Green and clean used to be scarce commodities in the South Bronx, a New York City neighborhood saddled with 15 waste-transfer stations, a 39-acre sewage treatment plant, and one of the country's highest incidences of youth asthma (almost one in four kids is afflicted). Majora Carter, 40, a native of the Bronx's Hunts Point neighborhood, founded the nonprofit Sustainable South Bronx in 2001 to reverse these dismal stats. Four years later, she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation genius grant for launching an environmental stewardship training program, developing a green-roofing business to reduce cooling costs and conserve water, and creating the South Bronx Greenway, a $330 million, ten-mile cycling-and-walking path linking eight acres of parkland. Katie Arnold spoke with Carter about the environmental movement's urban landscape.
OUTSIDE: When did you realize the situation in the South Bronx had to change?
I was moving back to the neighborhood after college and heard about a proposal to bring 5,200 tons per day of municipal waste to our waterfront. The South Bronx was already carrying two dozen waste facilitiesabout 30 percent of the city's garbage. I thought, How did this happen? And why would they think they could do both?
So what exactly is environmental justice?
It's about creating opportunities for people to enjoy the environment around them, which means the environment needs to be something that can be enjoyed. It needs to be supportive of people's health and their economic quality of life. It's about making sure that environmental benefits and burdens are equally distributed among all people, and are not determined by race or class.
How does the South Bronx fit into the larger movement?
The South Bronx is not the Adirondacks or the Appalachian Trail, but we know that environmental-justice communities are sources for the greenhouse gases causing global warming. By helping our communities, not only are you supporting our public health; you're also doing a real service to other communities.
How badly does the inner city need green spaces?
Parks are at the core of any community. If you don't give people opportunities to be together in free public spaces, you lose out on building a community. You have to make that investment, especially in poor neighborhoods, because it will pay us back tenfold.
Are your neighbors catching on?
In my own community, most of us are no longer thinking, This is the South Bronx; of course we get the garbage. Now we say, "No. Why do I have to live like this?" Just asking that question is incredibly important.