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The Future of Cities: How Sprawl and Racism are Intertwined

Civil rights leader and environmentalist Van Jones talks about suburban sprawl, race and the future of cities.
 
 
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The following conversation with Van Jones is an excerpt from the new book Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots (PoliPointPress, 2007) by Kevin Danaher, Shannon Biggs, and Jason Mark. You can read more about the book here.

Van Jones is a passionate civil rights and human rights advocate. He combines practical solutions to problems of social inequality and environmental destruction, focusing on green economic opportunities for urban America. Jones grew up in rural Tennessee, graduated from Yale Law School, and works and lives in Oakland, California. He is the Co-Founder and President of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which seeks to replace the U.S. incarceration industry with community-based solutions.

Q. For the first time in human history, more than 50 percent of people now live in urban areas. Where does the city fit in your conception of environmental sustainability?

VJ: Cities have the capacity to sink or save the planet. The future of all humanity, and most species and systems, will be determined by what we choose to do with cities. The idea that the environment is about critters and creeks is a thing of the past. We have to be thinking about these things in terms of consumption and disposal processes of mega-cities.

Q. Sprawl has a negative impact not only on farmland and open space but on life in urban areas. How did this pattern of sprawl and gentrification develop? Who wins and loses?

VJ: Sprawl is a response to racial fear and anxiety on the part of white elites. The 'burbs were designed as a vehicle to get away from people of color, investing more in the white infrastructure as they moved away from the city, and the neighborhoods where people of color live. The other side of that is the disinvestment for the communities that remain behind; the money follows the new suburban development. Those that remain in the inner city continue to lose in this scenario.

Q. You've talked about cities and land use as issues that interest many groups: the suburbanites, environmentalists, and inner-city residents. If both environmentalists and inner-city residents have an interest in stopping sprawl, what's preventing them from working together?

VJ: Racism. It is the reason that people move away from each other. People don't want to talk about why people call this a "good" neighborhood or that one a "bad" neighborhood, but often it has to do with the race of the people that live there. White people divorce themselves from the bad neighborhoods and move to the suburbs. The black community has a lot of built-up feelings about our history, about the racism we experience. There is some healing that needs to take place there, so these communities have some issues, and don't want to work with each other, necessarily. There are a lot of feelings there.

Q. Many environmentalists genuinely want to work with other communities to address these issues of common interest. What is thwarting those efforts?

VJ: Those folks often speak about working together through "outreach" -- outreach in the sense of "outreaching to" these people or those people. Outreaching to the black community: "Well, we outreached to them so 'they' could hear our agenda and get onboard with what we are saying." This, as opposed to saying "let's go make some friends," building relationships, creating relationships. Figuring things out from a place where everyone's views are included. Relationships are give and take, mutual aid and help. Outreaching is the white thing, it's about bringing folks into what you are doing, and does not necessarily convey understanding.

Q. What is the effect of the prison industrial complex (especially juvenile prisons) on communities, particularly communities of color, and how does that system impede progress toward a green city revolution?

VJ: The incarceration industry is the new Jim Crow; you don't have to call him the "N word" if you just call him a felon. There are the same amount of drug problems in the 'burbs that there are in the inner city, but in the 'burbs the white kids get counseling, they don't go to prison. Generally speaking, they only call the police in the 'hood. The system has responded with compassion to white kids.

Again, the new Jim Crow is incarceration. This is the barrier that separates people from the lives they want to live. You go to the back of the line as a felon. You lose your voting rights, can't get a good job, you're denied student loans. It is devastating. We spend less money on public schools than on locking people up; it's far easier to go to prison than to get a scholarship.

This distorts economic development. The current economic strategy is to take poor black kids, put them in jail in rural areas, and give poor white kids jobs as guards in that prison. That is the economic strategy. Rural towns can't compete with industry, farms are all going away, so prison is an economic boon for rural communities. Come on, we can't come up with a better strategy than that? In California, for example, nearly 10 percent of the state budget goes to the prison system, and that could grow to 15 percent or even higher. When you lock up a state budget like that, where is the money to retrofit buildings for energy efficiency?

California is supposed to be a leader in terms of being clean and energy efficient. So now, put these two together. If you take guards and prisoners and send them all home, then give them green city jobs instead. We could be retrofitting urban America instead of lives laying to waste. Send them home with good work, with a mission, and real job skills, and provide them with opportunity.

We can have a Gulag or a green economy. But we can't have both. If we train former prisoners and guards to put up solar panels, they are already on their way to becoming electrical engineers. If we train them to double pane glass, they are on their way to be a glazer: a good union job and green path out of poverty. Bamboo, it's so different than timber, you can cut it and it grows back quickly. If we can train folks to do the green thing, they can then walk to the front of the line in an economy based on green jobs instead of an economy from pollution-based jobs. That is where these issues connect. What we need is a green wave that can lift all boats, that can lift folks out of poverty.

Q. How important is it to nurture efforts at grassroots democracy? How can larger groups -- national groups -- help without taking over?

VJ: It's all got to come together, but it's not easy. The national groups don't mean to take over and the local groups can sometimes be schizophrenic: They want and need the help from the big players, but can also resent it. The national groups can find that having the grassroots connections gives their work legitimacy-it's sexy these days to have the grassroots contacts, sexy and cool-but they also have some contempt for the grassroots groups at the same time. Everyone just has to figure it out, make it work. Case by case.

Q. You have said that "We are the heroes we've been waiting for." Can you discuss what "going local" means in terms of creating big change?

VJ: I believe it's a both/and. I believe in both "bottom up" and "top down." Focusing on the local is great, but you need federal government on your side to make the big changes; we learned that in the civil rights movement. The federal government has got to be provoked into action. The local economy can't solve the problems by itself, and some problems are too big to solve by local action alone.

Change is bottom up and top down. The grassroots have to push, and the top needs to push. It's sort of an inside-outside strategy. Everybody is going to have to do some work. There is no magic answer, no silver bullet. It's going to be a group effort, cross-organizational. We need to share and play well with others; be flexible and learn from each other. The big change is going to take 20, 30, 40 years. Hopefully, in terms of ecological collapse, we'll get it together enough in the next 10 years to buy us the time we need to do the work that will take longer. But we're going to have to do it together.

 
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