Greenberg explores social elements of urban sustainability

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On April 4 Miriam Greenberg spoke about the role of equity in sustainability. Greenberg was sponsored by a variety of departments, indicating the inherent intersectionality of her work. Photo courtesy of Vassar College Political Science Department

A sustainable city is more than a collection of environmentally conscious buildings and businesses; it should also be a socially aware and economically just system. Author and Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Santa Cruz Miriam Greenberg spoke on April 4 about the inequality in sustainable cities, in her talk ti­tled “Beyond Ecotopia: Green Displacement and the Challenge of Equity in the Sustainable City.”

The event sponsors included the Urban Stud­ies Program, the Departments of Political Sci­ence, Sociology, Earth Science and Geography, and the Office of Sustainability. The intersec­tionality of sustainability is often overlooked, the concept relegated to fields related to envi­ronmental science, but it necessarily has to do with government, business and social issues as well.

Greenberg urged her audience to be aware of the ambiguity of the term “sustainability” it­self. “[T]here is of course this market-oriented sustainability, in which the environment to be sustained is often linked to capital, to be able to circulate and to grow and to accumulate,” she explained. “[There is also] justice-oriented sustainability, which is often focused on humans and on social equity kinds of questions, and on the need for people to have access to nature and to live in healthy environments.”

The sustainability movement is often imag­ined as something based in wilderness, separate from the gray, dirty space of cities. However, Greenberg asserted, “The hippie-modernists, one of their interesting distinctions from other environmentalists at the time, was that they were quite pro-urban in a sense, they weren’t so much ‘back to the land,’ they were interested in finding ecological solutions to the urban realm.” There is a historical precedent not only for greening cities, but also for establishing those spaces as exclusionary, whether intentionally or not.

Greenberg acknowledged that dreaming of a utopia is not pointless, but when put into prac­tice, utopias are never as ideal as they are in theory. “[W]hen the utopian impulse becomes a utopian project, when people try to build these utopias, we find so often that they are exclusion­ary, that they are bounded in various ways,” she said.

San Francisco, where Greenberg is current­ly based, is often held up as a shining example of a green city, where progressive policies and plans have been successfully implemented and sustainability is a priority. However, this narrow view fails to take into account the fact that the city is unaffordable and unequal for so many, and therefore is an elite and exclusionary space. Di­rector of Urban Studies and Associate Professor of English Tyrone Simpson warned, “All that is green may not necessarily be progressive.”

Sustainability is often framed in terms of the so-called three E’s: ecology, equity and economy. However, Greenberg explained, “Not all E’s are created equal, and one of the E’s that certainly in our region has been the most powerful is econ­omy.” Sustainable efforts in cities, while usually concentrated on scientific improvements in ar­eas such as energy consumption and pollution, are definitively part of the economic system of a city. Associate Professor of Geography Mary Ann Cunningham agreed, “Sustainable efforts are one of the current forms of amenity develop­ment in the city. I feel like it’s easy to critique the sustainability aspect of it, but what really is the driver is the government structure.”

Business, government and environmental consciousness go hand in hand in the U.S. mar­ket economy, especially in city settings. Green­berg addressed the concept of greenwashing–la­beling products as green in order to play on the public’s conscience and convince them that they are helping the environment as they purchase goods. “If you can frame [a city] as clean and green, it’s going to flip the script and take peo­ple’s attention away from prices,” she observed. This stimulates the economy, but is not always truly helpful for the environment. In addition, “green” products can often be more expensive than the general population can afford, another example of the privilege of sustainable living.

Greenberg spoke about displacement, both loss of physical housing and of economic pos­sibility. “[O]pportunities for growth in certain areas… become great opportunities for some ar­eas, but also create this unevenness in the form of barriers to growth for other, underdeveloped areas,” she said.

Although Greenberg’s talk focused mainly on her experiences in the San Francisco Bay area, her ideas are equally applicable in New York and Poughkeepsie. Professor of Sociology Leonard Nevarez remarked, “The Hudson Valley is part of the metropolitan region of New York, and it’s connected by the ecological systems. It draws on the people and consumer dollars from the city, even if they don’t live here.”

Poughkeepsie has experienced the negative effects of post-crisis existence that Greenberg expounded on, gentrification and displacement among them. However, effort is being made to bring those issues to the collective conscious­ness and work towards truly comprehensive sus­tainability. Sustainability Coordinator Alistair Hall said, “April 22 we’re holding what we call the Poughkeepsie Community Wealth Building Conference. [We’ll be] trying to address these notions of, how do we promote economic devel­opment in the community, in a way that is inclu­sive and sustainability-oriented, with a focus on the social sustainability.”

Sustainability is feasible here in the Hudson Valley, on the opposite coast from the hub of green urbanism, but it will require an effort to consider the intersectionality of sustainability. Simpson advised, “[We need] to be a bit more vigilant about the political effects we value of eco-utopia, and its potential to create commu­nity.”

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