A river runs through it – Saba Salman, The Guardian (UK) ‘Society’, Wednesday April 23 2008.
Majora Carter: “A river flows through various communities – it connects people and makes them feel a sense of place.”
From a waterfront park in New York’s South Bronx, activist Majora Carter set out to use the ‘green economy’ to combat poverty. She also recently waved the Tibetan flag whilst carrying the Olympic torch through San Francisco.
Had it not been for her wayward dog, American social and environmental activist Majora Carter might never have transformed a swath of her South Bronx neighbourhood from a debris-strewn wasteland into a waterfront park.
Out running one morning, Carter’s dog Xena dragged her through what she thought was an abandoned rubbish dump when she spotted the Bronx river. “I was amazed, there I was standing on waterfront property, completely unobstructed by highways, warehouses and factories,” she says. At that time, there was no public access to the water, but within weeks she had a proposal to transform part of the blighted community into Hunts Point Riverside Park. She used seed money of $10,000 (£5,000) from the New York City parks department in 1998 to leverage other funds totalling $3.2m.
Carter is in the UK this week, and on Monday was guest speaker at Exemplar Talks, a series of lectures linked to the London Open City exhibition, which explores the potential of public spaces and streets. She called for more local people to be employed in regeneration schemes so communities are better involved in shaping public spaces. She explains: “We need to create opportunities so people can feel involved in the planning of their own communities. We need to use the green economy as a vehicle to move people out of poverty.”
Carter, 41, born and bred in the South Bronx, says “greening the ghetto” is vital. She says there is a direct link between environmental, economic and social degradation. An area’s “horticultural infrastructure” can create wider community benefits. Named as one of the 50 most influential women in her city by the New York Post last year, Carter started her career in arts-related community development and became involved in a campaign against plans to divert more of New York’s waste to the South Bronx.
In 2001, she launched Sustainable South Bronx (SSB), to improve quality of life, create local jobs and fund environmental projects, winning a federal grant to design the South Bronx Greenway – 11 miles of bicycle and pedestrian paths connecting neighbourhoods to the rivers and to each other. Construction will start this year.
While many of her UK counterparts are familiar with the “broken windows” theory in housing – if windows are not repaired, vandals create more damage – Carter speaks of “broken branches”. “If you have more trees on the streets, urban landscaping, green roofs: that does so much to raise the community’s perception of itself. Increased levels of community pride will mean increasing self-esteem, and could even lower crime rates,” she insists.
One of the SSB projects Carter is most proud of is her plan to create “green-collar jobs” through the charity’s environmental stewardship training programme. This trains people in river restoration, creating a skilled workforce with a personal and economic stake in their area. “The goal is to use the green economy to move people out of poverty. . . If we can create pathways out of poverty through the green economy, then we have a way to alleviate poverty as well as to . . . deal with climate change.”
In the UK, she says, she admires the £341m East London Green Grid, a plan for a network of open spaces connecting town centres, public transport, the Thames, and major employment and residential areas. “They’re trying to keep in mind people’s needs. For example, there’s one section that was used by some of the elderly people in the area for fishing, and the [grid] recognised that they should keep the natural character of the area, so [it] protects its existing uses as well as trying to add to them.”
Carter takes issue with regeneration schemes where agencies are parachuted in while the community watches passively from the sidelines. “In my neighbourhood, when we began asking people what they wanted, so many expected the worst. There was a hesitation, as if they were thinking, ‘Why would you ask me? Nothing will change anyway.’” It is no good, argues Carter, expecting local people to help steer community regeneration if they lack sufficient skills to do anything, from taking part in consultations to arguing their corner in public meetings.
Another common problem in regeneration is the difficulty of bringing together very different agencies, from neighbourhood groups to the business sector and local government. The secret, she says, is to ensure each interested party knows what its interest is. “We say to the community, ‘Your environment has a major health impact on your children.’ On the business side, we say, ‘Your workers are getting sick, how many sick days are they doing?’ and ‘Let’s figure out how to cut pollution.’”
Carter is surprised that the UK government frequently looks to America for inspiration when it comes to regeneration. The mixed communities initiative, for example, draws on America’s controversial Hope VI programme, under which the worst public housing is demolished and replaced with homes for all income groups. Carter says: “I’m sure there are individual projects in the US that are useful to look at, but we’ve failed in creating the kind of mixed income communities where everybody feels they’re getting something out of it. I don’t care if you plant a couple of trees here and there; if people don’t have jobs, it won’t work.”
This month, Carter took her activism on to the international stage when she waved a Tibetan flag while carrying the Olympic torch through San Francisco. Some commentators criticised her for interfering in an issue she had nothing to do with, but she argues that she has always advocated on behalf of communities. “I’m blessed to be in the position I am in now, and I’m in a position where I can bring attention to the issue. When I was approached and learned more about what folks in Tibet were going through, I thought, ‘Let’s not pretend what’s going on is not happening.’”
She says that “it helped me understand that I will use my voice wherever I can”, and she sees her role becoming increasingly international. However, it is the river that will always capture her imagination as “a forgotten resource”. “A river flows through various communities – it connects people and makes them feel a sense of place. A natural resource like that has economic as well as environmental benefits. It’s a great unifying force.”
· London Open City runs until April 27 at Somerset House, London WC2R.
· Sustainable South Bronx is at ssbx.org