate but eco?

As sociologists Kathleen Newman and Victor Tan Chen noted in their 2007 book The Missing Class, integrated (mixed income, mixed race) neighborhoods are all too often fleeting as lower income families get flushed out by rising property values. In his classic 1990 book StreetWise, sociologist Elijah Anderson chronicled the ironic and unfair results of improving an urban neighborhood, pointing out that making neighborhoods more desirable leads to more gentrification without the original inhabitants being able to benefit from the improvements.

Legal scholar Sheryll Cashin, in her 2004 book The Failures of Integration, wrote about the simultaneous “pull of personal preferences and the push of discrimination” that lead to segregated neighborhoods. Recently, anthropologist Melissa Checker published an article about “environmental gentrification,” the displacement that takes place after environmental justice activists and other community-based movements have improved conditions in a neighborhood and its property values rise. We need to stop framing displacement as a regrettable but inevitable outcome of sustainable development in urban neighborhoods. This is not a coincidence; people are being pushed out.

The two of us started collaborating around these issues in 2008, and we’ve experimented with various projects, such as CicLAvia and City of Lights, that focus on how non-motorized transportation is used by and can uplift the urban poor. Our work has aimed to legitimize low-income people as cyclists with needs and a voice. We started this work because we noticed something missing then (and even now) in planning discourses: how sustainable transportation projects and other forms of progressive urban design relate to historically disempowered communities of color.

It’s important to understand how power fits into transportation. 

Thanks to the civil rights movement and activists like Rosa Parks, how someone travels through a city now is not determined by their race. At the same time, though, socially stigmatized transport modes have faced enormous political opposition. It would be foolish to pretend this has nothing to do with race or class. Biking, using public transit, and even walking have long had a stigma of poverty and disempowerment. In their 1997 book Just Transportation, Robert Bullard and Glenn Johnson argued that transportation benefits tend to be more accessible to affluent people and transportation burdens fall on lower income people. Cars are still the “gold standard,” but as more and more young urban professionals choose to locate in transit-oriented, walkable neighborhoods, carfree transportation options may become less accessible to the displaced poor.

In our experience, the bike advocacy movement rarely discusses the role that class and race privileges play in the placement of cycling amenities in certain neighborhoods and not others. Areas of the city that are home to more affluent cyclists receive more bicycle infrastructure, but environmentally friendly affluent professionals still proclaim that using a bicycle in and of itself proclaims a minority status that has nothing to do with class, race, and/or gender privileges. We have seen widespread use of the term “second class citizen” and other social justice language to describe the negative experience of bicycling on car-dominated streets. But these claims alienate communities of color; they make the bicycling community seem extremely insensitive to the very real legal discrimination that the civil rights and immigrant rights movements have challenged. They allow critics to dismiss bicycling as a solution because some cyclists don’t examine their privilege.

Adonia snaps a picture of Allison hanging with a team of Jornaleros on an LACBC "City of Lights" event in 2009. Photo:##http://www.urbanadonia.com/2009_09_01_archive.html##Urban Adonia##

In another sense, “bicycle privilege” means having the option to choose a historically stigmatized mode of transportation because it does not pose a threat to one’s social reputation. From our conversations with jornalero cyclists, some of the most marginalized members of our society, it is clear that some enjoy cycling, but many are simply “accidental environmentalists.” We have found that many people who are biking or using transit out of economic necessity would prefer to be driving. It makes sense that many low-income people of color, who have had to fight their whole lives to be acknowledged as equal citizens, are attracted to driving cars.

Are the people that we want to include in the urban sustainability movement going to be displaced because “livable” is not also affordable and because we have defined our movement so narrowly as to not include low-income communities? What will be the future of central LA, a great place to ride a bike or take transit today, as it gets re-evaluated as a desirable place to live by more affluent residents?

How do we support both the rights of working people and promote affordable housing and environmental amenities like bike lanes? We believe that these projects can co-exist in what we are calling “equitable environmentalism.” We refuse to reject or abandon sustainable development or the existing communities it affects. Rather than approaching urban revitalization with a “manifest destiny” vision, we believe that the lived realities and values of existing urban communities should determine how we approach those places. We believe that the future lies in an ecological perspective that respects how sustainable development can include and celebrate diverse communities.

17 thoughts on Separate but Eco: Livable Communities for Whom?

  1. I am  reminded of the story about how, as the economy in the deep South improved during the 20th Century, a growing number of poor African Americans found themselves able to afford a car, even if it was only a fourth-hand “Flivver” (Model T Ford).  This was quite annoying to the segregation-minded part of the White community, who couldn’t figure out
    how to apply “Jim Crow” laws (requiring segregated seating on trains, streetcars and buses) to the streets and highways.
    Also: many years ago, when seismic standards for apartment houses and hotels were strengthened, there was much concern about how landlords and building owners would pass along the expenses of upgrading their crummy apartments and fleabag hotels with rent increases, thus making them too expensive for the really poor folks.  One commenter suggested: In lieu of expensive retrofits, just place signs on the doors or in the lobbies reading: “CAUTION.  Being in this structure during an earthquake may be hazardous to your health.”  (not sure if this comment was serious or ironic)

  2. This is really an excellent article. There are at least two things any sustainable development projects really need to be eco-equitable: first, a designated percentage of new apartments as affordable housing. This does not mean 10% which looks good on paper but in practice still results in significant population displacement as has been documented in Austin, TX. 20-30% is a more appropriate figure. Getting that down on paper is critical. Second, we need participatory structures in determining what development happens in neighborhoods so that the actual needs of a community are being met. Those closest to the ground often know what is needed or can spot flaws in plans as far as their neighborhood goes. Combating classism and racism do not have to be in opposition to ecological awareness. In fact, the same desire to objectify and commodify “nature” has significant parallels with the objectification that occurs in other forms of marginalization.

  3. Thanks for this perspective. Affordability, and a sense of whom is being served, is definitely missing in a lot of livability activism.

    The fig-leaf I hide behind on this is a sort of fundamentalist belief that the car is pretty much a core cause of inequities here in L.A. and around the world (via wars for oil, etc.) So, therefore, any work to unseat the car from its despotic throne will necessarily be good – for justice, for ending oppression, for healing the environment – all locally and globally. If we create a transportation system that includes robust and safe facilities for walking, bicycling and transit, then transportation costs will less onerous – less of a burden for the working poor who today arguably need a car. I also think that if we restrict car-centric excesses (ie: parking reform, road capacity increases, etc.) that we will keep neighborhoods undesirable for gentrifiers (who want a place to park their car.) This last point will transition at some point; NYC and SF gentrifiers don’t all have cars… but I think that, today and for 5-10 more years, truly prioritizing non-car modes would keep L.A. gentrifiers at bay.

  4. Yeah if you want to get into some science and technology studies, someone like Bruno Latour would say that the objectification of human groups stems from the modern project to maintain a nature/culture and thus human/nonhuman divide

  5. There is a lot of distortion of the truth in this piece.

    Before WWII most people in the U.S. lived in apartments and a University education was mainly just for the previleged few. The G.I. bill changed that.

    The 1950’s white flight enabling Americans to flee the contamination of newly integrating city centers, that you speak of, was, in reaility, mainly people fleeing living in city apartments and being able for the first time to own their own homes in the suburbs due to the G.I bill.

    The creation of the Interstate Highway System helped accelerate that by enabling people to travel greater distances in the same amount of time as before, which created opportunity to buy nice new houses in the suburbs at an affordable price and yet still be able to travel to their jobs in the city. This was replicated with residents of south L.A. moving to houses in Palmdale and Lancaster with little money down low interest loans given just before the large banks financial collapse in 2008.

    This July 4, 2000 Jim Lehr discussion on PBS, in which three historians and a writer/journalist discuss the transformation that the G.I. bill created, which included less of a class system where only the previleged had a college education or could afford to own a house:

    http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/military/july-dec00/gibill_7-4.html

    As it mentions in this PBS discussion, 11 million of the 13 million homes built in the 1950’s was due to a low interest G.I. bill loan.

    As for your mentioning that bike lanes getting striped in “up and coming” neighborhoods only after more affluent residents move in. I would have to assume you mean downtown L.A. Pick any city in the world and the highest bicycling rate tends to be in the downtown area, exactly where you would want to put bicycling amentities. Class has very little to do with this. It has more to do with usefulness in putting the bike lanes in where more people will likely use them. It can be faster and easier to move around a downtown area by bicycle than by car if the cyclist is given adequate infrastructure to support them.

    The strongest objections to putting in bike lanes in the last few years for the L.A. area has been in the more well-to-do areas such as Porter Ranch, Hancock Park, Cheviot Hills. The Condo Canyon and Brentwood area objected to two car travel lanes being taken away during peak hours to convert them to bus only lanes on Wilshire Blvd, Does anyone believe that these same residents won’t have the same objections if there is a plan made to take away one travel lane to put in bike lanes?

    As for areas of the city that are home to more affluent cyclists receiving more bicycle infrastructure; most of these bike lanes were not put in due to the areas being whiter or wealthier, but because the streets are roomier. The far west or northwest side of the San Fernando Valley has disproportionally more bike lanes, compared to the rest of the city, due to the streets having enough extra space to easily put in bike lanes without having to take some lane space away from motorized traffic.

    The passage of the 2010 L.A. Bike Plan increased the areas that would get bike lanes by the realization that there was political will to take away some travel lane space from drivers. Even with that, some of the wealthiest areas of the cities such as the Westwood, Brentwood and Condo Canyon areas are not in the bike plan to get many miles of bike lanes. That’s simply due to the amount of congestion in these areas. The objections by drivers would be ferocious if there were plans to take away any travel lanes in these areas.

    As for the poor cyclists wanting to get a car, thats due to the automobile being the fastest and easiest way to get around Los Angeles. That really has very little to do with a class system; it has more to do with human nature to want to choose the fastest and most convenient mode of transportation to get somewhere.  Over half of the responses of a bicycling survey in the Netherlands for why they choose to ride was that it was the fastest and easiest way to get somewhere. Choosing biking for enviornmental reasons or exercise was a small portion of the answers given.

  6.  Hi Dennis, class and status may not play a role in your transportation choices, but this is not the case for everyone. Here’s an example from my research: a prominent African-American community leader I recently interviewed in Seattle told me a story about his church’s minister feeling pressure to buy a Mercedes or other luxury car to show other ministers how successful he was. Another example: at an academic panel last November where someone had presented about bicycle research, a Dutch woman in the audience said that among her friends, owning a car was still an important symbol of membership in the middle class, and people bought cars once they had kids. She was skeptical of the American bike movement’s claims that biking in the Netherlands is considered just as good as driving.

  7. Correction, in my above post the Hancock Park area residents were objecting to putting in a traffic light to create a bicycle friendly 4th street and not a bike lane. There was at least one Hancock Park resident who was yelling at the workers who were putting in sharrows on 4th, saying that they thought that they had put an end to these bicycle implementations. I saw three Hancock Park residents show up at a Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting shortly after that to voice their objections. This hardly sounds like putting in bicycle infrastructure where the wealthy residents have asked for them.

  8. Dennis – I think that your 4th Street story is an exception that proves the rule: yes – car-centric white people oppose green transportation livability projects. Shocking! Generally, though, I think that Lugo and Mannos are right: the majority of L.A.’s urban design standards, plazas, streetscapes, rail and bike infrastructure are generally (not 100% but generally) targeted toward whiter higher-class gentrifiers.

    Something that I’ve been noticing (and haven’t gotten around to quantifying) is that though the there is plenty of excess capacity on big wide streets in many parts of LA – especially the (whiter) San Fernando Valley but also very much in (blacker) South Los Angeles. For the past 10-20 years, at least, the LADOT has generally implemented more bike lane mileage in the Valley, and very little in central communities of color. LADOT has generally only added lanes to streets where lanes could added easily, without impacting car capacity. The preponderance of Valley projects appears to me to be more so than just excess road capacity would dictate. I suspect that this oversight is from a perception that bicycling is a white person’s activity. I think that bike facility planners/implementers overlook opportunities for bike facilities in communities of color because “those people” aren’t thought of as cyclists.

  9. UrbanAdonia, great numbers of people in Dutch cities are not choosing to travel by bicycle in order to be a cyclist. They are using a bicycle for much the same reasons that students at USC are choosing to do so, because its one of the fastest and easiest ways to get where they want to go. Neither the majority of the Dutch, nor the USC students would consider themselves to be cyclists. A bike is just a tool to them..

    The average distance traveled by bike in the Netherlands is less than two miles. Which translates to traveling mainly in the urban core where short distances between destinations are manageable by bike. Get outside of a city and the cycling rate falls off dramatically. Even with that, the overall modal share for cycling in the Netherlands is 27%.

    Putting bicycle lanes in areas of Los Angeles where people are unlikely to use them in great numbers is not something that I see as a strategy to increase the cycling rate significantly in a short period of time. That would include putting bike lanes in the far west end of the San Fernando Valley, where it is much faster and more convenient to travel by car than by transit or bicycle. The rate of cycling in those areas of the west end of the SFV that have a bike lane network reflects that, there simply is not many people using the bike lanes. That said, putting bike lanes there was a fast and easy way to install miles of bike lanes.

  10. BIKAS Los Angeles, if what you say about there being lots of wide streets in south LA that could get bike lanes without narrowing or taking away a travel lane, then that should show up in bike lane projects that will appear for south LA. I find it hard to believe that the older sections of the city would have streets that have as much unused space as the newer sections of the west side of the SFV. Even when just looking at just the SFV, the majority of the bike lanes were put in the far west side. The southern part of the SFV from Encino to the city of Burbank would be considered just as white as the west side, yet there are very few miles of bike lanes.

    As for the rest of LA, if you take out any geographical references on a LADOT bike map for LA only and just keep the bike infrastructure markings, I doubt that anyone not familiar with the area could tell where the poorest areas or the wealthest areas are. The bike lanes are sparce and all over the map.

  11. BIKAS Los Angeles, you stated that the majority of the rail infrastructures are targeted towards whiter higher-class gentrifiers. Are you talking about the Blue Line that goes through Compton and Watts? Or, the Gold Line that goes through East LA, or perhaps the Green Line that runs along the 105 freeway Or perhaps the subway which runs along some of the most densely populated areas of the city. By the way, subways generally are built in the most densely populated parts of cities, so where was the Red Line supposed to run?  The subway does stop at Univeral Studios which brings customers to them and then where the Orange Line stops. Most of these are just following old rail line right of ways. 

  12. Dennis – It’s me, Joe Linton (emperor of Bikas!) Yes – all of the above: all of the rail in L.A. is, in general, built for whiter gentrifiers. And yes – bike infrastructure is sparse all over L.A. (which is overall a problem that Bikas and you are working to remedy) and my observation/guess is that it’s even sparser in South L.A. than in the Valley.

  13. It became clear to me several years ago that the old streetcar suburbs of Los Angeles would become the focus of life once again as the exurban, car-only, regions of the city withered and fell into disrepair.

    This transition is now underway. The “city” is quickly becoming the focus of our intelligentsia, our bourgeois, and the culture makers. The burbs are where the poor and the destitute will squat in abandoned subdivisions, where services will gradually be phased out simply through neglect and a lack of maintenance.

    Our entire civilization in North America is contracting, as our way of life is extended beyond its ability to pay for itself through resource extraction (now exhausted), borrowing and predatory lending, or through our domination of other countries. 

    The livability movement is one that will continually fall short when it comes to explicitly finding a place for the poor in the re-gentrified city. It isn’t an anti-poor movement, but it will quickly be seen as such by those who are solely concerned about such matters.

    The way to counteract this criticism is to show examples of how a more equitable mix of transportation options allow the mega rich and the ultra poor to coexist in the same areas – one owning a townhome, the other living in a small attached unit, both able to get around without the appeals to our increasingly weak and powerless governments for gasoline and auto ownership subsidies.

    We should be unafraid of improving our city. 

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