Democratizing the Green City is a long-term collective research and network-building project that I’m stewarding along with Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Miriam Greenberg, and Hillary Angelo.
Everyone agrees that our future lies in cities and that these cities need to be greener and more sustainable. But zoom in on any given project and over and over the same problem presents itself: too often green progress reinforces social inequality. Greening an area—either by reducing pollution or increasing livability—raises a place’s economic value; those who cannot afford to stay find themselves forced out. Is it possible to break this link between environmental improvement and social displacement? Life in cities cannot continue without it, but democracy in cities cannot survive the increasing polarization of inequality—sometimes called eco-apartheid—that this tendency is likely to produce.
I have been working on this issue with Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Hillary Angelo, and Miriam Greenberg, and the Urban Democracy Lab at New York University. We have lots of projects under development stemming from these concerns. We’re hoping to bring together scholarly debates happening across disciplines and across national borders. We’re also looking at ways of bringing scholars and activists together. Of course, we’re not the first ones to tackle this issue, but we hope to add something new.
It’s especially exciting to be working with Gianpaolo, whose work on participatory budgeting and democratic theory has shown that hollow imitations of the participatory processes that Porto Alegre won’t get us very far. Hillary’s work is especially illuminating on the tricky moral valences of greening. And Miriam’s work on both urban crisis politics and the multiple valences of sustainability shows how much is at stake in seeking to articulate a genuinely democratic approach to the green city project. My own contribution is in part about showing how following the carbon reveals unexpected synergies between longstanding urban social movement campaigns and potential low-carbon changes to the urban fabric.
In terms of public events, we’ve co-organized a three-part panel series featuring academics and practitioners (2014) a distinguished lecture by Raquel Rolnik on Urban Warfare: the Colonization of Urban Land and Housing, and a symposium joining scholars from North a and South America (2016).
We’ve also worked to mentor undergraduates at NYU with an interest in these issues. The Lab supported the organizing of an Alliance Workshop that explored the ways that environmental and other kinds of social justice organizing on campus could be more tightly connected.
Kathryn Tam made this mini-doc interviewing some of the key speakers of our 2014 panel series: