‘More than just the environment,’ Dr. Agyeman redefines sustainability

Abigail Tetzlaff, Managing Editor

Dr. Julian Agyeman, professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University, presented at the Feb. 8 Batalden Convocation. His discussion, “Just Sustainabilities in Policy, Planning and Practice,” drew on his written works, and he cited periodically the works of urban and environmental scholars, sharing that environmental issues are signals for wealth, spatial and health inequalities in cities.
Immediately, Agyeman asked the audience to part with conceptions of sustainability in terms of simply the environment.
“[Sustainability] incorporates equity and justice, and [these] are integrally related to environmental issues,” he said. “Wherever there is environmental degradation, there are almost always human rights issues involved. Countries that are trashing their lands are likely also trashing their people.”
Agyeman spoke about how high advertising revenues in a given country are a distinct marker for wealth disparities, and the discussion moved to spatial justice. “Class lines are not meant to be expressed geographically,” he said.
Agyeman then addressed how spatial justice appears in any American commutes. “What gives you rights to the street in America?” he asked, displaying a picture of a busy, automobile-filled avenue in Boston on the projector screen. The answer is surprisingly simple: the size of your car determines your rights to the road.
This is not the case globally though. Agyeman then displayed a street of similar size in Sweden. Rather than only lanes for cars, the street had a tram line, a bike path and a sidewalk for pedestrians. The car lane did not dominate. He pondered aloud, asking how growing up around these streets changes a child’s “wiring;” where one child may grow up knowing democracy in the street, another knows only organized chaos.
Like the streets in Sweden, “we need shared streets, equal streets,” said Agyeman and city planners in the U.S. have taken a cue from Scandinavian planners. They are now trying to “democratize” streets by deemphasizing car usage and building “Complete Streets” which better foster social interactions on the street. But, according to Agyeman, even democratizing the street does not do the job in American cities, tying back to points made earlier about wealth and spatial disparities.
New, complete streets are more likely to spark gentrification. Gentrification, due to raised housing prices or rented storefronts, displaces community members who cannot pay those increased prices. In the end, gentrification systematically erases diversities specifically in income and race from the affected area, making the opportunities and amenities on complete streets accessible only to a few.
Agyeman also contended that “you can’t design a good, excellent street. That street happens.”
What Agyeman wants planners to do, rather than create more inequality in cities, is design public space that is accessible to all, always. “[To] create an urban commons beyond commercial or economic means,” he said, speaking of a public space that invites differences and diversities.
He spoke particularly about how contact theory is beneficial in these spaces. “The more contact you have with diversity,” Agyeman said, “the more accepting and welcoming you will be to difference.”
Using examples from cities around the world, including Copenhagen, Denmark and Medellin, Colombia, these vastly civic spaces are attainable in the United States. Armed with interdisciplinary social urbanism, asserts Dr. Agyeman, American cities can flourish.

This article first appeared in the Friday, February 23, 2018, Edition of The Echo.