For Hamil Pearsall, the word “sustainability” doesn’t always mean something positive. Sometimes she thinks improvements in sustainability don’t benefit all communities in a city.
Pearsall, a geography and urban studies professor, has studied the urban sustainability and redevelopment of New York City brownfields, which are sites left vacant because of possible industrial contamination.
She found that in some Brooklyn neighborhoods, like Greenpoint, brownfield redevelopment raised property values and created gentrification, while in others further from Manhattan, it did not.
In Philadelphia, she said the city faces a similar paradox with gentrification in developing neighborhoods.
“Philadelphia has been grappling with economic depression, poverty and unemployment, so looking into the future, we have to make sure everybody benefits from the sustainability planning,” Pearsall said. “We need to make it so that it really caters toward all the people who live in Philadelphia, not just catering toward the wealthier population.”
In the Women’s Studies Lounge in Anderson Hall on Tuesday, Pearsall will host “Urban Futures: Green, Sustainable, Just?” — a conference focused on the issues of urban sustainability, or creating sustainable and equitable environments in cities like Philadelphia.
The event, co-sponsored by the global studies department and the Center for Sustainable Communities at Temple University Ambler, will feature 10 presentations and a seven-person panel on topics related to issues in urban development. The first presentation will start at 9:30 a.m.
Jeremy Mennis, the undergraduate chair of the geography and urban studies department, will participate in the panel discussion. He performs research on the use of geographic information systems – frameworks for organizing and analyzing geographical data — to solve issues ranging from health to public safety.
Mennis said there are large health disparities between different communities in cities that are caused by environmental issues, like air and soil toxins and the absence of public transit and affordable housing.
One solution, Mennis said, is to work on “greening infrastructure,” like the development of cleaner practices for water management and the use of environmentally-friendly building materials in underserved communities.
“It’s [conferences] like this that help us understand the distribution of different types of healthy and unhealthy environments that can help us address some of these health disparities,” Mennis said.
During the research presentation portion of the conference, Christina Rosan, a geography and urban studies professor and Pearsall’s research partner, will present a lecture on their 2017 book, “Growing a Sustainable City? The Question of Urban Agriculture.”
Rosan said urban planners and policymakers in Philadelphia need to improve living conditions for communities of color by expanding affordable housing and protecting low-income residents from gentrification.
At the federal level, the Trump Administration’s budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency have reduced support for environmental equity efforts in Philadelphia, PlanPhilly reported.
The proposed 2018 EPA budget eliminates the Office of Environmental Justice, which gave a $30,000 grant to Philadelphia’s Overbrook Environmental Education Center in 2014. The center supports environmental education in West Philadelphia’s Overbrook neighborhood, a predominantly African-American neighborhood.
But recently, there have been improvements in sustainability practices locally. In Spring 2017, the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability introduced the Greenworks Equity Index, which uses data to identify areas in the city that aren’t benefiting from sustainability efforts. With that information, city agencies and nonprofits can then design projects to improve the environment of those specific areas.
While many people think about “greening” as solely an environmental action, Rosan said it also impacts the local economy and living conditions. Developing new urban landscapes can contribute to gentrification, Rosan said, pushing out lower-income residents and fostering wealthier, middle-class communities.
“Promoting sustainability should not be kicking low-income people out of their neighborhoods,” Rosan said. “It should be creating sustainable places where people of all incomes can get to live. Unless we get there, then we’re only getting part of the [sustainability] story.”
Through the “Urban Futures” conference, Rosan said Temple will bring together scholars to share their research on how to combat this displacement and ensure all people in cities share in environmental improvements.
“It’s critical for cities like Philadelphia, which has a high poverty rate, to make sure all those environmental improvements [benefit]…those that are particularly vulnerable or marginalized,” Pearsall said. “Everybody should have the right to a clean and healthy and safe environment.”