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Talking Headways Podcast: To Be Truly Sustainable, Cities Must Be Truly Equitable

This week, we're joined by Julian Agyeman, professor at Tufts University, to talk about his work on equity, justice, and environmental sustainability in transportation and urban planning. We talk about food, the idea of belonging in cities, spatial justice, and reframing our language around the ideas of equity, dignity, and justice.

If you prefer to read, we've put an excerpted transcript below. For the full transcript (with typos!), click here.

Jeff Wood: It goes to an idea that you bring up a lot, which is "belonging" as well.

Julian Agyeman: It really does. One of my concerns, as a professor in urban planning, is that we, as urban planners, practicing planners, urbanists, we're always thinking about what cities can become, whether they can become sustainable, healthy, smart, resilient. But what we forget is who gets to belong in our cities. This idea of belonging really focuses on recognition, recognition is a very important concept. Who do we recognize as having rights to the city? And at the moment there's no greater cry for recognition than the Black Lives Matter movement or the Me Too movement. These are the cries of marginalized groups in society saying, "Hey, I count, I matter." We can't have reconciliation, we can't really think about diversity, equity and inclusion, unless we really think about belonging.

And so what I want urban planners to do is keep dreaming, keep dreaming about what the city can become, but recognize also that we are increasingly denying belonging.

And I think we need to balance up to the equation. We need to be the people, as urban planners, who both think about what cities can become, but recognize that if we deny a belonging to a lot of people, what cities can become will just be elite spaces reflective of the elites that will live in cities. If we don't do something about gentrification, about moving homeless people on, we deny a belonging to so many people in cities and that's got to stop.

JW: I'm curious. What was the first time you started to think about that topic specifically? The belonging of cities and all of that goes with that?

JA: Well, I've thought about it a lot, in a sense, my concept of "just sustainabilities," which is, you know, how do we improve people's quality of life? How do we do that and adjust an equitable manner? And how do we do that while living within the limits of ecosystems has implicitly of the notion of belonging in it? But it didn't really become explicit to me until I spent some time a couple of years ago in Montreal. I was on sabbatical at McGill University and I got very interested in First Nations Native American issues.

And I noticed that people, university websites and people's emails had a statement on them often it was something, you know, "McGill University or Tufts University is located on unceded X territory." And it suddenly made me realize we need to acknowledge, to recognize, the right to belong. And really that then gave me this idea of the dichotomy between belonging and becoming — and the fact that we is urban planners, as I said, are more interested in many ways in what cities can become than who belongs. And I think we need to right the balance — keep dreaming. Planning is about vision. It's about what is possible, not what is probably going to happen, but we also need to right the balance in the sense that we need to recognize the need for belonging, amongst many people who are currently excluded.

JW: You've been at the leading edge of just sustainability since the 1990s. I'm curious what the concept is specifically and, how did you come about it?

JA: And I suppose the simplest way to describe it would be, you know, if I was to go out onto the streets of Boston or you were to go out into the streets of San Francisco and asked 10 people what sustainability means, they would probably, "Oh, it's about the environment." And of course, yes, it is about the environment, but it's also about social justice. I can envisage us legislating for a green city or a green world. But if that world wasn't also socially just would it really be sustainable?

And let me give you a really contemporary notion that present in our hearts at the moment, that's the City of Minneapolis. Now, Minneapolis — the best park system in the United States, jogging trails, the third-best bike commuting city, sixth highest quality of life. So very green — Minneapolis is very green. But then if you flip the coin, Minneapolis has one of the highest incidences of racial segregation. In what's called the "opportunity gap" is one of the highest than the United States. The achievement gap in schools is a very high. The wealth gap is second only to Milwaukee — the wealth gap being home ownership on every factor related to race. On every factor, Minneapolis is absolutely failing. So on the one hand, we have a green city, but it's not sustainable because it has this yawning gap in terms of opportunity for people of color, Black and indigenous people, and low-income people.

Now, I think the city is doing some very progressive stuff, getting rid of single family zoning for instance, which makes up 75 percent of the land of Minneapolis. They're allowing duplexes and triplexes. They've got an affordable housing minimum. They're doing the right things. But if you looked at the city without knowing this, you could see two cities, one would be green and the other one would be unjust. "Just sustainabilities" says, how do we make this Minneapolis, this green city? Green and just for everybody, that's the challenge.

And Portland, Oregon, would be another classic case of exactly the same it's written from the same song book. And so really the point here is that urban planning, racialized covenants, single family zoning, red=lining. These are all the antecedents of what we have today. And they are grim reminders of why our cities are as they are.

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