Archive for the ‘Environmental Justice’ Category

We featured Kian Goh at the Unspoken Borders Conference this year, during the Talk20 session.   Having Goh be part of the conference was fantastic, particularly because of her direct engagement with the queer community on design issues.  One of her projects is featured in our hot-off-the-press publication.  She was also recently interviewed by the American Institute of Architects – be sure to listen to the mp3 of the interview.  She articulates the importance of promoting social justice through design.  Though she specifically speaks to an architectural audience, her words resonate well with other design fields.

Reflections from recent trips across Southeastern Pennsylvania:

Communities are increasingly forced to deal with the long-term impacts of industrialization, where the veneer of economic prosperity ultimately gives away to reveal damaged communities and impaired ecological processes. We visited two sites that are deploying strategies to deal with such post-industrial conditions. One location was Palmerton, Pennsylvania; a Superfund town nestled in the bucolic backdrop of the Kitatinny Mountains. The other was Philadelphia’s Mill Creek, which is currently encapsulated within enormous sewer pipes underneath the city. The sustainable practices at Palmerton and Mill Creek provide some insight on how to design strategies that restore the ecological functions of highly impaired environments.

Palmerton Superfund Site

In 1898, Palmerton was founded as a factory town, nestled between two ridgelines, to conduct zinc smeltering during the height of industrialization in the United States. After decades of constant smeltering, the forest ecosystem collapsed, affecting an expanse of nearly 2,000 acres. Due to deposition of zinc, lead and cadmium from the furnaces, microorganisms in the soil substrate were killed off, and an integral component of the forest lifecycle ended. Without decomposers, nutrients in the soil were eliminated, leading a domino effect that decimated the forest. To date, it is the largest Superfund site east of the Mississippi River.

On site, I was struck by the eerie landscape of windswept, bleached trees amongst barren grounds of dry dirt. Abandoned, rusted factory facitilies stood like sentinels to remind residents and visitors of a foregone era. Amazingly, some plant and wildlife species are returning to the environment; numerous sprouts of sassafras and sourgum were seen emerging from gnarled trunks.

Due to the immensity of the contaminated area, removing the toxic substrate was out of the question. We learned about two strategies to rebuild the soil nutrients, with the goal of creating a capping layer of substrate above the contaminated soils. The first attempt to “green” the decimated slopes entailed terracing the mountain to establish over 60 miles of roadways. These costly roads provided access for trucks to spray “ecoloam” along the slopes. Ecoloam was an engineered growing medium composed of sludge and schlag material from city waste. From afar, this method successfully “greened” the mountainside. However, some critics of this method blame the pervasive amount of invasive species on the applied slopes, due to the unpredictability of the seed composition of the ecoloam mixture. Additionally, trees could not establish beyond the depth of the ecoloam because the roots would hit the contaminated substrate beneath.

The land now belongs to telecommunications monolith known as Viacom, as a side acquisition through various transactions. To its credit, Viacom is funding the implementation of the second strategy, which relies on the hardiness of warm season native grass species to restore and stabilize the mountain slopes. Based on a serpentine barren-type ecology, this strategy aims to mimic the type of succession that had occurred in the site’s geological glaciation context. To establish the grasses, a growing medium composed of limestone, commercial fertilizer, grass seeds and compost was sprayed from the air, or hand-dropped along the slopes. This method appears to be less disruptive of the mountain slope because roads are not necessary, and the warm season grasses seem to be growing quite successfully.

In addition to the warm-season grasses, the predominant plant species we observed included the gray birch, sassafras, poplar, aspen and chestnut oak trees. Furthermore, some rare plant species were thriving quite well in these extreme conditions, such as wild bleeding heart and sandwort. Despite the calculated efforts to establish native plants, invasive species continue to pose a threat to the restoration efforts. As such, the staff work hard to eradicate the butterfly bush and ailanthus tree that they find along the slopes.

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Last December, Michigan took a step towards justice when Governor Granholm finally signed an executive directive calling for the recognition and incorporation of environmental justice in state policy.  This victory came after launching a three-year long campaign involving a coalition of community groups, businesses, public health organizations and environmental non-profits in Detroit.  Other states, like California, New York and New Mexico have already established such policy precedents.

As the former coordinator of this campaign, I had left Michigan to attend graduate school, but I’m thrilled that the coalition’s hard work has finally paid off.  Significantly, the campaign has brought a wider coalition of environmental justice advocates around the state, highlighting major groundwork in Saginaw, Michigan, particularly Saginaw’s urban neighborhoods that have been poisoned by dioxin and other contaminants from Dow Chemical.

Perhaps Michigan is coming back on track on the environmental justice front.  Having been a major player in the beginnings of the EJ movement, this executive directive could signify the opportunity for a new wave of energy to create more livable, sustainable and just communities.

Another significant victory in the environmental justice movement took place today at the announcement of WR Grace’s announcement to pay $250 million to clean up their asbestos scandal in Libby, Montana.

I recently learned about a book called Defiant Gardens, which includes documentation about gardens planted by Japanese American internees in the internment camps during WWII. I love the way that these gardens provided a transformative and life-affirming mechanism for resistance.

Landscape architects, farmers and gardeners shared agricultural expertise. The gardens displayed the sophisticated, collective, skills of each unique camp community. In comparing and contrasting the agricultural creations at different camps, [the author] offers several insightful hypotheses to explain why gardening became so central to internment life. Not only did gardens served to beautify the camps and give internees a productive pastime, but [the author] suggests that taming the desert wilderness leant a sense of the pioneering, historic western experience.

Coming across this book was a much-needed and refreshing moment on the role of gardens and horticulture. I’ve been inundated with the Euro-centric history of landscape gardening told from the perspective of the rich and powerful.

I was in Michigan last weekend for a short visit and a knee docter appointment (which I’m happy to report that I passed with flying colors!). Driving through the barren, calming roads of Detroit was a stark contrast to the fast-paced congestion of Manhattan. Most of all, it reminded me that there are many blog posts and reflections that are long overdue, particularly the one below, which I promised back in April.

During the process of applying to graduate school, I wrote a lot about how Detroit and how this city has been a generous teacher to me, helping me get on the track to pursue a degree in landscape architecture. I was too paranoid to post any text from my personal statements, for fear of jeopardizing my application, whether or not I had any real evidence to support this fear. Now that I’ve been admitted to school, I feel better about posting a blog-appropriate version of my personal statement.

In the spirit of BFP’s Radical Michigan Blogging Carnival, I submit my entry (4 months late!) about why Detroit/Michigan holds a special place in my heart. And for ways to get further acquainted with the cool things that make up the Detroit/Michigan area, check out the Allied Media Conference 2007 (June 22-24) and Critical Bloggers community. Continue Reading »

I was very saddened to hear the news that Rob Cedar passed on Monday, March 4, 2007. I briefly worked with Rob during the last stages of the campaign to shut down the Hamtramck medical waste incinerator in 2005. Rob was a very kind, gentle person, and a dedicated environmental justice advocate. He helped organize the Hamtramck Environmental Action Team (HEAT) and served on city council. Like many unnamed local community activists, Rob’s work is what maintains and strengthens the integrity of our communities. May he rest in peace.

Rob at a demonstration to shut the Hamtramck medical waste incinerator. Photo by ACCESS.

UPDATE: Information about Rob’s memorial service. Continue Reading »

Some folks in the environmental justice community point to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s support of the 1968 Memphis Santitation Workers Strike as one of the first campaigns to bring environmental justice issues into public visibility. If you are looking for an event to attend in observance of MLK Day on Monday, January 15, below are two events in Southeast Michigan that will examine issues concerning people of color and the environment.

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Just within the past two weeks, I have been part of conversations with a range of people — with non-SNRE types, around Detroit living rooms, during carpools, and in sangha discussions, that are speaking with passionate concern and urgency about global warming and climate change. The level of public consciousness about climate change has changed remarkably, and this comes to me with a mixture of surprise, anxiety, and relief. No doubt Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth had something to do with getting the message out to a broader audience, and for many who live in Michigan, the warm weather and lack of snow in January has caught a lot of our attentions. While this year’s unusually warm weather may not be directly attributed to global warming, it is still to hard to ignore the melting ice shelf and decrease in bird migration.

What is missing from some of these conversations is an awareness of the disproportionate impact of global warming among people of color, poor communities and indigenous folks — which is an analysis carried by the Climate Justice movement. As global temperatures increase, these populations may be hit hardest and perhaps were least responsible for the greenhouse gases that are accelerating global warming. Here are some scenarios of what those impacts could be:

  1. Climate change will reduce discretionary spending because prices will rise across the board. Low-income families will have to spend even more on food and electricity, which already represent a large proportion of their budgets.
  2. Indigenous Peoples are losing traditional medicinal plants to a warming climate, and subsistence households are suffering from the loss of species that are unable to adapt.
  3. Climate change harms the health of communities of color and Indigenous Peoples. Communities of color and Indigenous Peoples are burdened with poor air quality and are twice as likely to be uninsured than whites. Yet, these communities will become even more vulnerable to climate-change related respiratory ailments, heat-related illness and death, and illness from insect-carried diseases.
  4. Air pollution already hits people of color especially hard. Over 57 percent of whites, 65 percent of African Americans, and 80 percent of Latinos live in 437 counties with substandard air quality. Global warming is expected to double the number of cities that currently exceed air quality standards.
  5. Climate change will reduce discretionary spending because prices will rise across the board. Low-income families will have to spend even more on food and electricity, which already represent a large proportion of their budgets. (thanks for pointing out that this repeats #1).

There are many groups working diligently on this issue. Admittedly, the pessimist in me feels that all this talk is too little too late, that our human footprints are irreversible. So I can only turn to the hopefulness in me, which asks me to embrace my cynism and fears by looking at how to reduce my own impact, as a person living in the world’s wealthiest country. In the spirit of TNH, I’m committing myself to a No Car Day once a week, and I invite others to do the same, to the extent that they are able.

The Detroit Free Press recently published a great feature on Professor Bunyan Bryant, former teacher and mentor to me when I did my stint at U-M. What I have always appreciated about Bryant is his dedication to students, and his passion to push the envelope in academia, challenging traditional notions of epistemology and research.

A response to social and environmental issues at both the national and international levels is the environmental justice movement…it touches upon every sphere of human endeavor. And although we have embarked upon an era of environmental destruction unprecedented in modern times, and although social conditions for many in this country and throughout the world have failed to improve to any significant extent, the environmental justice movement, drawing its strength from both the grassroots and academia, has the potential to change the way we do business in this country and throughout the world profoundly.

I’ve also admired Bryant’s unconventional approaches to engaging students and community members about environmental justice, using theater of the oppressed exercises and other popular education methods.  My own experiences applying these techniques in workshops and trainings have also left me with profound moments of connection and solidarity with participants.

This voter guide is based on my personal research and conversations, and is not a complete reflection of all the positions that are up for election this year. Some positions, such as Member of the State Board of Education and several judicial positions, are not included, not because they are unimportant races, but rather I was unable to develop an informed choice by the time of this posting (and will probably just decide on the day I vote). Every voter should do their own research, but if this voter guide helps, please feel free to print it out and take it with you to the polls!

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