Can we designate a city as a “Smart City” if equity is not a central component of the sustainable development goals? Will opportunity be available to all stakeholders in the community? I recently had the honor of moderating a panel for the national NAACP conference for the Environmental and Climate Justice (ECJ) Program Workshop, Bridging the Gap: Connecting Communities of Color to the Green Economy. Where we addressed the issues of equity and opportunity in the “Green Economy”.
NAACP’S Bridging the Gap: Connecting Communities of Color to the Green Economy
Building Green Utopias across in America are idealistic but we have to deal with the underlying realities of inequity in our cities first. For example Houston is in the midst of trying to recovering from Hurricane Harvey, a category 4 hurricane that has caused estimates of 180 billion dollars in damage.
“About 37,000 refugees stayed overnight in 270 shelters in Texas plus another 2,000 in seven Louisiana shelters, the highest number reported so far by the American Red Cross.
Some 84,700 homes and businesses were without power on Sunday, down from a peak of around 300,000, according to the region’s major electric companies.” (reuters)
Inequity Before the Storm and After?
Before Hurricane Harvey hit the city, Houston ranks as the 15th most unequal in terms of income and wage disparity among the nation’s 50 largest cities, according to the Brookings Institution. In Houston the top 5 percent of households earn about 12 times more than the bottom 20 percent. When people say people in Houston should have just left once receiving warning about the impending Hurricane we don’t understand that 156,000 of the city’s households have an income under $18,759. So you tell me if they have a disaster preparedness plan? People are trying to survive day to day. So when we talk about Houston recovering from the storm we have to consider what the social economic conditions were like before the storm. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of African-Americans in the Greater Third Ward has shrunk by more than 10 percent over the past decade as the white population has doubled in the area. This community that once housed traditional, single-family or shotgun homes, are now vacant lots or now have new townhomes that are too expensive for the current Third Ward residents who have an average income of under $20,000 a year.
“Approximately three years ago, there was a lot pressure being placed on Third Ward, Medical Center, and downtown area homeowners to sell their homes. Residents began placing signs in their yard saying, ‘My home is not for sale.’ As a result, developers, recognizing the demand, began building exclusive loft and condominium complexes that the average Third Ward resident cannot afford.” – Gerald Womack, President and CEO of Womack Development & Investment Realtors ( article The Third Ward: The White Invasion)
What Clean Up?
Before the storm we have to recognize the city of Houston is home to over 500 industrial sites and many cause toxic and hazardous waste disporportionatley in communities of color. So before we can talk about recovery and building green in Houston we have more than storm damage to clean if we’re going to rebuild the city.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina a lot of green development was initiated but who benefited? Many of the residents who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina were unable to return to New Orleans. Post Katrina in New Orleans Many of the formally black neighborhoods are now majority white. Will “Green and Sustainable Development” equal the displacement of African Americans and the poor?
Houston is just an example of the complexity of sustainable development and equity that many of of urban cities are facing today in light of Climate Change. If we don’t see sustainable development through the lens of social equity then we will allow the least of these among us to fall through the cracks as we build “smart cities”. Who will get a chance to get access to these “clean green jobs” that we have been hearing about for the last decade. African Americans make about 12% of the U.S. Labor force but only make up the 5.9% of the solar industry labor force according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. We contrast that with the Latinos who make up 15.6% of the solar work force and 6.7% for Asians. This is equivalent to their percentage of their percentage of the population. According to the Environmental and Study Institute the study reports that 3,384,834 Americans were directly employed by the clean energy industry (which includes the energy efficiency, smart grid, and energy storage industries; electric power generation from renewables; renewable fuels production; and the electric, hybrid, and hydrogen-based vehicle industries). There is an opportunity for individuals who have a trade and craftsman skills like plumber and HVAC technician to transfer those skills over to Green Jobs in the Energy Efficiency sector. We just need to partner with renewable and green companies with trade schools and community colleges to help get citizens the necessary technical skills and training.
I recently was able to speak to the U.S. Green Buildings Counsel of Georgia and my message was clear that we have to view sustainable development through the lens of social equity. If we are going to build the Beloved Community we have to value all members of society and all stakeholders a place at the table in the Green / Low Carbon Economy.
Upcoming Event in Atlanta with Rainbow PUSH Coalition