Social Equity

Social Equity (work in progress)

In 1987, the United Nation’s Commission on Environment and Development warned that our current method of development is unsustainable due to the inefficient use of raw materials and the manifestation of social inequities in development patterns.  The Commission’s definition of sustainable development marks a potentially significant shift towards the development of a global community by underscoring the importance of holistic methods of development.   In Our Common Future, the Commission’s report on the relationships between the environment and development, it defines sustainable development as, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Development n.d.)  The Commission goes on to emphasize the importance of prioritizing the ‘needs’ of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our communities as the greatest obstacle to achieving sustainable environments.

Sustainable environments are environments that are both ecologically resilient and socially relevant.  Susan Fainstein, a professor of Urban Planning at Harvard, writes about the politics of urban redevelopment and it effect on social issues.   In Fainstein’s article, Social Justice and Ecological Urbanism, she argues for “(a) rethinking of the urban ecology so that the interaction of people and place is at once intensified, developed equitably, and made appealing constitutes the basis of a better, more interesting and more just urbanity.” (Mostafavi 2010, 301)  In a pluralistic society, developing equity becomes one of the most challenging and important components of designing sustainable urban environments.

Returning to the CABE study on Ideas about Beauty, analysis of the survey reveals that the opportunity to have beautiful experiences is not equitably distributed among different income brackets.  The accessibility of beautiful environments declines with lower economic levels.   The study revealed that, “(m)ore than half (57%) of the lower skilled, less qualified group agreed that there was not enough beauty in their local area. By contrast only 33% of the advantage group agreed there was not enough beauty where they live. (CABE 2010, 2) Close connectivity with environments that open opportunities for beautiful experiences is important because the quality of the environment affects the perception of the community and the individuals that reside in it.   Beautiful environments help to create a positive feedback loop for an equitable quality of life.

In addition to the disparities in the accessibility to open space, the level of risk and safety varies among economic levels.   As cities have expanded to accommodate mounting population, development has often occurred in high-risk areas that are more vulnerable to environmental threats. The city of New Orleans provides a timely example of this phenomenon.  In New Orleans After Katrina, Kristina Hill poses an important question, “who is responsible for protecting people and property from a catastrophic event like Katrina?” (Hill 2009) After hurricane Katrina the Lower Ninth Ward, a lower income African American neighborhood, sustained catastrophic human and property damage.  The damage was caused predominately because the community was built in a high risk area that was inadequately protected.

In a recent interview conducted by the ASLA, Hill continues to expand on the relationship between climate change and social issues by arguing, “from an ethical point of view, the most important way to protect cities is to protect the most vulnerable people who live in them: low-income children and their caregivers (often single mothers), people with illnesses, and seniors.” (Hill, Managing the Effects of Climate Change 2010)The poorest members of communities face the greatest risk brought by climate change because they lack access to important information or the ability to develop financial safety nets to protect them in times of crisis.   Uncertainty forces people of little means to fight for their survival every day.  In order to improve the quality of degraded landscapes, breaking the cycle of poverty must be the first priority in sustainable design. The economic and racial inequities in the city of New Orleans provide a fertile ground to explore issues of social justice in an urban context.

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