Green vs. Brown: How Gentrification Undermines Environmental Justice


A new book called The Sustainability Myth: Environmental Gentrification and the Politics of Justice contends that the “greening” of New York City’s industrial and waterfront areas has actually made it harder to achieve true sustainability and “environmental justice” for marginalized communities.

Author Melissa Checker, a professor at The Graduate Center and Queens College, focuses much of her narrative on the North Shore of Staten Island near the Bayonne Bridge. A 5-mile stretch there includes a sewage treatment plant, electric plant, warehouse contaminated with uranium from the Manhattan Project, and many other industrial sites, all within 70 feet of residential areas and mostly within flood zones. More than half of local residents are Black or Latinx.

“I had seen plenty of examples of environmental injustice across the United States, but never had I witnessed the volume, density, and proximity of toxic sites and residential neighborhoods that I saw” there, Checker writes. The Environmental Protection Agency designated the area one of its 10 “environmental justice showcase” communities back in 2010, but a decade later, little has changed.

In contrast, other waterfront areas and former industrial zones around the city now sparkle with parks, bike lanes, rooftop gardens, and, of course, high-rises whose occupants enjoy their green amenities and organic lifestyles. Checker uses the term “sustainaphrenia” to describe the “inherently contradictory promise of urban sustainability: that we can stimulate economic growth while mediating the effects of climate change, without any sacrifice.”

New York City, she contends, is a prime example of sustainaphrenia: “Redevelopment plans featured green spaces and waterfront parks; cleaner manufacturing businesses and the remediation and repurposing of contaminated properties.” But in the end, these initiatives are nothing but “environmental gentrification” serving high-end luxury commercial and residential development.

In waterfront neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Sunset Park, Brooklyn, activists won “battles for green space and other environmental improvements, only to find that those initiatives lead to new development that threaten to price them out of their own neighborhoods,” Checker said. “Had their activism unintentionally caused environmental gentrification?”

She calls these contradictions a “story of brown and green,” and adds a final pessimistic observation about the ways in which the city’s “endless opportunities for public participation” actually undermine activism.

“For all the steering committees and advisory boards on which activists were asked to sit, testimonies they gave, and comments they contributed to public projects, their input seemed to have a little effect,” she said. “Plans, permits, and projects moved forward regardless of local concerns about their impact on environmental or climate justice. I began to see civic engagement as another symptom of sustainaphrenia. Rather than fostering democratic action, participatory politics rechanneled, and drained, activists’ time and energy, siphoning it away from their long-term goals.”