What roles might architects play in changing the course of global warming? As the climate crisis intensifies, architects and architecture schools have responded with a new crop of designs and curricula. Some studios have sought to use the representational powers of designers to help visualize changed modes of everyday life that might be possible under a Green New Deal or other model of a “just transition.” Others have sought technical resolutions to challenges of sea level rise and more frequent storms. Others have centered the “visionary” capacities of design, proposing new programs and forms of urban life that we might create in a warming world. Still others have seen this crisis as yet another pretext for experimental form-making, producing work that is often disconnected from community needs.
No matter what the approach, designers have had to work to develop expertise about the kinds of buildings, programs, infrastructures, and landscapes needed in a world transformed by this crisis. Yet rather than engage in endless research, we believe that designers would be well-served by centering and ethically engaging the deep expertise about climate change already held by grassroots organizations that make up the Environmental Justice (EJ) movement. The knowledge about programmatic and infrastructural change necessary to create a truly just adaptation to the climate crisis in these organizations is longstanding, and we think it is crucial for architects to understand and support this work. This is particularly true in the New York City region, where organizations like UPROSE, GOLES, El Puente, ALIGN, the South Bronx Community Resiliency Center, the Ironbound Community Corporation and many others, have worked as organizers and agitators to ensure that the needs of frontline communities — particularly low income communities of color who are first and most strongly impacted by climate change — be centered in planning, legislation, and in new design initiatives. In a profession shaped deeply by white supremacy and class privilege, too few architects and designers are rooted in these communities, and designers’ visions of what is most needed may not correspond to what communities demand.
What might happen if designers acknowledged and engaged the work of environmental justice organizations? This does not necessarily mean giving up the skills and expertise as programmers and visionaries; rather, it requires that designers find ways to collaborate with and center the knowledge of people whose expertise we need in order to make our designs truly viable. To that end, we’re having discussions with New York area EJ leaders to learn more about their work and their priorities. We’re talking about the ethics and pitfalls of collaborations between grassroots leaders, academics, and designers as well. Our first conversation is with Jalisa Gilmore of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYC-EJA), a group that works with grassroots environmental justice organizations on research and advocacy. Gilmore, who has a background in public health and housing advocacy, speaks to us about the meanings of environmental justice, the connections between bodily and environmental health, and the processes and ethics of community research partnerships. – EB + MT
Could you tell us about some of the work you’re doing currently with the NYC-EJA?
Yes! The NYC-EJA advocates for different solutions to remedy the long history of unjust policies that have contributed to communities of color bearing disproportionate environmental burdens in New York. We work with eleven different organizations based in what I refer to as environmental justice (EJ) communities — low-income communities of color that have historically faced negative health impacts created by polluting infrastructures.
A lot of my work at NYC-EJA is focused on addressing climate change in these communities. That ranges from reducing greenhouse gases and co-pollutants, and their harmful effects, to dealing with the climate impacts of extreme weather: flooding and storm surge. As the climate is changing, a lot of environmental burdens in these communities are being amplified. We advocate for solutions that will address those issues, and bring more environmental amenities into these communities.
One of the primary campaigns I work on is our Waterfront Justice Project, which focuses on climate change impacts along the industrial waterfront. We have these zones called Significant Maritime Industrial Areas, where we see a clustering of industry and other polluting infrastructures. The concern is not only that these polluting facilities are located in environmental justice communities, but that they are also in storm surge zones. Chemicals and different kinds of contaminants are stored along the waterfront. With climate change making hurricanes and storms more frequent and severe, we’re asking: What happens if a storm comes, and these chemicals are released into the environment? What does that mean for the health of these communities that are already overburdened? Back in 2010, when the City’s last comprehensive waterfront plan and waterfront revitalization program were developing, NYC-EJA and our members did a lot of research and advocacy to make sure some of these concerns around chemicals and climate change were brought to the attention of the city government. And we’ve been working with our member organizations on different research projects to really try to understand these different public health effects.
Another goal of ours is to work with local industry and business to build resilience.
How would you define resilience in this case?
Well, for instance, we have a partnership called Grassroots Research to Action in Sunset Park. In that neighborhood we’re focusing on auto shops specifically. There are a lot of auto shops in Sunset Park — small businesses — that use products containing different chemicals. Instead of saying, “This is bad, get rid of all the polluting facilities!” we’ve asked how we can work with them to make sure that these chemicals are never released into the environment. We begin by trying to understand what their perceptions of climate change are, and how they’ve been affected. We’re understanding what kind of products they’re using, and how they’re storing them: how much is in the shop at any given time? And then we’re trying to develop a set of best management practices that help them store these chemicals in ways that reduce their potential of being released into the environment (what we call “fugitive chemicals”).
We’re also big fans of green infrastructure, since it addresses so many different climate and environmental impacts. Our Grassroots Action for Green Infrastructure Equity project is focused on exactly what the name says: increasing green infrastructure and advocating for holistic solutions to address climate impacts in EJ communities. It’s about having a plan for businesses and the community when floods happen, but also about using nature-based solutions for preventing rising waters from even getting to that point in the first place!
Through our air quality campaign, we’re advocating for more trees as a way to reduce greenhouse gases and other co-pollutants. We have a partnership with the Cities Team at the Nature Conservancy called the Just Nature NYC partnership. We’ve been working with them to better understand the urban canopy in New York City, and how that intersects with different socioeconomic factors, with a particular focus on how we can take this research and make it valuable for EJ communities.
Green infrastructure and other nature-based solutions are important for integrated climate resiliency, addressing long-standing environmental issues, and emerging climate issues while making sure we are moving towards healthier communities for everyone.
Both of those outline important priorities for intervention. Can you tell us more about your air quality monitoring project?
Harmful air pollutants like particulate matter 2.5 (PM 2.5) lead to higher rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses in EJ communities. PM 2.5 refers to very tiny particles in the air — primarily as a result of combustion from sources like industry or vehicles — that can be inhaled deep into your lungs, where it can cause damage resulting in health issues. We really wanted to understand air quality in more detail. We also wanted to make sure it’s not all about the data, but also about raising awareness around these different issues in the community, and involving youth in the community to do this work.
The Community Air Mapping Project was born in the South Bronx and Brooklyn. Through grassroots air quality monitoring, we’re looking at PM 2.5 data and trying to understand what air quality actually looks like on the ground. Right now, New York City monitors air quality, but the sensors are very sparse and spread out. We wanted to get a more accurate idea of what air quality looks like in these communities, so we could identify hotspots and advocate for better policy around air quality. This connects to a bunch of different campaigns as well, like our transportation work and also our waste equity work.
Are you already starting to have a sense of your findings? Does this transform our understanding of the inequitable distribution of pollutants?
Coming into this, we already knew that there were certain areas that were worse in terms of air quality, but what we’ve been finding is that it really does vary block to block. It’s not as uniform as you would think. Not only is air quality different from specific place to place, but also across time. We are seeing spikes of PM 2.5, and that’s important to know because even small exposures are impactful.
What has also come out of this project is engagement with the community — just being able to talk with them about air quality, environmental justice, and climate change. A lot of this work has been done by the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), a program for New York City teens and young adults that provides opportunities for career exploration and paid work experience. They always have different creative ideas about how to share this work and talk about it. That is a big part of the project.
That seems like a moment where the NYC-EJA’s experience working with community researchers is really valuable.
I think being able to work with researchers, but also different community-based organizations, is great because we’re able to share information and ensure that all relevant stakeholders are involved in conversations around this. It’s not just coming from researchers; ideas are also coming from the advocates themselves, who are part of the community.
One thing that’s been important to us in our architectural work is thinking about environmental amenities: where they should be, and who should determine what they are. How would you make recommendations around what those amenities or infrastructures might be in conversation with your communities?
More and more people are talking about climate change and understanding that we need to take action to prevent the worst of it — but the same work that we need to do to fight climate change has already been happening in EJ communities for decades! We all need to be following their lead. The work that we at NYC-EJA do is led by our members: we’re shaped by their priorities, and they’ve been doing this environmental work for a long, long time. They are the ones who are coming to us with their concerns; then we’re helping them and guiding them, and we’re both sharing our expertise with each other.
NYC-EJA relies on our members to tell us what the issues are in their communities. At the same time, we also rely on data, including metrics developed by the City, such as the NYC Heat Vulnerability Index. We use both inputs to tell the City that these are the communities that are most vulnerable, and anything that we’re doing in terms of mitigating extreme heat needs to be focused on these communities. NYC-EJA works directly with our members so that we can advocate to get the resources that communities need, whether that’s more environmental amenities or better environmental policy.
Speaking of heat, we’d love to hear more of your thoughts about health and climate justice. Could you speak a bit more about what a “frontline community” is in context of your work, and the connections between your background in public health research and what you do now for NYC-EJA?
Climate justice is another branch of environmental justice, and we’re operating with the understanding that any environmental concern is going to be intensified by climate change. Frontline communities are the communities that are hit first and worst by climate change.
When I think about environmental justice, it’s all about health. For me, environmental justice work is about people, about addressing the health impacts of polluting the environment. My master’s degree in public health was environmental health, but specifically focused on climate change, the human health impacts of climate change. From the moment I learned about NYC-EJA and the work that they were doing, it was exactly what I was interested in!
With the Waterfront Justice Project, some of my work intersects with that of the Department of City Planning. But I don’t have a planning background. I think sometimes people have been like, “From a planning perspective . . .” and I’m like, “I don’t have a planning perspective!” I have to think about the implications of policy rather than just focusing on research. It’s been a learning experience for me! But being able to work at NYC-EJA, and to really center that work on people of color in low-income communities, has been so important. In some research, you’ll hear that “Black people or Latino people are seeing the worst health outcomes,” and it’s just kind of an afterthought. But for NYC-EJA, that’s our starting-off point. There are just too many health outcomes where people of color just are worse off. Working in this space just makes sense.
I find it really interesting that every time we analyze the intersections of different issues, your language becomes more visual. I was wondering if there were ideas about climate justice that you felt are more difficult or easier to visualize? One of the ways we designers have been thinking about how to engage with EJ concerns is through trying to visualize them.
Climate change, in general, isn’t easy to visualize for people not touched by it. It’s thought of as some faraway problem that eventually will affect us. Just making that connection to people who are already feeling the effects of climate change is crucial. 2019 was the second hottest year on record. 2020 is already on track to be one of the hottest years, or at least in the top five. This hurricane season was predicted to be, and has already been, more active than usual. You would think this would be easier to communicate. Sometimes people say to us, “Oh, no, you’re just being doom and gloom about climate change!” But I think if you talk about it in terms of the actual impacts — heat, or the flooding we had during Hurricane Sandy — and you are making that connection, it’s easier for people to understand what you’re saying. It’s no longer some faraway concept.
We also use spatial analysis as a tool to illustrate environmental impact. That was a key goal of the Waterfront Justice Project. Through mapping income, race, and even access to health insurance, we wanted to show what the impacts were. Visualizing environmental justice issues and creating maps is a big part of our research and reports.
I can imagine a lot of ways that designers might be involved as collaborators around those mappings and visualizations. How do you imagine collaborating with designers through your work? We’d like to help architects understand ethical and non-extractive ways to engage with EJ communities and grassroots organizations, and we’ve gone back to visualization and rendering as a means to align architectural work with EJ work, and to help illustrate the different futures we need. But there are probably other ways that these collaborations could work — we’d like to hear, from your experiences, more about some of the challenges of this kind of collaboration.
We use the Jemez Principles for democratic organizing. These principles center equity and justice; they ensure that people are working in partnership. We think about that when we’re working with our members: we have to make sure that we’re working with them in a way that works for them as well, and making sure that we follow their lead. Community advocates are the ones who know their communities best. They’re defining the issues. So if you want to work together, instead of developing a project first, you’ve got to be talking with them and understanding what the issues and needs in the community are from the start. And if you don’t do it that way, you can come up with something really great, but it may not be appropriate for the community or may not be what they need. One key issue for large design projects is the potential for them to contribute to displacement and gentrification: there are so many concerns about that. But if you’re working with the community from the beginning, you can address that and make sure the partnership is beneficial to everyone.
Unfortunately, in previous planning processes that we’ve been involved with, the community will take all this time and be really engaged, but then the City will just go back and make decisions on their own. Without people being involved from the beginning, and in constant meaningful discussion throughout, it just erodes trust.
But yes: for designers and planners, there’s definitely so much that we can do together, and a lot of that involves being clear about your expertise. If we don’t know exactly what you can do for us, it’s going to be hard to work in a good partnership. But recognizing that everyone has different expertise has worked for us. During the Waterfront Justice Project, we had planners, community advocates, public health research scientists, and the community all working together. We’ve had to make sure that our value is recognized: our diversity in partnerships and sharing expertise; our centering of the community and making sure that whatever comes out of this is benefiting them in the long run.
All images courtesy of Jalisa Gilmore