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Warrior Princess

Matt Bell
17 April 2009

Majora Carter is an activist and founder of Sustainable South Bronx, a non-profit environmental justice organisation. She was behind the creation of the first new waterfront park in South Bronx for 60 years, and is a leading promoter of green jobs.

Majora Carter, activist and founder of Sustainable South Bronx
Photo by A&M Photography

We talked to Majora at the ParkCity conference, which CABE co-hosted with Natural England, in March 2009.

Life changes suddenly, at odd moments. Out on a walk, the dog tugs hard at her lead. This particular dog weights 80lbs. Majora Carter is dragged across the scrub of a South Bronx neighbourhood. She emerges to discover a disused waterfront. A place, she thinks, with potential. Six years later at a conference in London, Majora relates the story that has made her famous.

‘I was trying to advocate for more sustainable solid waste management in New York’, she says. ‘Our state wanted to build this huge waste facility on the waterfront. That would have brought 40% of the city’s waste to our neighbourhood. And we were already handling nearly 40% of all commercial waste” So she set about a war of attrition. “We were fought by the local government pretty much every step of the way. But we used the media in any way we could. And we talked about green jobs”.

Looking back from 2009, it sounds a prescient strategy. Now we all want to create green jobs. But this was 2003. ‘Nobody had any idea what they were. People thought I was completely insane’, she recalls. Asked what a green job actually is, Carter replies: ‘Any job that has a nett benefit to the environment. Through the processes that they use or the products that they make. ‘

The project Carter led in the South Bronx took a twin track approach. As well as fighting the city’s proposal for a local waste mangement plant, it also worked with the state on park development. When Hunts Point Riverside Park opened in 2007, it was the first South Bronx waterfront park in 60 years.

Majora has also played a key role in the development of the South Bronx Greenway, an 11 mile bike route that will follow the Bronx River into New York City. Now running her own green collar economic consulting firm, a major focus of her work is creating intensive urban afforestation, green roofing/walls, and water-permeable open spaces.

In a very tough, very poor community, employment was always going to be a priority. So they focused on using green infrastructure to generate jobs that were easy to train for and constantly in demand.

‘Green infrastructure is exactly that – infrastructure. It needs maintenance. And it also requires a certain level of understanding of how it works and functions,’ she explains, ‘ so it becomes not just a lower level job but something you can do at the highest level too.’

Carter sees green infrastructure generating professional jobs that people will aspire to. ‘I hate the idea that people think when you plant trees they should be taken care of by volunteers. Keeping a tree alive in an urban area is not easy. We’ve got a 50% tree mortality rate in New York City. They cost $2,000 to plant. I mean, do the maths! These are jobs that provide a tremendous service.’

As with so much of what she says, it’s hard to disagree. But this is an American story. Can it really translate? What advice does she have for the average council in Britain?

‘Look at where you have the waste facilities, the power plants, all that stuff. And do an overlay with a map of the worst public health problems, poorer education levels, and the highest prison incarceration rates. It’s the same places, creating huge costs to the city. And those places never get decent sustainability planning - even though that is where you’d get the most bang for your buck’.

So Majora even finds herself working to remove poorly planned highways, in favor of positive economic development.

She also thinks it is important to recognise that to some extent it is fear that exists between the community and the bureaucrats. ‘We’ve all been kept so isolated from each other for so long. As a council officer, you’ve got to open yourself up. Start talking to people. Really listen, because people have not been made to feel as though their piece is part of a much large picture.’

Majora Carter often appears to be cast as the desirable face of community activism. Eloquent, educated, and perfectly suited to the age of Obama. There’s no radical ideology in what she talks. Much of it sounds like a text book on community engagement. It’s not new. Just very hard to do well.

And yet she brings a sense of optimism to the debate on sustainable cities. Her story feels like something many of us could also do. She’s clearly fought hard, got people on side, and shrewdly played the politics and the press. But what strikes you most is how the strangest things can quickly change your life and that of others. In this case, a very big dog called Xena.

New thinking on green infrastructure

In March 2009, CABE and Natural England brought together an international audience of professionals - most of whose interests lie outside the established green sector – to discuss the latest thinking and share solutions, at the ParkCity green infrastructure conference.

Read our other interviews with:

Edward T McMahon – the founding father of the concept of green infrastructure is a leading conservationist, environmental lawyer and an inspirational public speaker

Klaus Bondam – Copenhagen’s mayor of environmental administration is leading that city’s drive to become provide the world’s best urban environment by 2015

Wade Crowfoot - San Francisco’s director of climate protection initiatives is at the front line of the Californian city’s not-so-quiet climate revolution.