Many of us here in Marin feel a responsibility for reducing environmental impacts from climate change and pollution. Installing solar panels, purchasing a Prius, and religiously recycling have become common practices, along with a passionate desire to protect open space.
All of these actions are good, but are they sufficient?
Our love affair with single-family homes and our cars contributes to sprawling development patterns, rising rents and home prices, heavy car use, increasingly wider highways and a growing divide in social and racial equity.
People in the lowest economic sectors of Marin are being squeezed out. Many who work here — including teachers, firefighters and police officers — can’t afford to live here.
New thinking is required to reverse an unsustainable trend. Regionally coordinated transportation and land-use planning for growth where there is already transportation infrastructure in place can curb the unchecked sprawl that results in increased energy consumption, greater vehicle emissions, more ozone pollution and destruction of wildlife habitat and farmland.
More efficient development designed to accommodate all income levels can help us meet our climate change goals and enrich our communities with fewer people commuting to work. “Smart growth” development can improve our quality of life and invigorate our communities to be more vibrant and diverse.
While many environmentalists embrace smart-growth proposals, there are some preservationist environmentalists who oppose any growth. They want to preserve the “small-town” feel, character and sustainability of their mostly white neighborhoods. They link this to protecting the unique open space in Marin.
Environmental justice advocates question this mindset. They ask: Is this really about protecting white privilege with an idealized understanding of community? Such a vision of local community ignores the fact that neighboring communities of color face environmental hazards in order that we here in Marin can enjoy our open space and clean air.
Many preservationists who oppose “smart growth” may not understand that advocates of smart growth in fact strive to preserve open space precisely by having people live in denser developments near where they work and play. Fewer resources are used, and we can rely less on cars and more on sustainable forms of transportation, not to mention enjoying a better use of our time other than sitting in cars.
“Smart growth” advocates understand that true sustainability is inclusive of people from all income brackets and cultures here in Marin.
Our classism, white privilege and racism have to be addressed if we are to truly create sustainable communities.
Opponents of smart growth and affordable housing in Marin argue for local autonomy and a “democratic open process.” This is democratic only to those in power at the local level.
Regional plans, such as “Plan Bay Area: Strategy for a Sustainable Region,” need to be considered if we are to effectively promote equity and sustainability.
Each one of us, no matter what our race or class, will suffer if we do not change our ways to address climate change. Of course, wealthy communities have more resources to handle climate change, but they will not be immune to the consequences.
Segregated neighborhoods of concentrated wealth and poverty foster the poisonous NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) rhetoric and fear of the “other.” While the cost to poor neighborhoods is quite obvious, whites are often not aware of the ultimate costs of segregation and unsustainable suburban development.
Ad hoc local plans that ignore our larger community simply allow those with privilege to protect themselves from the changes that need to occur, leaving the burden on others.
If we are smart, we here in Marin will make a commitment to think and act in new ways that create safe and sustainable communities for everyone.
Laura Stivers, PhD, is the dean of Dominican University of California’s School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Her article, “Climate Change, Smart Growth, Racial Oppression, and White Privilege,” appeared in the fall 2016 issue of the journal Confluence.