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Review of The Sustainability Myth: Environmental Gentrification and the Politics of Justice

By Lacey Sigmon The following piece is part of Progressive City's Planning for Environmental Justice series. Contributions reflect on this theme through a variety of lenses, such as environmental justice, combatting green gentrification, and exploring radical approaches to climate change. Read more about this series here.

by Melissa Checker NYU Press 280 Pages, paperback $30 USD

This review of Melissa Checker’s book “The Sustainability Myth: Environmental Gentrification and the Politics of Justice” closes out Progressive City’s latest series: Planning for Environmental Justice. It bookends a few months of exploration of climate disaster in our communities and the tools and ideas that have emerged to address issues such as transportation, gentrification, displacement, community trust, and the protection of workers’ rights. Checker’s book, in many ways, aligns with the conclusions of our authors who have identified and are attempting to grapple with the contradictions that make environmental justice so confounding.

Checker’s book delves deep into arguably one of the biggest markers of climate disaster: sustainability. While sustainability can have many definitions, Checker explores its use in the context of New York City, where the term became popular under Mayor Michael Bloomberg who used it to garner public support for otherwise controversial redevelopment efforts (Checker, 2020, pp. 37-38). Bloomberg used “sustainability” to steer the narrative: not just a boon to wealthy developers, these projects would allow New Yorkers access to a “healthier and greener lifestyle” (Checker, 2020, pp. 39).

Checker uses NYC, and specifically the North Shore of Staten Island, as a primary case study to demonstrate and frame the myth and false virtues of sustainability; from its role in gentrification to its inability to meaningfully address climate disaster within the context of American capitalism. Checker uses the term “sustainaphrenia” to capture the “inherently contradictory promise of urban sustainability,” whereby economic growth and combating climate change go hand in hand, environmental justice and affordable housing are complimentary, and civic engagement meaningfully affects decision making (Checker, 2020, pp. 7). In reality, Checker outlines how sustainability often does not bridge the gaps in these contradictions, and is instead used to fuel economic development and the continued consolidation of wealth.

Environmental Gentrification

The Sustainability Myth does an excellent job of illustrating the ways in which sustainability has been used to further a capitalist agenda. Checker examines three types of environmental gentrification, each fueled by notions of “sustainability”: green gentrification, industrial gentrification, and brown gentrification. In the book, these terms are defined respectively as the development of green spaces to leverage the construction of high-end development, the targeted location of manufacturing away from “high property value” areas, and the incentivization of private brownfield cleanup in order to leverage future high-end development (Checker, 2020, pp. 50, 86-87, 117).

NYC is an especially fitting case study for these three types of gentrification because growth, often at environmental and human expense, has been foundational to its identity (Checker, 2020, pp. 27). One obvious example of green gentrification cited in the book is Central Park, previously the city’s largest settlement of free Blacks. After displacement and redevelopment of the land, Central Park increased the tax base of adjacent property owners significantly (Checker, 2020, pp. 53-54). Robert Moses used industrial gentrification to achieve his urban planning goals when determining the location of transportation and waste management infrastructure. In one example, Moses convinced city leadership to locate a sewage treatment plant, originally to be located in the west sixties near Moses’s Lincoln Center urban renewal project, at 137th street in West Harlem which had already borne the brunt of previous industrial zoning decisions (Checker, 2020, pp. 58-59). To see brown gentrification in action, look at a map of New York City’s brownfield clean up projects, which shows that almost half are located on the Brooklyn waterfront, representing the most gentrifying areas in the city (Checker, 2020, pp. 128).

These three types of environmental gentrification provide the reader a framework with which to better understand and question the motivations of capitalist-driven sustainability. While the construction of green space, the logistics of industrial zoning, and the cleanup of toxic sites are necessary in the pursuit of environmental justice, the motivations behind these decisions matter.

The author uses the example of the Green Guerrillas to demonstrate the full trajectory of “sustainaphrenia”-fueled environmental gentrification. The Green Guerrillas are a group of gardeners who transformed underutilized vacant lots in NYC into community gardens, which served as green community gathering spaces (Checker, 2020, pp. 64). However, in 1998, then-Mayor Guiliani announced that these vacant lots-turned-community gardens would be available for purchase and development by private interests, announcing, “Welcome to the era after communism” (Checker, 2020, pp.66). In response, the gardeners took direct action and, in the end, approximately 300 gardens were preserved through purchase of land rights or negotiating leases with the city. The future of the remaining 800 gardens was left uncertain. The city’s role in removing access to green community space in order to cater to private interests is one element of the story. Another element is how the remaining community gardens, despite their community-based non-monetary origins, have had a gentrifying effect within their neighborhoods. While community gardens cannot be considered the sole contributing factor to gentrification, NYU’s Furman Center found that property values increased significantly within a 1,000 foot radius of a community garden, especially in neighborhoods with lower-income residents (Checker, 2020, pp. 67). The Green Guerillas and community gardens in NYC demonstrate that even neutral or progressive interests to increase community access to green space can become fuel in the machine of capitalism.

The Politics of Sacrifice

The Sustainability Myth demonstrates that the outputs of sustainability in a capitalist society extend beyond the physical form of development and displacement. In the second half of the book, Checker explores the ways activists and community members are churned through the process of civic engagement in the pursuit of environmental justice, a process that often involves great personal sacrifice.

Becker argues that civic engagement can be a form of “citizenship as consumerism.” (Checker, 2020, pp. 47) She goes on to say:

“Participating in this facade has extracted a heavy cost–it has sucked up activists’ time and energy and diverted them from their original goals for environmental justice even as it co-opted some of those goals to service environmental gentrification. But refusing to ‘take a seat at the table’ means being ostracized and characterized as being uncooperative or self-serving.” (47)

While engaging the public is necessary in order to ensure decisions are not made in a bubble, the reality is that many or most practitioners do not go far enough to garner feedback. Many times a narrow set of predetermined outcomes is already identified before community engagement begins, or the process is so opaque that meaningful feedback cannot be provided. Additionally, this already flawed process relies heavily on the sacrifice of activists’ time, money, and energy. Throughout the book, and particularly in this section, Checker follows an activist named Beryl Thurman, a founding member of the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy whose dedication to environmental justice on the North Shore of Staten Island has placed her squarely in confrontation with the reality of sustainphrenia. For example, Thurman was invited to a day-long forum that invitees would not be paid to attend, would take hours to commute to and from, and was likely to be fruitless. However, Thurman “felt compelled to attend the meeting in order to be able to ‘accurately project’ a sense of urgency on issues facing the North Shore, and to make sure those issues were not ignored.” (Checker, 2020, pp. 165).

In the final chapter of the book, Checker explores the contradictory politics of environmental justice on Staten Island. Registered democratic voters outnumber registered republicans, yet Staten Island regularly elects republican candidates (Checker, 2020, pp. 179). Checker sees environmental justice, and in the case of post-Sandy Staten Island, climate disaster, as a means for solidarity among politically divergent groups. Specifically, Checker notes, “[t]hese findings urge us to rethink the significance of consensus as a basis for collective action and of dissensus as a stumbling block. More generally, I contend that shared experiences of precarity, disillusionment, and betrayal muck up political binaries” (Checker, 2020, pp. 180). While Checker seems optimistic that increasing public skepticism of “sustainaphrenia” and the realities of climate disaster can and will unite communities, America’s polarizing political environment makes this seem more impossible with each passing day.

Final Thoughts

The Sustainability Myth ends with the author helping Thurman pack up her home on Staten Island to move back to Cleveland, Ohio. While Thurman’s move away from the city can be seen as symbolic of the environmental activists' plight in America, the reasoning for the move is more complex and human than metaphorical, an element of the book I appreciate. While the book is filled with information, data, and references, the human element of this work is not lost. Checker ends the book on an optimistic but warning note, stating:

Rather than being lulled by sustainaphrenia, I hope that readers will be inspired by the activists depicted in this book to build political solidarities based not on partisanship but on opposition to our shared environmental and economic precarity. Then we can set to work assembling new sets of tools that can build a raft sturdy enough to carry us all. (Checker, 2020, 214)

The Progressive City series: Planning in the Age of Climate Disaster is intended to do just this. Progressive planners and activists must work within the context of climate disaster. There is no hiding from it or planning around it. Planners must face the reality that work towards environmental justice or “sustainability” may actually cause harm if the consequences of these solutions are not considered. However, there are tools and mechanisms for community building that can and will reduce harm in our communities and provide the foundation for a future that we cannot currently fathom. The Sustainability Myth, along with the articles released as part of this series can hopefully prove useful for our readers to critically and creatively think about our roles in the future of our communities. We hope that you will continue to share your ideas and examples of progressive and environmentally just planning with Progressive City.

Lacey Sigmon is an Urban Planner who works in storm recovery in New York and Texas. She received her Masters Degree from the University of Michigan in Urban Planning with a focus on housing and community development. She received her undergraduate degree from the New College of Florida in Chinese Language and Literature and International Studies.




We feature stories on inclusive urban planning practices, grassroots organizing, and civic action. Our contributors and readers are activists, reporters, practitioners, academics, and community members.


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