Rethinking Smart Growth. Reclaiming Community Design’s Radical Roots

Rethinking Smart Growth. Reclaiming Community Design’s Radical Roots

Rethinking Smart Growth. Reclaiming Community Design’s Radical Roots

by Chris Joyell

About a year ago, I reached out to Andrea Golden and Rocio Alviter, community organizers with PODER Emma — a community group working to prevent displacement in the Emma neighborhood north of Patton Avenue in Buncombe County. PODER Emma was weighing the City of Asheville’s proposal to change the zoning of a large, defunct K-Mart lot on Patton that served as a gateway to their community. The City’s proposal would encourage dense development and result in more housing, retail space, and amenities on the edge of the Emma neighborhood. I contacted PODER Emma to see if they were interested in working with MountainTrue to advocate for more sidewalks, greenways and green space to connect the neighborhood to this new destination. Much to my surprise, they said no.

Most of Emma lies just outside the city line in Buncombe County. It’s a diverse neighborhood and well represented by Asheville’s Latinx community, as well as a sizable Croatian population and a Belarusian contingent. As the Director of the Asheville Design Center (ADC), I had engaged the community in 2009 when the I-26 Connector project was slated to plow through the neighborhood. While we were successful in creating a design that would spare the neighborhood from highway construction, a new threat to Emma began to arise — gentrification.

Addressing the forces that drive gentrification and racial and economic displacement should be central to the mission of Design Centers today, as they once were in the 1960s. Given their origins, Design Centers should not be neutral in the face of social injustice or the destruction of the environment.

Just across Patton Avenue, rents and real estate prices have skyrocketed in West Asheville over the past decade. What was once a modest residential community with a small commercial corridor is fast becoming a tonier neighborhood replete with luxury condos, boutiques, breweries and restaurants. As the real estate market in West Asheville tightens, developers have begun to investigate redevelopment opportunities in Emma.

For both hungry developers and cost-conscious first-time home buyers, Emma is ripe for investment. The neighborhood offers quick access to downtown and Asheville’s major transportation arteries, and land is relatively cheap with a mix of modest single-family homes and mobile home communities. Absent a massive downturn in Asheville’s housing market, it’s hard not to imagine Emma changing dramatically, and any of the numerous mobile home communities in Emma being displaced to make way for upscale housing in the next wave of development.

Certainly, the planned upgrade to the K-Mart site would invite more real estate speculation in Emma. Thus PODER Emma’s reluctance to embrace the City’s ambitious plans in the absence of policies to protect against the harmful effects of gentrification.

What are the responsibilities of Design Centers when it comes to gentrification?

Community Design Centers date back to the 1960s. They were a response to racial and economic injustice and a rejection of the top-down approach employed by urban planners, architects and bureaucrats during the first half of the twentieth century. Redlining and urban renewal had gutted poor, Black and immigrant neighborhoods and displaced their communities. And white flight had left behind vast tracts of urban sprawl.

Urban planners and architects of the modernist tradition had drawn up ambitious new blueprints for how cities would be organized and where massive new highways would be constructed with little concern, and sometimes with outright hostility, toward the people whose homes, businesses and churches stood in the way. It was a sterile approach that prioritized the visions of professionals over the needs and concerns of impacted communities.

Community Design Centers sought to flip this design process on its head to “offer design and planning services to enable the poor to define and implement their own planning goals.”1 This meant developing more democratic processes that put community involvement front and center, while also bridging the gap between the design of physical environments and the social and economic needs of the communities involved.

In this sense, addressing the forces that drive gentrification and racial and economic displacement should be central to the mission of Design Centers today, as they once were in the 1960s. Given their origins, Design Centers should not be neutral in the face of social injustice or the destruction of the environment.

Robert Moses looks over a model of the Battery Bridge. From the 1930s to the 1950s, he changed shorelines, built roadways in the sky, and cleared out ethnic enclaves to make way for his grand designs. Unfortunately, his approach influenced a generation of engineers, architects, and urban planners who spread his philosophies to cities and towns across the nation.

Despite these origins, many centers have seen their roles in addressing social justice diminished as they have been pushed to respond to powerful local interests and watch while the community design process has been co-opted by the wealthy and influential. In the 1980s, design centers faced diminished funding, and many organizations made the pragmatic shift to fee-for-service contracts and direct service delivery. Over the past several decades, design centers have also felt pressure from all sides to narrow their mission. Grantors impose funding deadlines that demand immediate results, undermining the necessary and long-term work of building trust and gaining acceptance in historically disadvantaged communities. And affluent neighborhoods have learned to redirect the power of community-driven design to serve their own interests, participating with well-organized gusto in the community engagement process to thwart progressive projects and initiatives that design centers were originally intended to serve.

As a result, many design centers, including ADC, have adopted a project-oriented approach, where our focus is directed towards the built environment and less so on those inhabiting it. For the Asheville Design Center, that has translated into a mission of partnering with and assisting communities to create designs that adhere to a set of ten “Smart Growth” principles. These principles are intended to encourage walkable, compact neighborhoods connected to open space by a network of greenways, bike lanes and sidewalks — what’s not to love?

First, let’s interrogate the concept of “walkability.” Evidence suggests that living in a walkable neighborhood can lower transportation and healthcare costs and allow for a wider range of housing types. But that only tells one side of the story.

Walkability is also a prized metric within the real estate industry. A city’s walkability, according to Walk Score, is determined by analyzing how many errands can be done without a car, and cities with the highest scores (like Boston, New York and San Francisco) often come with an incredibly steep cost of living. In a survey of 14 US cities, the brokerage site Redfin found that a one-point rise in Walk Score adds nearly one percent to the price of a home. One recent study has also shown that homes within 600 feet of a greenway saw an increase in value of five percent.

Contrast the walk score for West Asheville center (86 – very walkable) to that of Emma (37 – car dependent). It is entirely foreseeable that once infrastructure improvements like sidewalks and greenways are installed in Emma, the neighborhood’s walk score would start to climb, along with housing prices and property taxes — displacing many renters and residents dependent on fixed incomes. Even some homeowners in Emma, especially those who rent the land beneath their mobile homes, are vulnerable to displacement and the whims of their landlords. In this context, the Emma community’s reluctance to welcome such improvements into the neighborhood is completely understandable.

At the Asheville Design Center, our design process has been very much grounded in the physical world. We typically begin with an examination of buildings, infrastructure, and open space. We directly engage residents to find out what works and what needs improvement. Our design solutions usually take the form of a physical structure or plan — an outdoor classroom, a neighborhood master plan — that addresses the problems identified by the community. We are very effective in addressing specific tangible problems in a neighborhood, but we struggle to tackle larger structural inequities.

Likewise, the application of Smart Growth principles is similarly constrained. Good designs are limited in what they can accomplish if a community’s underlying problems — poverty, income inequality, the legacy of redlining and urban renewal — remain unresolved. Worse, if applied uncritically, Smart Growth can direct capital into projects that set the stage for new, upscale development, rather than meeting the needs of neighbors. A new bike path or pocket park may sound appealing on its face, but can drive economic forces that lead to gentrification and displacement.

The Bikepath Forward

Conversations about racial and economic inequality are reverberating throughout society, including within the design community. To address inequity head-on, design centers must shift their focus from the built environment to the communities that reside within it.

Often, we find ourselves attempting to fix the problems brought on by social injustice, rather than addressing inequity at its source. In some respects, we need to return to some of the more radical approaches of the early proponents of community design and challenge the institutions and funders that have encouraged so many of us to operate simply as facilitators within the development process — a process that is inherently stacked in favor of the powerful. To get back to our roots, design centers will need to shift from problem solving to community building.

I’m not proposing throwing out Smart Growth Principles altogether. But for Smart Growth to benefit existing communities, designers and planners must consider more than a community’s structures, roads and public spaces. We must also begin advocating for adequate protections, policies and tools to help stave off gentrification and instead build generational wealth within communities.

For instance, in Washington D.C., city leaders have enacted “right to own” laws that give tenants preference to buy buildings when they’re up for sale. Building owners wanting to sell tenant-occupied buildings in the district are required by law to inform their tenants and give them the right to buy their building at a market rate. In a study of seven buildings where renters used this law as a tool to stay put after 2000, research showed that an average of half of the units remained occupied by the same tenants.

San Francisco recently passed a similar law providing a right of first refusal to nonprofit housing associations. And in New York, we can find examples of how credit unions and other community development financial institutions can equitably extend credit to support local, minority-owned businesses.

Cities have had success creating incentives for anchor institutions like hospitals, universities and other place-based institutions to use local procurement and hiring practices to keep jobs and wealth in communities. And we can point to many examples of communities that have found ways to encourage economic inclusion, like establishing limited-equity housing programs where tenants can rent-to-own.

Here in Buncombe County, we welcomed the launch of the county’s first community land trust last year. Community land trusts are nonprofit, community-controlled agencies that buy and lease land, while selling the homes on the land to individuals or families at an affordable price — separating the cost of the land from the cost of housing. ADC recently worked with the Asheville-Buncombe Community Land Trust (ABCLT) to evaluate City-owned parcels in Asheville that would be suitable for small-scale affordable housing (think duplexes and cottage clusters). ABCLT will be looking to secure properties in Buncombe County’s neighborhoods that are most vulnerable to gentrification.

However, such programs are often undercapitalized and added together cannot fix the problem. Gentrification is the symptom; structural inequality is the cause. As community design professionals, we can’t rely on design alone for solutions. We need to embrace political action and advocate in partnerships with low-income people and communities of color for greater economic equality, reparations and closing the wealth gap. This means that design centers need to listen to the community, advocate for funding that can expand the universe of possibilities and lead to truly ambitious projects and policies that address poverty, homelessness, climate change and environmental justice.

Neighborhoods already have the agency and resourcefulness to assess their most pressing needs. They also have the real-life experiences that best inform solutions that will improve their quality of life. Instead of attempting to solve a community’s problems directly, design centers should support communities with the tools, resources, facilitation and technical expertise needed for them to realize their own vision. Ultimately, by renewing our commitment to community building, design centers can help foster neighborhood self-reliance and self-determination.

ADC’s work with the Emma community will mark a departure from our traditional approach, where we would typically advocate for Smart Growth improvements like sidewalks and greenspace. Instead, we intend to support PODER Emma in developing and implementing new programs and policies that will prevent displacement and stabilize housing for their legacy residents. Once that is accomplished, then we can look to Smart Growth principles to inform improvements to their community in a more responsible and attuned way.

Community design was never meant to be neutral, safe or inoffensive. In its earliest days, it was a direct response to the racism and injustice of redlining, segregation and urban renewal. Our path forward must restore our practice as a movement in solidarity with the poor, the unrepresented and the displaced.

 


Ed. note: MountainTrue is in the process of defining our Strategic Plan for the next ten years of work. We are also analyzing our work to see where we can do more to address the twin threats of inequity and climate change. To read more about how our organization is working to be more diverse, inclusive and focused on equity, check out mountaintrue.org/equity.

1 Sanoff, Henry “Origins of Community Design” Planners Network, January 2, 2006 https://www.plannersnetwork.org/2006/01/origins-of-community-design/

 

 


Western North Carolina is blessed with more than 1.5 million acres of public land, including Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and several state-owned parks, forests and natural areas. These public lands support the headwaters of our rivers, beautiful mountain vistas, one of the most diverse temperate forests on the planet, and a thriving economy in tourism, crafts and recreation.
During its 30-year history, WNCA (now MountainTrue) has twice prevented logging in the Asheville Watershed, first in 1990 and again in 2004. Eventually the City of Asheville placed a conservation easement over 17,356 acres of the watershed.

A Black Naturalists Journal

A Black Naturalists Journal

A Black Naturalists Journal

The serenity of nature is like the hug from a friend we all desperately need. The glow and warmth it leaves me with brings me in touch with this land, our planet, not as we have made it, but as it is.

September 23, 2020. Justice was outright denied for the young, lively, human being Breonna Taylor. September 23, 1955. Justice was spit on in the case of poor, young Emmett Till. It is the morning after the ruling in Breonna’s case, I’m sipping coffee, paying mind to how I really feel.

(For context, I’ve recognized my tendency to have physical reactions to the cuts of trauma. It’s not uncommon in BIPOC, to experience chronic pain, exhaustion, fatigue, all of which being any combination of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. My particular flavor is chronic pain (CP) in my cervical spine, with a heavy dash of mental exhaustion. Watching bodies pile up due to violence and sickness, an uncoincidentally high amount of black bodies, can do its damage.)

It’s raining, forcing me to reschedule a field day. On one hand I don’t mind, as this CP flare up probably means I need to rest. On the other hand, I find myself looking at the dozens of photos I’ve taken over the last weeks. Photos of deep forest, leaves, flowers, mushrooms, caterpillars, rivers, and of course mountain views. A video of a little red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber) shimmying itself under leaf litter, trying to hide itself from danger. I want to be outside, where the birds tune out the noise of society, even if only for a while.

Nature therapy, for me, has become a means for coping with the daily trauma we have collectively been witnessing, and disproportionately been experiencing. I have a kind of survivor’s guilt for having that opportunity (let alone for that opportunity to be my work), as well as the opportunity to graduate from college, live in my own apartment, and have support systems, rather than being obligated to support. Injustice takes many forms.

Yet no amount of love for nature will convince me to explore the outdoors alone, not as a young woman of color in western North Carolina. Especially within days of a bizarre, racially intimidating vandalism of the entrance sign to Foothills Parkway. In fact, when I’m hiking I practically always have the company of a white man. In a way that makes me simultaneously feel shame, it makes me feel safe.

But I daydream often. I have a deep love for folk rock, songs that give me ambedo (a ‘feeling you can’t explain,’ n. A kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details- raindrops skittering down a window, tall trees leaning in the wind, clouds of cream swirling in your coffee- briefly soaking in the experience of being alive, an act that is done purely for its own sake). There are many ways to connect with nature.

Visions of life illuminated by the tranquility of my environment, accompanied by the soundtrack of that movie I play in my head. In that movie, I go for long drives and get lost in the woods by myself, and I always come home. There are many ways to connect with nature, to pay respect to the greater, the smaller, to the strange fruit we bury like seeds of a bountiful forest.

The world, not as we have made it, but as it is.

The Soundtrack: The Bottom of It / Fruit Bats; Dark Days / Local Natives; Willy’s Song / Rayland Baxter; Louise / Mipso.

Tamia Dame is MountainTrue’s AmericaCorps Forest Keeper Coordinator. She is a graduate of UNC Asheville and a native to the Appalachian foothills of Lenoir, NC, where she spent much of her childhood exploring the outdoors and longing to live in the mountains. 


Western North Carolina is blessed with more than 1.5 million acres of public land, including Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and several state-owned parks, forests and natural areas. These public lands support the headwaters of our rivers, beautiful mountain vistas, one of the most diverse temperate forests on the planet, and a thriving economy in tourism, crafts and recreation.
During its 30-year history, WNCA (now MountainTrue) has twice prevented logging in the Asheville Watershed, first in 1990 and again in 2004. Eventually the City of Asheville placed a conservation easement over 17,356 acres of the watershed.

On Division, Communicating the “Inflammatory”

On Division, Communicating the “Inflammatory”

On Division, Communicating the “Inflammatory”

A hot word: “Divisive.” Here in the United States, we talk a lot about how divided we are. But how do we become divided? Before our divisions are philosophical, they are linguistic. Ask any Facebook user what it’s like to use that platform to engage with others on any important issue or hot topic, and their head just might explode. We all see what’s happening around us objectively: we are in a pandemic, nationwide protests happen almost daily, it is an election year, first Australia was engulfed in flames, then the Western US coast. We are living through the same objective events, and most of us are likely seeking similar outcomes: we want health for ourselves and our loved ones, we want as little loss of life as possible by the end of this pandemic, we want our nation to serve justice, we want our planet to be habitable for future generations. Above all, we keep hearing how important for Americans to once again be united as a people, how we’re all so tired of the division. While we all originate from different backgrounds, cultures, family structures, and we have lived different lives, had different experiences, and possess different goals, I like to think that we’re not as different as we think we are.

When it comes to planning our future as a collective nation, it seems as if all of our similarities might have never even existed. We tend to get direly lost in translation, emotionally driven to react to whatever triggers the perception of threat or judgment. We have a terminal addiction to placing our differences ahead of our similarities. In today’s social media age, it seems to be a victimless infraction. We have the right to free speech, the right to our own opinion, and the right to agree or disagree with our government and with one another. This is true. The more I talk with folks, the more I realize that we exist in the same physical universe but live in vastly different worlds. We fundamentally, truly, do not understand each other.

American passion, a historically critical quality of the trailblazers that have brought us from history to here, is our own weakness. The diverse nature of American society has long been prohibited from simultaneously taking up space, until now. Legal gay marriage in the US is younger than Netflix. My 2011 Toyota Camry has existed for longer than Black Lives Matter, the organization. The status quo is being challenged, as it has been before us, cloaked in a different disguise with each passing generation. Have we forgotten that we are history in the making?

“Connect before you correct,” I hear the voice of Ms. Roberta Wall carefully advise. This is one of the basic principles of nonviolent communication (NVC), as I’ve learned it. It means to establish the space to both recognize and be heard, before addressing the issue at hand. It is a practice of empathy, driven by a desire for mutual understanding. I’ve come to realize that this applies to both interpersonal and intrapersonal conflict. When we become fired up at controversial speech, at its core, it’s often because we’re feeling a need be unmet, threatened, or disrespected. We humans are emotional animals. We just care so much! I challenge you, dear reader, to remember that next time you’re in this situation. We have no right to shame ourselves for our passion, but passion, too, is a skill, and developing any skill takes practice.

Step one: hear/read/see controversial speech, action, or decision. Step two: get fired up, think of all the ways the other party is SO wrong. Step three: thank yourself, your brain, for reminding you that you’re not a bad person for caring. Step four: remember that we exist in the same universe, but different worlds. Step five: realize that the other party cares too, in ways we may not be able to understand. Step six: identify any shared needs (safety, health, to be heard). Step seven: choose how to proceed.

These steps, for me, help cool the flames of what I find inflammatory.

Working on these skills restores our power and ability to communicate effectively. I seek to take back the power of my passion, and not let it be threatened by that which and those who I simply don’t understand. My threshold for reactivity has risen, and I spend more of my passion on making a difference. I’ve been able to reach across the aisle, while standing firm in my personal morals and beliefs.

Dear reader, if you identify as an ally of the underrepresented, I challenge you to identify your own reactivity threshold. If you wince at notions of defunding law enforcement, or support black lives matter but don’t appreciate dialogue on white supremacy, if you feel like discourse on social issues has a tendency to just go too far, and you don’t understand, but you believe in unity; I share this as an act of empathy. It is our right to stand true to ourselves, and it is also our right to soften our edges just enough to let our perspectives broaden. When issues drive our emotions and our emotions drive our opinions, we don’t come to understanding by explanation alone, we have to want to understand.

When we give our power of reactivity away, when we expect that others adapt their adopted language to appease those who otherwise would withdraw their support, we continue to perpetuate systemic oppression. By this form of censorship, we force those who have been neglected justice to do more emotional work as they actively fight for equity.

Before our divisions are philosophical, they are linguistic.

Same universe, different worlds.

Passion is a natural reaction to tragedy, yet it takes many forms. We don’t have to be lost in translation. Let’s talk better.

Tamia Dame is MountainTrue’s AmericaCorps Forest Keeper Coordinator. She is a graduate of UNC Asheville and a native to the Appalachian foothills of Lenoir, NC, where she spent much of her childhood exploring the outdoors and longing to live in the mountains. 


Western North Carolina is blessed with more than 1.5 million acres of public land, including Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and several state-owned parks, forests and natural areas. These public lands support the headwaters of our rivers, beautiful mountain vistas, one of the most diverse temperate forests on the planet, and a thriving economy in tourism, crafts and recreation.
During its 30-year history, WNCA (now MountainTrue) has twice prevented logging in the Asheville Watershed, first in 1990 and again in 2004. Eventually the City of Asheville placed a conservation easement over 17,356 acres of the watershed.

Harvey’s Toxic Wake

Harvey’s Toxic Wake

 

Harvey’s Toxic Wake

Hurricane Harvey had another dangerous effect: flooded superfund sites. French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson reports back from Houston.

September 15, 2017

 

French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson and Bayou City Waterkeeper Bruce Bodson (pictured) survey water quality on the Green Bayou in Houston, TX shortly after Hurricane Harvey. Houston is home to many toxic and industrial sites, and the hurricane caused widespread chemical and wastewater leaks.

 

This tiny jon boat is no match for the waves crashing over its bow. As Tonya and I ponder how much sewage might be in the water, which is now dripping from our faces and clothes, Bruce Bodson, the Bayou City Waterkeeper, says, “I don’t think the sewage should be your main worry — I think dioxins are more common here.”

Bruce and I, alongside Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus, are a last-minute crew assembled by the Waterkeeper Alliance to respond to the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. We’re in Houston to assess the hurricane’s impact on the many oil, gas, chemical and industrial sites in the region — after receiving over 50 inches of rain in many areas, there is real concern about stormwater runoff, overflowing wastewater plants, and spills and leaks from the massive oil and gas facilities near Houston’s waterways.

The dichotomy of the storm is quickly evident. Our downtown accommodations show no sign of Harvey’s impacts, but as I walk a few blocks to assess the Buffalo Bayou, I see workers hosing off the side of a building. They show me a spot on the wall about 35 feet above the water, where the floodwaters reached during the storm. We witness neighborhoods completely devastated by the flooding, while homeowners elsewhere are planting flowers and mowing their lawns like nothing ever happened. Bruce explains that this storm was “more of a rain event than a wind event, and it was like a lot of floods: you’re either in it or you’re not.”

 

The Buffalo Bayou overflows in downtown Houston following Hurricane Harvey. Many areas in Houston received over 50 inches of rain during the storm. 
 

Being “in it” not only meant that your home had flooded and belongings had been destroyed. Too often, it meant the floodwaters brought a toxic stew into your neighborhood and your house.

On one of our monitoring trips, we examined the area’s many superfund sites. Houston has a long history of heavy industry and pollution, and therefore is home to some of the most toxic sites in the country. One of those sites is the French LTD. It sits close to the San Jacinto River, directly next to a low-income mobile home community that was completely devastated by the floodwaters. Trailers there are overturned and cars are underwater. There is no indication that anyone has been here to inspect the toxic water pollution caused by the storm.

 

This mobile home community next to French Ltd., a superfund site, was devastated by flooding and toxic leaks during Hurricane Harvey. 

 

The pollution is ironically obvious, as it sits directly in front of a fence with a sign warning that the area beyond it is a hazardous site. A black, oily ditch flows directly into the neighboring community. As I walk through to inspect the damage, some of the residents are piling their flood-soaked belongings on top of giant debris piles. Just down the road from there, a crew in hazardous waste removal suits are using weed eaters to remove the oily grass and hanging a long plastic covering over the fence. I wonder what they’re trying to hide. I hold my phone over the fence to take pictures, which reveal trees and bushes coated in a thick oily sheen at least five feet high. I wonder: Has anyone warned the neighboring residents of the toxic threat the floodwaters pose to their health?

 

Left: The “No Trespassing” sign in front of French Ltd., a superfund site, warns of toxic waste beyond it. Right: The Waterkeepers discovered a fence outside of Deep Down Inc., an industrial site that saw a large amount of oil wash out of its waste pits during Hurricane Harvey.
Being a Waterkeeper means being a watchdog for your waterway. That can mean monitoring facilities from the air, checking their discharge permits, and getting drenched in sewage in order to make sure industries supported by oil and gas aren’t polluting the area’s waterways. That job is made much more difficult in Houston, because Homeland Security prevents access by water to most of these superfund and industrial sites.

Bruce and I paddle down Green’s Bayou in sea kayaks in an attempt to lay eyes on the impact of the storm from the river. As we ease our way down the Bayou towards the heart of the oil and gas facilities, Bruce says it won’t be long before we get stopped. And we do get stopped — not by the police, but by giant barges tied together to block access to the downstream facilities. We take in toxic smell after toxic smell, some so strong that I get a headache. Bruce calls out the names of these toxic substances as if we are out birdwatching. The smell becomes overpowering as we paddle by Arkema, the same company whose toxic chemicals exploded in another area of Houston. “We probably should have brought our respirators,” Bruce says casually. “This smell could kill you if it were a bit stronger.”

Bruce’s calm response to potentially being killed by toxic chemicals while kayaking comes from a career spent around the oil and gas industry. A career that has seen a lifetime’s worth of oil and gas pollution, lakes of chemicals sunken into the ground, and chemical explosions.

The risk of dying from a toxic chemical exposure is not something I am accustomed to when I go paddling. But in Houston — ground zero for the oil and gas industry — it is a way of life. It’s illegal for these chemicals to leave the property, Bruce says, but there isn’t much incentive to stand up to the multi-billion dollar oil and gas giants like ExxonMobil and BP.

When our boat patrol is finished, we drive through a residential neighborhood bordering the ExxonMobil refinery. Many of these people live and breathe the toxic byproducts of our country’s fossil fuel addiction every day. The scenes we pass of kids riding bikes and playing on swing sets would be totally normal, if it weren’t for the backdrop of methane flares and toxic air emissions just over their heads.

“During Harvey, the released toxins were so intense that a ‘shelter in place warning’ was issued for this neighborhood in Baytown,” Bruce explains. “They even advised against using air conditioners, to prevent toxic chemicals from being drawn into homes.” I fully believe this, because my skin has started to burn from the water that splashed all over us during the boat patrol.

“This looks like the future scene from the Terminator movies, where the robots have destroyed the Earth,” I tell Bruce, only half-kidding.

For a moment, I think that maybe this area should remain a sacrifice zone, so the rest of the country can burn oil and gas. But when I look back at the blue herons taking off from the discharge of oil refineries, and see kids riding bikes under the shadows of methane flares, I remember that this fight to protect the waterways is worth fighting, and that it is exactly what Waterkeepers do best.

Waterkeepers take on David versus Goliath fights every day. This is a fight for the future — not only for the future of the people and waterways around Houston, but for the future of our planet. The oil and gas industries are strangling our ability to develop a clean energy future. A future where people can relax in their yards without fear of toxic pollution, paddle and swim in their waterways, and use renewable energy that doesn’t contribute to climate change. This is a battle worth fighting, and a battle the Bayou City Waterkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance intend to win.

 

Wastewater from a Houston wastewater treatment plant flows into the Green Bayou. Waterkeepers monitored and documented the pollution to fight for a clean water future. 

Western North Carolina is blessed with more than 1.5 million acres of public land, including Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and several state-owned parks, forests and natural areas. These public lands support the headwaters of our rivers, beautiful mountain vistas, one of the most diverse temperate forests on the planet, and a thriving economy in tourism, crafts and recreation.
During its 30-year history, WNCA (now MountainTrue) has twice prevented logging in the Asheville Watershed, first in 1990 and again in 2004. Eventually the City of Asheville placed a conservation easement over 17,356 acres of the watershed.