Viewing Urban Geography and History Through an Environmental Justice Lens
John Williams is a geographer, historian, and professor, who teaches Geographies of Environmental Justice and Sustainability in the Sustainability Management program at the Columbia Climate School. He is also the associate director of Student Affairs at the Climate School and currently at work on his forthcoming book about urban history, geography, and mobility.
Based in Harlem now, Williams is originally from Albany, Georgia; I spent many formative years in Louisiana, so naturally we started our conversation with college football before complaining about the cold and bonding over our shared love for New Orleans.
We met on a cold afternoon in Williams’ Morningside office to discuss his work in environmental justice and its resulting inequities, particularly in the Deep South, and the parallels he sees in New York City neighborhoods.
Below is an edited version of our conversation.
What’s your definition of environmental justice?
It’s funny because the assignment for my students this week is to discuss the question: “What is environmental justice?”
It depends. It’s a broad definition that’s rooted in your personal environment. When given instructions to develop my class, I was told to teach a class that roots the foundations of environmental justice in the struggle for civil rights and social equality.
For me, thinking of it as a geographer, environmental justice is the stage to examine historical, social, cultural, and environmental problems. It becomes a framework to address these built environment issues.
Robert Bullard, who is credited as the father of the environmental justice movement, says that environmental justice is bigger than racial justice because the right to breathe in air is a basic right that trumps civil rights. So just looking at my work as being centered on civil rights is narrow, but looking at my work through the lens of environmental justice expands it.
What are you working on right now?
A lot of my interest and research in environmental justice focuses on man-made structures, transportation, and the communities affected. Right now, I think my biggest focus is the class I teach and preparing for it: the particulars to talk about and how to contain all this information in one 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 example, this past Christmas break I went to Los Angeles and got the chance 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’?
When I entered the Ph.D. program at Georgia State, it was with this idea that I would study highways and their impact on African American communities in particular, but that project blossomed into so much more.
It’s all tied together. When you think about a city like Los Angeles, it grew because of the highways, because of the great investments in defense contracts. If you look across Southern California, there are tons of military bases, and the highways will lead you directly to them. With military bases comes the need for housing, support, jobs—and highway development is directly tied into all of that.
As a local example, look at the environmental implications of the Cross Bronx Expressway. The South Bronx has the highest asthma rate in all of America. When you look at other expressways in areas with similar characteristics, for me, that’s where the question of environmental justice comes in.
When I started this research, I was not looking at it through the lens of climate change, I was looking at it through the lens of history. When my research started getting attention from federal legislation and environmental justice movements that align themselves with my interests, I realized it really is environmental justice.
Again and again, we see that those areas least responsible for climate change (and least prepared to respond) will be the worst affected—and that issue continues to build on itself. It’s unfortunate that the same problem is happening in Columbia’s “backyard” of Harlem.
That’s where environmental justice also becomes a voting rights issue. It is eye-opening to be able to connect environmental justice with so much that is going on around you. I live a few 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 only thing separating us is the physical geography, which is beyond our control. In terms of urban planning, I’m sure that was taken into account as a natural separation between redlined areas and more premium geography. It’s the same as you go further up the island.
How can one pose these issues of environmental injustice to people and communities when trying to organize them and when so many of them lack representation on these city councils?
One of the greatest issues for environmental justice is that the activism often gets in the way of economic development. What I mean by that is, the South Bronx is best situated to build a huge Amazon warehouse, let’s just say. And why is that?
Because all the highways are already there. The South Bronx has public transportation and often it has land that has been blighted or designated blighted, which means it’s easier to go in there and build a huge factory or warehouse. And because it’s an area with so much public housing, you have a willing workforce. So then, activists, who are fighting against a new warehouse, are saying ‘I’m thinking about all these trucks entering highways and asthma rates,’ but they also have to think about the jobs and economic development Amazon can bring!
Often, that is where environmental justice activists are stuck in that middle place. If you look at ‘Cancer Alley’ in Louisiana, in that stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, you have all of these chemical refinery plants that bring great jobs to the area. Many of the scientists who work for Exxon Mobile and the like live in these places far away from the chemical plants, but in the shadow of the plants you have low-income communities: people who probably do menial labor in the facilities, not the chemical engineers.
Economic development money is what keeps those most affected voiceless, because that money controls the politics of the town, who can get elected, the political interest.
When it comes to environmental work, that’s typically what you hear from many people: ‘I don’t have the capacity to give up my job or call out these issues because my livelihood is attached to this.’
How does the experience observing patterns of injustice in the South (considering its own stereotypes and socioeconomic issues) feel compared with what you see in New York?
The region of Georgia I’m from is considered the ‘Black Belt’ of Georgia. In most cases, you have a majority of African American people in the counties, so there’s tons of community, but it’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, even as we’re moving progressively towards blue.
I’m also not from Atlanta, I’m from real Georgia. Atlanta is very progressive; outside of it, Georgia looks very different.
When I got to New York, there was much more of a liberal mindset. I’m not saying racism doesn’t exist, but education plays a major role and being exposed to so many different cultures creates a comforting community for me. That’s why New York is such an ideal place, until it gets cold. But Georgia is home, so I do feel those same comforts in Georgia.
And it’s not cold.
And it’s not cold.
In New York, I’ve seen recent evidence of improvements in the environment. Dolphins, a keystone species, were just spotted in the Bronx River for the first time in 6 years and I just read about the revival of Tibbetts Brook. What other success stories am I missing?
The dolphins are so fascinating. New York used to be a huge center for oysters, and I understand the area is now experiencing some ‘re-oystering,’ if you will. Even just the commitment to keeping the Hudson River, Harlem River, East River, and the Gowanus Canal clean adds to the overall health of the city. Having clean waterways is physically appealing.
New York City will continue to serve as a model for other cities in many areas. I think environmental justice is no different. That often places a great microscope on folks in New York City to be ahead on these particular topics. Because of that, I think New York City will be the epicenter of a lot of green changes and green jobs.
Along those lines, New York City named someone to be in charge of environmental justice. Those sorts of actions, I think, make New York City a leader on many issues in this world, and environmental justice fits right into that.
Would you say you’re optimistic about the future? How do you stay positive in the face of these difficult issues?
Oh, I’m a complete optimist. To me, being a Black person in America and being a Black person who has studied and attempted to perfect the craft of being a historian, I have to be optimistic. It would be too easy for me to be a pessimist.
I am optimistic about the future of environmental justice because I work in an area of influence for the next generation. If you equip people with the right tools and skills, then you create sustainability managers who not only understand sustainability, but also understand cultures and equity. To have true sustainability, equity goes hand and hand.
A lot of times, older people might be less optimistic because they’re nearing the end and probably won’t see the changes in their lifetime, but if I think about the future and next generation of practitioners, then I’m very optimistic.
Olivia Colton graduated from Louisiana State University in 2018 with a degree in Conservation Biology. She is currently in her first semester of the M.S. in Sustainability Science program at Columbia University.