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Plants and AnimalsViewing Urban Geography and History Through an Environmental Justice Lens

Viewing Urban Geography and History Through an Environmental Justice Lens

Viewing Urban Geography and History Through an Environmental Justice Lens

Olivia Colton
|March 22, 2023

John Williams is a geographer, historian, and professor, who teaches Geographies of Environmental Justice and Sustainability within the Sustainability Management program on the Columbia Climate School. He can be the associate director of Student Affairs on the Climate School and currently at work on his forthcoming book about urban history, geography, and mobility.

John Williams headshot

John Williams teaches “Geographies of Environmental Justice and Sustainability” on the Columbia Climate School.

Based in Harlem now, Williams is originally from Albany, Georgia; I spent many early life in Louisiana, so naturally we began our conversation with college football before complaining in regards to the cold and bonding over our shared love for Recent Orleans.

We met on a chilly afternoon in Williams’ Morningside office to debate his work in environmental justice and its resulting inequities, particularly within the Deep South, and the parallels he sees in Recent York City neighborhoods.

Below is an edited version of our conversation.


What’s your definition of environmental justice?

It’s funny since the project for my students this week is to debate the query: “What’s environmental justice?”

It depends. It’s a broad definition that’s rooted in your personal environment. When given instructions to develop my class, I used to be told to show a category that roots the foundations of environmental justice within the struggle for civil rights and social equality.

For me, pondering of it as a geographer, environmental justice is the stage to look at historical, social, cultural, and environmental problems. It becomes a framework to deal with these built environment issues.

Robert Bullard, who’s credited as the daddy of the environmental justice movement, says that environmental justice is greater than racial justice because the best to breathe in air is a basic right that trumps civil rights. So just taking a look at my work as being centered on civil rights is narrow, but taking a look at my work through the lens of environmental justice expands it.

What are you working on immediately?

Lots of my interest and research in environmental justice focuses on man-made structures, transportation, and the communities affected. Right away, I believe my biggest focus is the category I teach and preparing for it: the particulars to speak about and contain all this information in a single semester. It’s a continuous battle.

My interests are also still centered on the research of my book—anything related to highways and their impacts, especially how they affect African American communities. For instance, this past Christmas break I went to Los Angeles and got the possibility to explore the expansive freeway system and the neighborhoods the freeway goes through.

Some people say America has an automobile industrial complex. Is there ‘a highway industrial complex’?

Once I entered the Ph.D. program at Georgia State, it was with this concept that I might study highways and their impact on African American communities specifically, but that project blossomed into so far more.

It’s all tied together. When you concentrate on a city like Los Angeles, it grew due to the highways, due to the great investments in defense contracts. When you look across Southern California, there are tons of military bases, and the highways will lead you on to them. With military bases comes the necessity for housing, support, jobs—and highway development is directly tied into all of that.

As a neighborhood example, take a look at the environmental implications of the Cross Bronx Expressway. The South Bronx has the best asthma rate in all of America. Whenever you take a look at other expressways in areas with similar characteristics, for me, that’s where the query of environmental justice is available in. 

Once I began this research, I used to be not taking a look at it through the lens of climate change, I used to be taking a look at it through the lens of history. When my research began getting attention from federal laws and environmental justice movements that align themselves with my interests, I spotted it truly is environmental justice.

Many times, we see that those areas least liable for climate change (and least prepared to reply) might be the worst affected—and that issue continues to construct on itself. It’s unlucky that the identical problem is going on in Columbia’s “backyard” of Harlem.

That’s where environmental justice also becomes a voting rights issue. It’s eye-opening to give you the chance to attach environmental justice with a lot that is happening around you. I live a couple of blocks away in Harlem, and there are stark differences in a redlined area like Harlem and South Harlem compared with lower parts of Manhattan. The one thing separating us is the physical geography, which is beyond our control. By way of urban planning, I’m sure that was taken into consideration as a natural separation between redlined areas and more premium geography. It’s similar to you go further up the island.

How can one pose these problems with environmental injustice to people and communities when trying to arrange them and when so a lot of them lack representation on these city councils?

One in every of the best issues for environmental justice is that the activism often gets in the way in which of economic development. What I mean by that’s, the South Bronx is best situated to construct an enormous Amazon warehouse, let’s just say. And why is that?

Because all of the highways are already there. The South Bronx has public transportation and infrequently it has land that has been blighted or designated blighted, which suggests it’s easier to go in there and construct an enormous factory or warehouse. And since it’s an area with a lot public housing, you may have a willing workforce. So then, activists, who’re fighting against a recent warehouse, are saying ‘I’m enthusiastic about all these trucks entering highways and asthma rates,’ but additionally they must think in regards to the jobs and economic development Amazon can bring!

Often, that’s where environmental justice activists are stuck in that middle place. When you take a look at ‘Cancer Alley’ in Louisiana, in that stretch between Recent Orleans and Baton Rouge, you may have all of those chemical refinery plants that bring great jobs to the realm. Lots of the scientists who work for Exxon Mobile and the like live in these places distant from the chemical plants, but within the shadow of the plants you may have low-income communities: individuals who probably do menial labor within the facilities, not the chemical engineers.

Economic development money is what keeps those most affected voiceless, because that cash controls the politics of the town, who can get elected, the political interest.

In terms of environmental work, that’s typically what you hear from many individuals: ‘I don’t have the capability to offer up my job or call out these issues because my livelihood is attached to this.’

How does the experience observing patterns of injustice within the South (considering its own stereotypes and socioeconomic issues) feel compared with what you see in Recent York?

The region of Georgia I’m from is taken into account the ‘Black Belt’ of Georgia. Generally, you may have a majority of African American people within the counties, so there’s tons of community, but it surely’s still in Georgia. Even with ’Blorgia’ in 2018, it’s still a red state, as demonstrated by the governor, the lieutenant governor, and the secretary of education. It still has the remnants of that segregated past, whilst we’re moving progressively towards blue.

I’m also not from Atlanta, I’m from real Georgia. Atlanta could be very progressive; outside of it, Georgia looks very different.

Once I got to Recent York, there was far more of a liberal mindset. I’m not saying racism doesn’t exist, but education plays a serious role and being exposed to so many various cultures creates a comforting community for me. That’s why Recent York is such a perfect place, until it gets cold. But Georgia is home, so I do feel those self same comforts in Georgia.

And it’s not cold.

And it’s not cold.

In Recent York, I’ve seen recent evidence of improvements within the environment. Dolphins, a keystone species, were just spotted within the Bronx River for the primary time in 6 years and I just read in regards to the revival of Tibbetts Brook. What other success stories am I missing?

The dolphins are so fascinating. Recent York was once an enormous center for oysters, and I understand the realm is now experiencing some ‘re-oystering,’ in the event you will. Even just the commitment to keeping the Hudson River, Harlem River, East River, and the Gowanus Canal clean adds to the general health of the town. Having clean waterways is physically appealing.

Recent York City will proceed to function a model for other cities in lots of areas. I believe environmental justice isn’t any different. That usually places a fantastic microscope on folks in Recent York City to be ahead on these particular topics. Due to that, I believe Recent York City might be the epicenter of a number of green changes and green jobs.

Along those lines, Recent York City named someone to be in command of environmental justice. Those styles of actions, I believe, make Recent York City a pacesetter on many issues on this world, and environmental justice matches right into that.

Would you say you’re optimistic in regards to the future? How do you stay positive within the face of those difficult issues?

Oh, I’m an entire optimist. To me, being a Black person in America and being a Black one who has studied and attempted to perfect the craft of being a historian, I actually have to be optimistic. It will be too easy for me to be a pessimist.

I’m optimistic in regards to the way forward for environmental justice because I work in an area of influence for the following generation. When you equip individuals with the best tools and skills, then you definately create sustainability managers who not only understand sustainability, but in addition understand cultures and equity. To have true sustainability, equity goes hand and hand.

Lots of times, older people could be less optimistic because they’re nearing the tip and doubtless won’t see the changes of their lifetime, but when I believe in regards to the future and next generation of practitioners, then I’m very optimistic.


Olivia Colton graduated from Louisiana State University in 2018 with a level in Conservation Biology. She is currently in her first semester of the M.S. in Sustainability Science program at Columbia University.


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