Urban sprawl hurts minorities, author says

Urban Chronicle

Effects: Smart Growth can correct economic and racial polarization, as well as help the environment, according to an Atlanta professor.

October 03, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

MOST PEOPLE think of urban sprawl in terms of its physical consequences: the loss of green space, the increase in air pollution and traffic congestion.

Robert Bullard also views sprawl in terms of its social effects: the increased economic and racial polarization that hurts minorities in education, employment and housing.

A sociology professor and director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, his approach is summed up in the title of the most recent of his eight books: Sprawl City: Race, Politics and Planning in Atlanta.

Bullard -- who is scheduled to appear here next week on a pair of panels at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists -- acknowledged in an interview this week that concerns about the economy and terrorism have for the moment overshadowed discussions of land use and Smart Growth.

"Whether or not we go to war with Iraq, people still need decent affordable housing and transportation," he said.

And he conceded it's been "an uphill battle" to even get African-American leaders to focus on the social costs of sprawl.

"But when it gets looked on as an equity issue, that rings a bell," he said.

Two decades ago, Bullard helped to launch the movement for environmental justice -- which melds civil rights with environmental and urban planning issues -- by documenting how Houston's waste dumps were concentrated in minority communities.

Today, he says, "We're still trying to put the justice in the environment. Poor people, people of color, get dumped on."

To Bullard, the issue extends beyond the location of landfills, touching on such matters as predatory lending and lead paint in housing that degrade neighborhoods and disproportionately affect minorities.

In regard to sprawl, Bullard says unplanned growth has harmed minorities, and not just in the large, oft-stated ways of concentrating poverty in cities and some older suburbs and directing growth and jobs to outlying areas.

Take, for example, air pollution, a result largely of increased traffic.

"Diminished air quality has a disproportionate impact on low-income people," he said.

The reason: Low-income people are disproportionately located in areas with poor air quality.

In a recent paper titled "Race, Equity and Smart Growth: Why People of Color Must Speak for Themselves," Bullard amplified on the point, noting figures about the high incidence of mortality and hospitalization from asthma.

"Asthma, not gunshot wounds or drive-by shootings, is the No. 1 reason for childhood emergency room visits in most major cities in the country," he and two co-authors write.

For Smart Growth -- policies to channel development to cities and established areas -- to work well enough to address social inequities, Bullard believes improvements must be made in schools and transportation.

"We can't forget the reason why many people left the cities is the quality of schools," he said.

"If you eliminate reasons for flight to the suburbs, if you equalize school funding and the quality of schools, you will start to have a revitalization of cities that is sustainable."

Bullard notes that many of those who are beginning to repopulate our cities are young, childless couples.

"They may not be that concerned about schools right now," he said.

"But these young couples, if they plan on having kids, you're going to have to fix the schools to keep them in the city."

Bullard said policies must also address what he calls the "spatial mismatch" between the concentration of poor people in the cities and the growth of jobs in the suburbs.

"It isn't just about not building roads," he said of Smart Growth. "We've got to invest in our transit infrastructure."

Historically, Bullard points out that transportation discrimination played a central role in America's civil rights struggle, from the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy vs. Ferguson that upheld segregated seating on Louisiana train cars to Rosa Parks' refusal in 1955 to give up her seat in the front of a bus in Montgomery, Ala.

He argues that transportation remains an issue of equity in discussions of growth and development.

"One-third of black people don't have cars," he said. "Public transit is a necessity for those people."

But he says public transportation is spotty or nonexistent in many suburbs where job growth is taking place.

"If you don't have a car, you're stuck," he said.

"Outlying areas don't have adequate affordable housing for low-income folks," he added.

"If they don't have transportation and there's no housing, it's a double whammy."

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