We’re recognizing the scale of the global warming crisis just as there’s a parallel crisis of imagination about how to address environmental problems. Because of years of conservatives’ claims that government doesn’t work, and that the only option is to privatize and deregulate, we’re left believing that we can’t take decisive action in the public interest. We think we can do no more than charge a fee while allowing the smokestacks to keep belching. Call it tax-and-burn environmentalism: Rather than eliminating dangerous practices, tax-and-burn introduces taxes and leaves practices unreformed. Ironically, tax-and-burn often makes things easier for polluters.
I first visited the African American suburb of Country Club Hills, south of Chicago, as an interviewer for a research project. It seemed as though only race had been reversed: The Maryland suburbs I had grown up in were 80 percent white, these were 80 Black, but otherwise they were so utterly familiar, right down to the floor plan of the split-level ranches, that I knew the layout of every home before I went in.
In research I’ve begun on other Black, middle-class suburbs, however, it turns out that more than color has been reversed. In fact, race reverses many of the things planners have come to see as inevitable.
The Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others recalls that famous question about governments who spy on their citizens: Who will watch the watchers? (Answer: Alberto Gonzalez.) A similar, if less cloak-and-dagger question applies to planning: Who will zone the zoners? While governments use zoning to keep polluting uses away from homes, what if the biggest polluter in a city is a government use?
In most cities today, the most common polluting use is exempt from zoning: highways.
Solve this riddle: New York has an unequaled reputation for diversity in the US, but at the same time ranks as “hyper-segregated” in measures of Black-white racial segregation. How do we unravel this contradiction, and what does it say about what diversity really is?
The Columbia Encyclopedia provides the prevailing view: “New York City is also famous for its ethnic diversity, manifesting itself in scores of communities representing virtually every nation on earth, each preserving its identity.”