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.)

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

  1. The real problem is that most “environmentalists” really aren’t “environmentalists” at all- they are narcissistic, NIMBY uber-capitalists. They unabashedly pursue they own selfish interests with such fervor as to even make me, an avowed free market adherent, blush. They’ve done an outstanding public relations job of characterizing their self-absorbed actions as totally selfish, and most (including, generallly, the media and academics) have bought into lock, stock and barrel. Of course, the media and academics are, generally, members (and even leaders) of the club.

  2. Oops. I meant to say “self-absorbed actions as totally selfLESS.”

  3. Excellent and accurate takedown, Lisa. Liked the Dukakis Center’s very Cambridge self-description as a “think and do” tank. Similarly, Harvard didn’t recently have a hiring freeze. It had a hiring frost. WTF? This sort of thing is why the political candidates that come out of these places often lose elections they ought to be able to win on their merits. It is also, I suppose, why Obama, a president of impressive promise two years ago, managed to cut himself down to size so quickly. He and his people did it to themselves. Sarah Palin, John Boehner, etc. were mostly bystanders and soon will be undeserving beneficiaries.

  4. Unfortunately, many of the social justice and housing advocates are using reports like this one as a justification to not build transit.

    • @ Ken I’m sorry, but that’s such a vague statement, I am going to challenge it outright: name one single social justice organization that has used this report to come out against transit. Name one. This strikes me as exactly the same victim-y “It’s all about transt” statement that I don’t have any patience for. However, the report’s conclusions give a lot of fuel to neighbors confronted by new TOD projects and who already don’t want TOD built near them. And who can really blame them? If you are going to get displaced, why would you be interested in amenities you don’t get to enjoy? Again, this is an important reason for transit advocates to pull their heads out and stop preaching to their choir–and stop behaving like transit is a magical joy toy that benefits everybody all the time. It doesn’t; it has distributive consequences like everything else, and ignoring those distributive consequeneces–rather than negotiating about them during implementation–gives neighbors EVERY reason to hold out and oppose TOD.

  5. Lisa, your/the Dukakis folks criticism of the class tilt in TOD are well taken. I’ve often seen it myself, especially in projects here in the pricy Bay Area. There are even a fraction of new urbanists who are against including affordable housing in their projects, though this isn’t the Congress for New Urbanism’s official position.

    To be the fair, though, it’s not like TOD advocates are uniquely blind or uninterested, while everyone else is out there is clamoring for affordable housing. Long term affordable housing seems to have been abandoned as a goal by just about every level of government in the U.S., with a small number of local exceptions. Even a lot of activists seem to have moved on. Now there’s the mortgage crisis, which is horrible, but again nobody talks about the 1/3 of the population which was renting even at the height of the boom.

    TOD advocates haven’t been any worse than any of this, they just haven’t been much better.

  6. As an urban planner I frequently see low-income housing on the agenda of transit-oriented development- in part because of policy requirements in some states and in part because not everyone is as inherently evil as you portray. The federal government, through their new partnership between HUD, EPA and the DOT is working to address these issues from a federal level, but these efforts are happening at the local level as well.
    Our City consistently works hand-in-hand with our housing authority and numerous non-profits to ensure an adequate supply of low income housing and we design and improve our transit systems and routes to be accessible across the community and to get people where they need to go regionally for work. There are always improvements to be made, but these come from collaboration, not from trashing all those working to solve these issues.
    While improvement in transit nodes does lead to some gentrification, it should also be recognized that it creates mixed-income communities rather than a separation of low-income citizens from the rest of the population. It also provides opportunity for job creation in formerly deteriorating neighborhoods.
    It is critically important to continue to push for policy that requires a specific amount of housing to remain available for low-income housing in new development to assure people can remain in their neighborhoods. I see these types of developments cropping up throughout this region, and it is certainly preferable to the types of low-income housing previously built that segregated people.
    Improvements to transit and subsequent transit-oriented development creates asthetically pleasing places to live and go to work. I would think this fosters community pride, and encourages people to strive for even better things for themselves and their community. The people that move to areas that they would have normally not lived in because of improvements are often professionals who work for the betterment of communities- teachers, non-profit workers, artists, designers, etc. that have the skills to further gains in the community. Why not tap into this by creating programs to utilize their talent and energy and resources to help those in the community that could benefit from it?
    Our community turned a beautiful historic building and former middle school into a community center for non-profits and City welfare offices so people can access child-care, educational offerings, health care and other resources all in one location, right downtown, accessible by multiple forms of transit. The building is located next to the library and the City offices. It is this type of creative solutions to assisting low-income people that should be tapped into when improving communities. This comes from good planning which requires a holistic approach that includes transit, accessible housing, community resources and economic development.

    • Glad to hear from you, and I’m glad to hear about all the good projects you’ve engaged in, but don’t turn me intro a straw man with your “not everybody is as evil as you portray.”

      I said that the writers at Treehugger were clueless. That’s a far cry from saying that people are evil. Thoughtless advocacy can have bad side effects, but I don’t think transit advocates are evil. I think a lot of them have tunnel vision, and I think that tunnel vision is a really bad idea when it comes to TOD.

      As a planner, uou SHOULD see affordable housing as part of the agenda as a urban planner. It’s your job to raise the disparate issues affecting land development around transit. Urban planners are not, strictly environmentalists, nor should they engage in the sort of single-issue, one-sided advocacy that I take aim at in this post.

      My problem with the Treehugger response boils down to their inability to HAVE the sort of view that enables them to see the affordable housing issues in play. They have built themselves a loudspeaker platform, and instead of taking on an integrated approach, they simply reverted back to their single-issue stump.

      Go back and read what I actually said instead responding to me as “an enemy of TOD” the way you did. My problem isn’t TOD; my problem are single-issue advocates who see TOD ONLY as T. That’s not the difficult part of TOD. Saying you are pro-transit is as politically controversial as saying you’re for mom and applie pie. The tough work of transit-oriented development is the land use and policy side, and that’s where the vision begins to break down: the political coaltions that can bring transit can break down once it gets built, leaving only much more marginal constituencies–like affordable housing advocates–to fight the battle for more affordable housing on their own.

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