Innovation & Design

Majora Carter: Greener Neighborhoods, Sustainable Jobs


Green activist Majora Carter made her name tackling joblessness in the South Bronx through daring green building programs. Now she's taking her ambitions international

Urban crime, poverty, and joblessness are surprisingly intertwined with environmental degradation. The challenges they share are widespread—and stubborn. Yet in the U.S., public authorities and nonprofit agencies typically tackle each malady separately, and with only limited success. More police might help dampen crime, but that doesn't help solve unemployment. And boosting welfare payments for the jobless cannot do much to fix pollution hot spots. Majora Carter decided to tackle all of these challenges at once.

Her panacea? Home-grown green jobs and eco-companies. Her holistic approach has fundamentally altered the way planners think about regenerating impoverished, environmentally blighted cities here and abroad. In 2005, the MacArthur Foundation recognized Carter's work for "profoundly transforming the quality of life for South Bronx residents" by awarding her one of its "genius" grants.

It began in 2001 when Carter, then 34, was working with art-focused nonprofits in the Bronx, her New York City childhood home. Her focus switched to green activism when she learned the city planned to add yet another huge waste-processing facility to the neighborhood.

Garbage Overload

For Carter, that was the last straw. At its height, the borough handled more than 40% of New York's solid waste despite having just 16% of the city's population. Likewise, the area is home to two sewage-treatment plants and four power plants. With some 60,000 trash trucks passing through every week, stray garbage and diesel fumes contributed to asthma rates that are among the nation's highest. The toxic environment discouraged physical activity. Obesity and diabetes rates soared.

Carter formed Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx) not just to defeat the garbage depot, which she did. She also wanted to harness what she recognized as a dormant passion among her neighbors to improve their environment. "Who would want to go outside?" she recalls. "There were no trees. It was dirty and dangerous. These people didn't not have a connection to the natural world."

Simply cleaning up weed-strewn lots and planting trees wasn't enough to overcome such distrust. "I was watching the city bring in contractors from outside to do cleanup work," she says. "It was basic work that local people could do as well, and they needed the jobs. That made no sense." Carter concluded jobs could both green up the neighborhood and create a sense of investment if local people helped with the process.

With a small grant, Carter set up a training program for local residents, including many ex-convicts and others with dim employment hopes. The Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training (BEST) program puts those chosen though a multi-month training program. BEST trainees learn specialized eco-skills, such as green-roof installation and maintenance, urban forestry, brown-field cleanup and, more recently, how to retrofit buildings to boost their efficiency. Think: window caulking and insulation. The workers are also given guidance in life skills, such as punctuality, effective communication, how to handle disagreement, and even clothing. "Many of these men have grown up with no reference in their lives for how to behave in a formal job situation," says Carter.

Cleaning Up Lives

Creating jobs was just one benefit. By engaging local residents to do the work, Carter discovered a strong desire for clean, green space, and she helped build trust in the community—believing that if locals did the clean up, parks would be better cared for. Among their first projects: cleaning up the banks of the long-neglected Bronx River to create a new park and new public access to the waterway. After two years, the program has placed over 85% of its more than 100 graduates in jobs. None of the ex-convicts has returned to prison, despite a high rate of recidivism under normal circumstances. Around 10% have gone on to college.

Hands-on training was just the start. Carter and SSBx helped to seed the South Bronx with other green startups. SmartRoofs is SSBx's first for-profit subsidiary, and ranks among New York's first contractors to specialize in the installation of plants on rooftops. The approach replaces tar, blacktop roofs with a durable yet lightweight layer of plants and growth medium. Since the plants absorb much less heat than a black roof, it keeps buildings cooler in the summer. The growth medium holds and store rainwater, too, slowing the flow of runoff into the city's overtaxed sewers. Air quality and natural habitat improve too, with the addition of more plant life.

Rebuilders Source was founded by Omar Freilla, who left SSBx to start up a nonprofit designed to incubate green businesses. The worker-owned cooperative collects and resells recycled building materials collected from demolition sites and surplus materials from hardware stores across the city. Commercial contractors and do-it-yourselfers alike can find practically anything in the Bronx warehouse. Two-by-fours and drywall are stacked neatly not far from newish kitchen cabinets and even a Viking range. In less than a year, and with little promotion, RebuildersSource has filled its Bronx warehouse and is planning to expand elsewhere in the city.

Soft Approach

Carter's latest spin-off is herself. Early this year, she left SSBx to start a for-profit consulting business, the Majora Carter Group that extends her reach beyond New York. Her first gig is helping low-lying Elizabeth City, N.C., develop a comprehensive plan to adapt to climate change. Although she has just begun the project, Carter talks about "soft" solutions to climate-change problems. Rather than build big new infrastructure to prevent floods, Carter suggests that green roofs can mop up and slow storm water from overflowing and flooding from sewer systems. "Big isn't always better," she says.

This soft approach is spreading. On a recent sunny morning in her new South Bronx office on the second floor above an auto-body shop, Carter met with Margaret Ritchie, Northern Ireland's Minister for Social Development. While Ritchie wields a $10 billion annual budget and a staff of 7,500, she had come to the Bronx to learn from Carter how to address Belfast's mix of poverty, joblessness, drugs, and ethnic tension—uncannily similar to the Bronx at its worst. Simply rebuilding neighborhoods wasn't doing the trick, she explained. Carter was all too happy to talk how green investment and jobs just might.

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