TOD, gentrification, Treehugger and why environmental justice advocates get annoyed with so-called environmentalists

When I first started studying environmental justice, I dismissed one portion of the critique: that mainstream environmentalism only concerned itself with the needs and desires of white people and white environments. That seemed to be a problem we could easily fix in terms of advocacy coalitions, educating white environmentalists on how to broaden their agenda to really begin to take seriously the commitment to social justice required of sustainable development. These are all progressives, I thought, and in a few years’ time, environmentalism will assume justice as a precondition to progress.

That was close to 15 years ago, and I have to say, I now get the EJ folks’ frustration. It’s all about what environmentalists want, period. Here’s an illustration.

The Dukakis Center has published an important report on transit-oriented (TOD) gentrification. The report reflects careful research and reflection on the part of the report’s authors, Stephanie Pollack, Barry Bluestone, and Chase Billingham. The report is a major achievement, pointing to tons of policy conflicts between the envisioned goals and real-life implementation of TOD. We have one handwringing study after another about how transit is so much more affordable than cars, right? But not if you can’t afford to live next to the transit, and according to this study, the people we’re trying to keep transport costs low for get shoved out of neighborhoods where TOD is supplied.

IOW, rich people can have BOTH a car (instead of two) and a light rail available for their weekend pub crawls and jaunts to the museum, but poor people needing job access and affordable transit access get to eat cake. Policy problem. Then: if rich people are moving into transit-rich areas, ridership may be lower than it would be if more transit-dependents were able to retain their housing.

The response to the report–at least in part–helps illustrate the social justice problem in mainstream environmentalism. Of responses to the report among mainstream environmentalists, Treehuggers’s strikes me as the most depressing:

But ultimately the answer is to make the United States like almost every other civilized country: install good clean transit that is affordable and comfortable, and stop subsidizing the car, the roads and the parking. In most of the world there is no stigma to transit and the ethnicity of the riders pretty much mirrors the ethnic mix of the cities it runs through. Transit is for everyone.

Clueless. Clueless. Clueless.

Here’s the translation:

Yeah, I know the Dukakis Center just showed how housing prices and residential displacement near new investments are an issue with TODs, but we should really talk about what I want, and what I want is more transit, and since I can’t see anything except what I want, and I want transit, this report must be about transit, and the way to solve issues around transit should be with more transit. It’s not about social responsibility in any other form, just transit. Did I mention transit? And how I want more transit and how society is obligated to build more because that’s the moral and civilized thing to do because I want transit and what I want must be civilized and moral and good for everybody?

The Dukakis Center does not in any way suggest we shouldn’t have transit. Nobody as far as I know interpreted the report’s findings at all like that.

Yes, the rest of the world has a great deal of public transit and there is more income diversity among its users. You know what Europe–every transit fanboy’s dream vacayspace—also has? Really pretty ubiquitous public housing programs for people who are poor and elderly so that they don’t get priced out of their housing every time a new transit investment goes in. It’s not great housing, and it’s not beautiful housing, but it’s affordable (to them; taxpayers have a different view) and it’s relatively centrally located. Here’s a little tidbit: at one point, nearly 60 percent of the housing stock in Sheffield, England, was publicly owned. Sixty percent.

But in US transit-oriented development, we can’t even HAVE that conversation because people here just ignore the housing issues over and over again. It’s not relevant to their transit dreams. After all, THEY have housing but not as much transit as THEY want, so transit MUST be the issue. And then if somebody raises the land price and housing issue, as the Dukakis Center report does, places like Treehugger rush in to reframe the issue as being about how WONDERFUL WONDERFUL WONDERFUL transit is, when that isn’t the issue. The housing discussion effectively gets shouted down and snuffed, in favor of what they want to talk about: transit.

We’re just supposed to build transit into every nook and every cranny of every metro area, no matter how inefficient that investment strategy is—rather than requiring that rich people, if they want to live near transit, had damn well better allow room in their neighborhoods and schools for poor people. Exclusionary neighborhoods push impoverished people farther and farther away: at the outset of suburbanization, the wealthy used transit to isolate themselves from the poor. Now disenchanted with their cars, the wealthy use transit redevelopment to increase their access and push more and more impoverished people into low-accessibility suburbs at least a subset of the affluent no longer desire (We have as much poverty in the suburbs as we do in the center city now.)

Wake up, people.

In a world where mainstream environmentalists aren’t so blindly in love with their own ideas, advocates there would see the Dukakis report for what it is: a challenge to start working on solving the trenchant problem of land prices, affordable housing, and urbanization instead of how they actually used the report: a platform on which to don their Transit Hero Hats (again, still) and preach to their Transit Choir (again, still).

As this “My Transit” dialogue drones on, and we build and build without taking the affordability questions seriously, we lose critical opportunities for mixed income development–way more difficult than it sounds—in favor of the unattainable dream: metro regions with transit everywhere. (Yes, it’s unattainable. I hate to break it to you, but European regions are not regions with transit everywhere; they are regions with transit everywhere tourists want to go. Nice enough, but it’s not everywhere.)

Add to: Facebook | Digg | | Stumbleupon | Reddit | Blinklist | Twitter | Technorati | Yahoo Buzz | Newsvine

Blogo is a weblog editor for Mac OS X designed for speed and ease of use. Blogo is easy for beginners, but powerful enough for probloggers. Now with Twitter and support!