Urban Sustainability; Community Mindfulness

by Sherrie LaRose

Perhaps the most pronounced dimension is the social context of urban sustainability. Whereas in the rural setting importance is placed on the more ecological side of sustainability and how a community grows out of this mode of thinking, the urban setting first considers the community and responds with measures that are not only ecologically sound, but more importantly help the community. Our tour with the Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE) organization, meeting with the Commissioner of Agriculture, and visit with Bill Hinckley of the Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) department exemplifies this.

ACE provided us with a tour of Roxbury titled, “The Toxic Tour”. This is so because the focus of the tour was to point out the environmental costs, ‘toxics’, which have been dumped on the city due to its low social and economic status.  Some of these toxics were quite literal such as asbestos contaminated dirt that was allowed to accumulate on street sides post development projects. Other ‘toxics’ were cases of transit classism that lead to serious air pollution. The latter is a result of the area not being reimbursed with a deserved train line and instead receiving a mediocre bus system that compounds the emissions of the existing bus terminal at Dudley square.

The reason ACE and the tour exist however is to work for change. That is, by pointing out the immediate cases of injustice in regards to Roxbury and its environment, the organization can mobilize the community to stand up for its rights and improve the neighborhood. By conducting flash mobs, demonstrations, and using props, the group is able to increase attention and thus spread their message. The result has been the removal of contaminated building sites, the creation of community gardens, and a revitalization of community pride. Although ACE focuses on improving the community many ecological improvements have occurred and thus within the scope of sustainability the connection between people and place cannot be understated.

Our meeting with the Commissioner of Agriculture, Greg Watson, and his staff was lively and energetic. This portion of Massachusetts government works to protect agricultural land, increase farming, and redefine the food system in the state. They accomplish this by using programs such as the Agricultural Protective Restriction, as well as enforcing and regulating the sector so that only sustainable practices occur. The hope that Mr. Watson had for Massachusetts was inspiring and thought provoking and it was nice to hear that there are plans for improvement of the food system in the future. By keeping farmland protected and free from development the organization makes Massachusetts food production a reality; in doing so the local economies of the surrounding towns prosper thanks to the available food and business. Because this type of food system directly benefits the communities in particular and the state in general the organization is primarily improving the conditions of the states communities in regards to food quality and access and indirectly providing ecological mindfulness in that industrial development is decreased and, because of the regulatory power of the commission, increasing sustainable agriculture.

Bill Hinkley, a SLU graduate and employee of the EEA, provided us with a tour of the town of Chelsea, an impoverished area with a high population density. He walked us around and explained different project sites, one of which included the creation of a new green storm water catchment system to help prevent storm water runoff into the Harbor. The overarching goal of the EEA’s projects in Chelsea however, is to decrease the unjust placement of environmental costs. By improving the physical conditions of the community (i.e. decreasing pollution into the nearby river) the EEA increases the overall development of the city of Chelsea. Although this sometimes has unintended consequences such as gentrification, the primary result is a revitalization of the community by way of socio-economic development. Ultimately this community improvement does result in ecologically sustainable practices, but more importantly the sense of “we”-ness and collective mindfulness is amplified. This is crucial in cultivating a sense of sustainability within a community of which can then result in action.

Clearly the social context of sustainability is equal in importance to the ecological. What the city has brought to the fore front of our thinking is the intimate connection that exists between the two. Just as the community of a rural area is complemented by an ecological motivator, the call for community development lends itself to more ecologically sustainable practices within the city. With this our understanding of sustainability has become more robust and complete.

- Jake and Lauren