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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Civic Environmentalism

Air Date: Week of May 26, 2000

Author William Shutkin focuses on the ecological problems of inner-cities in his new book “The Land That Could Be.” He discusses with host Steve Curwood why he’s advocating civic environmentalism as a way of giving urban communities a voice in the environmental movement.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Since it's beginning, much of the modern environmental movement has focused on conservation -- protecting and preserving wide-open and often wild spaces. But William Shutkin, author of the new book "The Land That Could Be," says that for too long too many environmental groups have ignored the pressing problems of our inner cities. To combat urban social and ecological woes, Mr. Shutkin is encouraging a new movement. He calls it civic environmentalism.

SHUTKIN: Civic environmentalism is really the response to what has been a narrowly-focused and elitist environmental movement for the last 100, 150 years -- a movement focused largely on the preservation of undeveloped places, of pristine places, where most people don't live. So civic environmentalism is, in a sense, the turn toward a more democratic form of environmentalism, where communities from the local level on up are re-engaging in the process of making decisions, of rolling out programs that fundamentally affect the quality of their lives.

CURWOOD: Over the years, as the environment has degraded, we've also seen a bigger and bigger gap between the haves and the have-nots. Is there a relationship? And if so, explain it to me, please.

SHUTKIN: Sure. Economic well-being has everything to do with environmental quality, within limits. The ability of individuals, families, groups of people, to move away from environmental hazards has in many ways defined the way our environmental law and policy system works. Likewise, the political power, the clout that comes with economic power. We've tended to protect those places and those communities where the wealthier people live, and we've left behind those places where those without means, those who are disenfranchised, live.

CURWOOD: You write about rebuilding our urban centers, and that if we do this, it will in turn protect our wild spaces. How do you see this working?

SHUTKIN: What I argue in the book is that we need to pay better attention to the quality of the places we live in now, so that folks feel less inclined to want to leave. To the extent we're better stewards of our urban communities, of our older suburbs, better stewards in that we're taking care of our natural resources -- we're designing our buildings and our roadways in a way that's friendly to human health, to pedestrians, to bicyclists -- then folks are going to feel less inclined to push further out in search of Jefferson's dream of a pristine farm and will feel more comfortable staying in densely-settled communities, which ultimately are environmentally beneficial places.

CURWOOD: I would be the devil's advocate here for a moment and say, so, how can paying attention to the environment improve this social problem that we seem to have not been able to solve?

SHUTKIN: Take San Francisco, for instance.

CURWOOD: Okay.

SHUTKIN: The Bank of America issued its report several years ago saying that the most dangerous threat to California is sprawl, is its land use and development practices, which are eating up the state and causing all sorts of adverse social consequences. So, San Franciscans and Bay Area residents are doing something about it. In Oakland, the Fruitvale neighborhood, which is an 80 percent Latino neighborhood, is recognizing that it can convert its community, which for the last several decades has, like so many inner cities, been abandoned, been blighted, into a really viable and attractive place. And so, Fruitvale has taken a great neighborhood asset, namely its mass transit station the BART, Bay Area Rapid Transit station, and developed a new commercial center, a mixed-use commercial center around that transit station as a way of not only supporting local residents who for too long have suffered with the air pollution effects of major highway infrastructure running through the neighborhood, but who are also in need of a new commercial center, a mixed-use pedestrian-friendly place where neighborhood residents can congregate. But part of the goal of the development of this transit village was also to attract new residents -- many people hungry to live in Oakland's neighborhoods, who otherwise have felt the need to move out because of unfounded fears about living with other people different from themselves.

CURWOOD: And as they move in, though, don't they push up the rents and make it harder for the people who live there in the first place to stay?

SHUTKIN: Often, unfortunately, they do. And so, what we're seeing as part of a new environmental strategy is that as community organizations, local, state and federal agencies, environmental housing agencies work together, one of the biggest priorities is making sure that affordable housing is part of the strategy. And in the provision there is law that ensures that a certain percentage of housing development will be affordable and not market-based. But also, I think part of the solution here is this notion of a civic environmentalism, taking seriously the idea that all things are connected, and that the public realm and public goods like our environment require a public consciousness. So that we can then act on them to protect them, to use them wisely.

CURWOOD: William Shutkin's new book is called "The Land That Could Be: Environmentalism and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century." Thanks for coming by today, Bill.

SHUTKIN: Thanks a lot, Steve. It's great to be here.

 

 

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