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1716_image1Catalina Mosquera Rosas


Martin Luther King had a dream: that the world would transform into a world of justice and that people of minority groups would be treated the same as any other citizen. In his speech Dr. King did not mention the environment, as the environment did not hurt him and his people; other people did. At the same time, though, in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a cry for a better environment throughout the nation (Colquette & Henry Robertson, 1991). Sixty years later, we see that these two concerns are coming together.

In recent years, environmental issues have received growing attention. Not only scholars and the media are paying attention to recent developments concerning our planet, but increasingly corporations are also addressing the issues. What seemed, at first, to be something only a specific group was worrying about is now becoming a trendy subject. For example, the multinational corporation Tesla, an electric car developer and producer, just launched their latest model. It will be available in 2017 and can be reserved for $1000. But also eating all organic is an expensive trend that has become increasingly popular in many Western countries. Moreover, many companies advertise with their “green” product, while making a profit out of it (Checker, 2011).

Armed with this “green” discourse, in 2007 New York City Mayor Bloomberg presented his long-term sustainability plan for the city, called “PlaNYC 2030, A Greener, Greater New York.” With this plan, he wanted to put New York on the global map as the most sustainable city worldwide. This included efforts to reduce waste to zero by sending it to out-of-state landfills, providing more open and green spaces to improve the quality of life in the city, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by replacing them with renewable energy. Bloomberg’s plan is considered to be the most progressive plan in the whole of the United States (Checker, 2011).

These trends result from concerns about global warming, and those concerns are not unfounded. Today, more people are living in cities than  in rural areas. Steel et al (2012) state that the consequences related to environmental change will be most felt in large urban cities. For example, due to historical events most of these cities are located near the ocean or rivers and are therefore more prone to floods; and because of the large number of people living there, this will have a major impact. That is why many urban planning processes are nowadays also linked to ideas of sustainability (Hassan & Lee, 2014). Saving the environment has become a worldwide mission with many countries and organizations involved trying to solve the problems.

However, when Bloomberg presented his plan on Earth Day 2007 he addressed the issue not only because of the environmental concerns it entailed, but also because the City couldn’t stay behind other global cities such as London and Paris. Sustainability therefore has become a trademark for cities; something they can use to compete in the race to become the “greenest city” because this also attracts new investors to the city (Checker, 2011). Plans for a greener city are supposed to improve the city’s image and to bring more economic opportunities (Rosan, 2012).

“Sustainability implies that peoples of the earth are responsible to one another to the greater community of life and to future generations” (Hassan & Lee, 2014. p. 1268). To sustain means that something needs to be maintained, to keep in existence. It involves certain interventions to secure the existence of our planet. These issues “need to be dealt with through compromise, managerial and technical arrangement, and production of consensus” (Checker, 2011. p. 214). Sustainability exists mostly out of three pillars: economic, social and environmental sustainability. If we want to achieve a sustainable city, all three pillars should be involved (Hassen & Lee, 2015).

While many people welcome the new plans to counter the effects of global warming and increase sustainability, academics have also pointed to the inequality these plans can cause due to unequal development in the cities. The planet we live on is something the whole population has in common, so we should all be able to enjoy planet earth in the same way. In order to ensure equal benefits, it is therefore important to combine the subjects of sustainability and justice, which might also lead to more comprehensive solutions for the multiple problems that people worldwide are dealing with. Also, it is important to stay critical of policies that governments present, to assess from different (theoretical) perspectives if they truly achieve the progress and benefits that politicians say they will. Using PlaNYC as an example, this paper will try to expound that policies that show good intentions solving environmental concerns, can have negative consequences that mostly affect minority groups.

Sustainability and the Just City

Since the 1970’s the idea of social justice has become increasingly central to urban planning. Around that time the neoliberal model and post-Fordism were ruling thoughts that started to influence the market worldwide. It became clear, however, that these economic models were not rewarding for everyone, so that people began looking at ways to include more justice into their system and cities. Thus, the idea of the ‘just city’ emerged, building on “an eclectic mix of philosophical thinking around questions of democracy, equity and diversity through the work of John Rawls.” (Steel et al, 2012. p. 70). This idea is about planning cities in such a way that they become a better place for all urban residents, including the most marginalized groups in society. Furthermore, the just city acknowledges how human action has an effect on the rest of the world. As climate change will have an impact on all of us, the just city is applicable to the idea of how citizens should look after our planet. Citizen participation is thus considered to be very important (Steel et al, 2012), and it is argued that such participation should be inclusive. “It is assumed that the stronger the role of disadvantaged groups in policy decisions, the more redistributional will be the outcomes; thus, broad participation and deliberation should produce more just outcome” (Fainstein, 2014. p. 7).

The idea of the just city also encompasses the notion of environmental justice. Rosan (2012) states that environmental justice includes two main points: to reduce environmental problems that affect neglected groups in the city and secondly to improve social justice goals by planting trees and ‘greening up the city’. Environmental justice then becomes an indicator of sustainability.

Justice and sustainability are often seen as factors that go hand in hand, because of the effects the environment will have, and already has, on vulnerable groups in our society in particular, inside and outside of cities (Steel et al, 2012). As Rosan (2012) explains: “The way in which people of colour and low-income communities experience the city is marked by a long history of unequal distribution of environmental risks, exclusion from planning decisions, and lack of economic opportunities.” According to Fainstein (2014), racism is not something that can be limited to the idea of material inequality. Racism can be felt on many levels, also in relation to the environment, which is therefore called environmental racism (Colquette & Henry Robertson, 1991).

A few decades ago environmental racism was a big topic. When the environment movement started in the 1960’s it mostly consisted of white, privileged citizens. The African-American movement was fighting for civil rights at that time and other minority groups in the US were fighting for other injustice problems, so they paid less attention to environmental issues. Since the 1980’s these groups are nonetheless just as much involved in environmental organization as other communities, but still have felt the consequences of climate change the most.

With the increasing demand for products due to increasing consumerism in the 1970s, also more toxic chemicals were needed to produce these products. Sites to dump toxic waste were mainly located in places with a high percentage of poor households and people of minority groups like African Americans and Hispanics. These people were not able to live without health risks as they were constantly threatened by polluted air around them, while more privileged communities did not suffer from toxic waste (Colquette & Henry Robertson, 1991).

Consequently a lot has been written about environmental racism and it has become clear that there is a demand for environmental justice. Thus, “many cities incorporate their carbon reduction goals into citywide sustainability plans that often use the framework of the three E’s of sustainability (equity, economy, and environment)”(Rosan, 2012, 690). Of course a progressive plan like PlaNYC could not stay behind and also took justice into account (Checker, 2011).

bloomberg_greenbulding_planycWhen we compare PlaNYC with the ‘just city’, they both include taking care of the environment. Secondly, both the ‘just city’ and PlaNYC include a form of democracy. As mentioned before, according to the ‘just city’ vision citizen participation is very important to get more ‘just’ results. PlaNYC, too, devoted one whole chapter to the role that the citizens of New York City would have in the development (Rosan, 2012). Thus, in this regard PlaNYC corresponds to the idea of a just city as well; in both visions democracy is included. Urban sustainability also has a moral side to it. Because Mayor Bloomberg included this aspect, the plan was very well-received (Rosan, 2012, 691).

PlaNYC also recognizes the needs of minority communities and low-income groups (Rosan, 2012). The Bronx has a much larger share of people with a lower income than Manhattan for instance. In this area, death rates are much higher and twenty percent more children are coping with asthma because of the many cars driving through this area (Rosan, 2012). To combat air pollution the City is now planting a lot of trees within and outside of Manhattan, also in areas like the Bronx and Harlem where air pollution is the highest (Rosan, 2012). This way, the city’s plan is also aimed at preventing environmental racism, even though this still occurs in many places.

PlaNYC targets a zero waste policy by the end of 2030, by dumping the City’s waste outside of New York’s state so that no one in New York will have to suffer from environmental problems. PlaNYC has good intentions and claims it wants to be sustainable for all New York citizens. This is how PlaNYC claims to include principles of justice in the city’s development. But are these plans for sustainable development enough to present New York as a just city?

Sustainable for Whom?

While sustainability has become a popular, positive discourse, it does have some negative outcomes. This section discusses the consequences for citizens of the sustainability policies under PlaNYC, and examines if these policies do indeed make New York City greener and greater for everyone.

Harlem, in the north of Manhattan, is known for its large number of Africa-American inhabitants. Once a notorious neighbourhood, in recent years it has been upgraded just as many other areas. This was mostly because of African-Americans from the upper- and middle-classes that were moving into the neighbourhood (Checker, 2012). In the last decade, though, there has been a new wave of gentrification, as white middle- and upper class residents have moved into the neighbourhood with the result that housing prices have started to rise.

The moment that the mayor presented his PlaNYC in 2007 prices started going up fast. Once the City started to ‘green up’ the area and started planting trees and redeveloping parks, houses around the park and in the area started to attract a new group. This was reflected in the housing prices: “The average sale price of an apartment reached $895,000, a price that was 93% higher than it was at the end of 2006” (Checker, 2011. p. 211). Later on, a housing corporation in Harlem started to build sustainable ‘green’ apartments (Checker, 2011). With prices 35% higher than houses in the neighbourhood, these apartments were not affordable for most of the old residents, even though they would also like to live in more environmentally conscious conditions (Checker, 2011).

By making Harlem greener, then, the City encouraged more and more well-established New Yorkers to move into the area, and the once predominantly black Harlem started to loose its colour. Therefore, “sustainability planning is viewed by some as part of a pro-growth, pro-gentrification policy” (Rosan, 2012. p. 970). All the characteristics of gentrification were indeed occurring in Harlem: “a rapid increase in property values and rents, improvements to the housing stock, and the replacement of lower-income residents with middle- to upper class households” (Pearsall, 2012. p. 1014). This is not a voluntary replacement. While house-owners in Harlem were relatively safe, the large majority of old residents that rented their apartments were often forced to leave their homes as they were no longer able to pay the increased rents.

gentrification_harlem-01People in Harlem have resisted this gentrification process, which they felt to be “as an assault to their neighbourhood and the death of their community” (Pearsall, 2012. p. 1020). Many felt that the special character of their neighbourhood was at risk of disappearing. Because of gentrification small local businesses started to vanish, as more and more upscale restaurants and businesses came into the neighbourhood. These new businesses then again attract more high-skilled, upper class residents and the gentrification process continues (Pearsall, 2012).

While PlaNYC claims that they include New York City citizen in the development, this is not always what happens in practice. The chapter about including citizens in the planning process was mostly written by one consulting firm with minimum input from citizens. “Even though PlaNYC made an effort to include the communities as part of their plan, still they often felt ignored and rejected” (Rosan, 2011. p. 973). An example of this is a family park in Harlem. The dynamic of the park rapidly changed due to the new residents that have bought apartments near the park, drawn by all the new green spaces in the neighbourhood. They requested less activities in the park because they felt it caused too much noise, while the old residents did not want to give up their late-night barbecuing since that was something they had been doing for generations (Checker, 2012). In the end, police started to come by more frequently to tell the old residents to leave the park when requested or otherwise get a fine (Checker, 2011).

Urban sustainability suggests that it is politically neutral (Checker, 2011). But as the case of Harlem illustrates (and similar developments are occurring in other neighbourhoods), the question remains for whom the neighbourhood is sustainable? Despite PlaNYC’s goal to make New York a greener and greater place for everyone, sustainability and justice goals have sometimes disconnected. Sustainability has become a high-priority goal for cities, but while companies can make a profit out of the sustainability discourse, minority groups are not always heard and are sometimes simply displaced.


Nowadays sustainability is a trademark, a discourse which cities and companies use to stay in the race (Checker, 2011).  Sustainability means ‘ to keep or to keep going’ or ‘to sustain’, but this doesn’t count for everything and everyone. While the attempts to fight global warming are finally taken seriously, the consequences of these policies can once again affect minority groups that have already suffered the most from environmental degradation.

The concept of the ‘just city’ might be a utopian thought; the three dimensions of democracy, equity and diversity are of course something to aim for. These concepts suggest that the city should be a place where everyone is included in a fair democratic process, no matter which group you are from, so that everyone can benefit from the city in the same way. This idea relates to the demand for less environmental racism, as researchers found that toxic waste was mostly dumped in areas of minority groups, mostly from a minority race (Steel et al, 2012 & Fainstein, 2014). But even though PlaNYC resembles aspects of the idea of the just city, the resulting sustainability policies have not yet sufficiently included the three dimensions to say that New York City will be ‘just’ by 2030.

First of all, policies like planting more trees and redeveloping parks in Harlem have led to gentrification (Checker, 2011 & Rosan, 2012). For the old residents this felt like ‘whitening of the neighbourhood’; many had to move out since they could not afford the new rent prices and were most definitely not able to buy the ‘green’ sustainable flats that were being built. So, although Harlem appeared to be becoming more diverse, this would eventually exclude the minority groups still left on the island, who couldn’t be certain how PlaNYC would affect their lives in the future.

Secondly, although PlaNYC made an explicit statement to involve all NYC citizens and give more attention to minority groups, in practice this wasn’t always the case. The plans for development mostly included larger corporations and changes in for example Harlem were not discussed with older residents. New residents on the other hand were heard and because of that, old residents had to give up some of their neighbourhood traditions. People felt like their neighbourhood began to lose its special character as people moved out and small business disappeared (Rosan, 2012).

So far, PlaNYC has hardly led to environmental justice. PlaNYC claims it wants to create more green spaces for New Yorkers. Yet, some of its policies have led to gentrification and minority groups are still excluded. If sustainability is becoming a discourse in which corporations are able to make profit, it is questionable if making profit and justice can merge (Rosan, 2012). As long as minority groups continue to be disadvantaged due to sustainability policies, it cannot be seen as an environmental just city. In New York, extreme forms of environmental racism might no longer occur, since no more toxic waste is being dumped in the backyards of minority groups. But these groups are still suffering from the gentrification processes that are being spurred by sustainability policies (Pearsall, 2012). So for whom is the City becoming more sustainable?

To improve sustainable development, it is important that people keep addressing how our current system is working and whom it serves the most. Sustainable urban planning should try to involve the three dimensions of the just city even more. Furthermore, sustainability should not be absorbed in our system of neoliberalism where profit can be more important that justice In further research, it might be good to look at ways in which sustainability can be separated from neoliberal thinking.

Finally, another question remains: if PlaNYC indeed does have the best intentions to reduce its waste till zero, to which region will this waste be taken? Which groups live in that region? We should keep thinking about how our consumerism is affecting the ecosystem and how it affects the regions where our products are produced and the toxic waste is dumped, countries like India, Bangladesh and China. Research is also needed to examine how these new sustaibility policies that mostly focus on cities have an effect on rural areas.

Sixty years later, we have come a long way. Racism in the US and elsewhere still exists but there have been some real progresses. Apart from that, there is more and more attention for environmental issues worldwide and big changes are being made. In the future the progress made around these issues might just be each other’s solutions, and hopefully Martin Luther King’s dream comes true in a sustainable just society.

(Written for Age, City & Work)


Checker, M. (2011). Wiped Out by the “Greenwave”: Environmental gentrification and the Paradoxical Politics of Urban Sustainability. City & Society, 23(2), pp.210-229

Hassan, A. M. & Lee, H. (2015). The Paradox of the sustainable city: definitions and examples. Environ. Dev. Sustain., 17, pp. 1267-1285

Pearsall, H. (2012). Moving in or moving out? Resilience to environmental gentrification in New York City. Local Environment, 17(9), pp. 1013-1026

Rosan, C. D. (2012). Can PlaNYC make New York City “greener and greater” for everyone?: sustainability planning and the promise of environmental justice. Local Environment, 17(9), pp. 959-976

Steele, W. & Maccallum, D. & Byrne, J. & Houston, D. (2012). Planning the Climate-Just City. International planning Studies, 17(1). 67-83.

Colquette, K. M. & Henry Robertson, E. A. (1991). Environmental racism: The causes, consequences, and commendations. org

Fainstein, S. S. (2014). The Just City. International Journal of Urban Sciences, 18 (1), pp. 1-18.

Urban Studies Papers