Urban visionary Majora Carter described her ability to reimagine cities and neighborhoods at the Boston Museum of Science on Nov. 2. She told the story of her work to “green the ghetto” by connecting young people with environmental jobs, her efforts to transform an abandoned dump and a jail into community-friendly spaces, and her plans to use civic spirit to spruce up the image of local food.

When some people visit a city, they fall in love with a scenic vista. Majora Carter fell in love with the view of brilliant sunlight on the Bronx River behind a garbage dump. After cleaning up the waterfront, she got married in the park she helped create. The park won the Rudy Bruner Award in 2009. Her work has received many awards and has also been the subject of a TED talk.

Hunt's Point Riverside Park before the redesign
Hunt's Point Riverside Park before the redesign (Source: Majora Carter Group)
Hunt's Point Riverside Park after the redesign
Hunt's Point Riverside Park after the redesign (Source: Sessions College)

Carter described the community where she grew up, the South Bronx, as “a war zone.” She grew up surrounded by poverty, white flight and arson; her father worked as a janitor at a local jail. Landlords torched their own properties instead of renting to low-income people of color.

Carter decided to leave the neighborhood and chose higher education as the best route. But her quest for education led her to move back to the South Bronx to save money during graduate school.

“The hopeful ones” leave low-income neighborhoods when it’s no longer legal for landlords to segregate by race, Carter said. The departure of entrepreneurial youth and lack of investment leave two types of businesses in poor communities – marginal businesses that are unwanted in other neighborhoods and exploitative companies such as payday loan businesses.

When she rediscovered the South Bronx, Carter was impatient to change her neighborhood. She began by cleaning up the riverfront. “Public space is the great democratizer,” Carter said. She is now making plans to convert the jail where her father worked into a business development center and apartment building. She described standing outside the former jail with posters of her ideas to get feedback from people in the community.

“Poor kids who do poorly in school go to jail in this country,” said Carter. She links pollution – specifically, fossil fuel pollution – to the learning disabilities which put children on the path toward a life of crime.

One solution to deepening poverty and frequent incarceration is to put people to work. Green jobs programs can increase workers’ income, integrate them into the community, inspire them to seek higher education, and keep them out of the prison system. Carter built the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training (BEST), which taught green jobs candidates workplace skills and routed them into urban environmental careers. She said 85 percent of the graduates are still employed and 10 percent have gone to college. She believes this approach should be the norm, not an exception, in low-income communities. She showed a slide of her neighborhood covered with green rooftops; this is her goal.

“No one has to move out of their neighborhood to live in a better one,” said Carter. But to transform cities, neighborhoods need to organize around a vision of a better community. When Carter became involved in the environmental justice movement, she said, “we were good at fighting against stuff, but we weren’t really good at figuring out what we wanted to fight for.”

One answer: fight for your city. Civic pride is the motif of a new national brand of locally grown food which Carter is developing collaboratively. The brand has a simple label: Root for [your city]. Each participating city will have its own Root brand.

Carter’s work encourages civic pride in low-income communities. There are many places like the South Bronx in the United States – neighborhoods that need vision, energy and optimism. “Good uses will drive out the bad ones,” Carter said. “It is going to raise the bar for what is beautiful and what is acceptable and what is needed in our communities.”

Now that OPOWER is using social science to help us encourage our Facebook friends to save energy, I’ve become curious about the role of social circles in environmentalism. Do environmental values diffuse socially into the larger community? And, if they do, how can one accelerate that process?

Eco-friendly choices aren’t the only kind of behavior that may be contagious. Weight loss studies imply that people both adjust their size to match their friends and cluster socially based on their weight. The book The Social Animal says people not only mirror the facial expressions of their families, but subtly seek out partners and friends who mirror their own appearances and values. This mirroring and filtering process is both subtle and continuous.

Advertising encourages us to use product choices to express ourselves – thereby showing our values, interests and character to potential coworkers, friends and partners. Even being “real” – for example, going without makeup – can be a statement. So can environmental decisions.

Including social circles in one’s perspective can lead to intriguing questions about environmentalism. How do environmentalists find each other? If environmentalists cluster too closely, will our innovations diffuse into the rest of society? On the other hand, if we spread out into a dispersed community, will we still be able to change the culture around us? If we want our social norms to catch on, what should we do? Should we try to reach a critical mass? Should we look for tipping points?

“That’s the infuriating part of this — people who are really trying to do the right thing [and] going to the trouble of taking their old stuff to some place thinking it’s going to be recycled have no idea that it’s not going to be recycled at all.”

– Barbara Kyle, Electronics TakeBack Coalition

Miller-McCune published an article on electronics recycling last month. After recycling enthusiastically for years, I was disappointed to learn that many of my electronics may have ended up in “acid baths and burn pits.” As a consumer, I want to know where my electronics are going – especially if they are being used unsafely overseas.

What does one call “recycling”? It’s an interesting question. Should there be a definition? I doubt that shipping material to sites where people will burn electronics in open pits would meet an international standard for recycling.

This is a classic example of misaligned incentives. Manufacturers, recyclers and consumers don’t pay the full cost of cheap disposal of electronics, so we collectively lack the motivation to change this situation. Somehow, the fact that we live in a closed ecological system doesn’t enter the equation.

Electronics on the Brain
Let's use our brain circuits before we burn our electric circuits.

We pass on the residue of our mistakes to future generations.

Every time I drive down Route 107 toward Boston, I pass a site where General Electric manufactures aircraft engines.

Street outside GE aircraft plant in Lynn
A Google street view of Route 107 in Lynn

This factory has been open since before World War II. A local business directory estimates that it employs 5,500 people. A Boston Globe story reports a lower number and comments that the company sought state aid recently to prevent layoffs.

What’s wrong with this industrial picture?

Local residents who haven’t taken environmental journalism classes may not know that the Environmental Protection Agency lists this as a high-priority hazardous waste site. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection database says there are 46 different contaminated locations at this address. Oil is the main culprit, but there are other hazardous materials too.

As an environmental communicator, I’m concerned that Lynn residents may not be aware of the websites above. Those jobs may benefit the community if the company hires locally, but their cost has been significant. Without transparency, problems like this may remain invisible.

After writing about global warming and a zombie apocalypse, I decided it was time for an optimistic post.

Cautionary messages have raised public awareness of environmental issues. Although warnings can earn news coverage for a problem, they don’t support behavior change directly and may even discourage audiences.

Clockwork canary in a cage
The "canary in a coal mine" approach to outreach can increase news coverage of environmental issues, but it doesn't change behavior effectively.

In 2009, Grist responded to the discouraging nature of environmental news by starting a project called HopenSource. Although the site is no longer active, the positive stories are still online – including posts on JELL-O cups, a CSA farm program designed for the South Bronx, and a bike path made of ink cartridges. I hope the magazine will revive this project.

Reading Unscientific America was an eerie experience for me. This book is more disturbing than most of the news I read online.

What bothered me most wasn’t the waning support for science research and science journalism. It wasn’t the social distance separating scientists from most people in the United States, either… although that is part of the problem.

Because of my experience writing about diversity and science, I took the ideas a step further and reached a disturbing conclusion. When they avoid communication, outreach and interdisciplinary thinking, science organizations may be unintentionally and effectively excluding a very large fraction of the population: women and people of color.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some minority-serving universities in the United States base 20 percent of science professors’ tenure evaluations on community service. At other universities, that expectation would be unusual.

Some research says women turn away from science majors because they don’t believe scientists help people. This stereotype isn’t true; anyone who watches TV shows like ER or CSI will see science majors saving lives.

Image of a man with a laptop
Science doesn't necessarily look like this.

If the dominant message says scientists don’t care about the rest of the public, that could contribute to public apathy about science funding. The authors of Unscientific America make a persuasive argument that we should train scientists to do outreach – and fund full-time jobs for them in that field later.

Here is the message I’m concerned could be countering attempts to diversify the science workforce:

If you enjoy communicating or want to contribute to your community, don’t choose a science major.

I blog about the personal, everyday relevance of science because I know these stereotypes don’t reflect reality. In one new industry – green technology – there are signs that women are taking an interest in science because they see their work as a social contribution.

Science is everywhere. It is relevant. It changes the world around us all the time. Science is everyone’s story.

Because I’m interested in starting conversations that help people reach beyond their usual social circles, I’ve been thinking about ways to change how groups interact.

I’m inviting people to comment here with ideas and resources.

What are some strategies you use for making online and offline conversations more welcoming and less polarized? 

green eye
If we don't see our environment, that may be because we don't think it matters.

The road to forgetfulness is paved with good intentions.

If we know something is good for us, that is no guarantee we will take action. In the context of environmental and social issues, I’m interested in actions and results. Good intentions don’t mean that the rubber will hit the road.

There’s a growing discussion online and offline about what kids lose by spending so much time indoors. Asking young people questions about their neighborhood ecosystems shows that they often are not aware of the ecosystems around them.

However, I don’t see this as a question of lacking a sense of place or belonging. It’s a question of selective perception. Young people perceive the things they need to notice for survival and social approval (and for some other reasons). If something isn’t relevant, they may overlook it. They learn what matters by talking with their friends, families, classmates and teachers.

In the urban environment where I lived before college, I didn’t need to know about edible plants. I was aware of industrial pollution because I could smell steel mill exhaust. Occasionally, it was not safe to swim in Lake Michigan. So I needed to know about pollution when beaches were closed.

But the water advisories weren’t very important to me and other teenagers I knew in Chicago. We often thought about jobs, appearances, grades, friends and sports because those were the priorities of our communities. Street safety was also relevant. Edible plants were not part of the story.

Instead of regretting young people’s lack of connection to their ecosystems, we should look at the messages we give them. If they realize environmental knowledge is relevant to their lives, that’s when the story will change. If we talk with young people about environmental issues in a way that relates directly to their lives and interests, we can shift the story from “it’s good for you” to “it matters to you.” Making environmental communication relevant requires a shift in perspective.

Speaking of shifts in perspective, I decided to write this post after visiting the “Eye Spy: Playing with Perception” exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum. This exhibit, a series of optical illusions, includes a quote which summarizes the take-home message of this post.

We perceive what we expect to perceive and what we think is expected of us. – Ray Moses

At the Be the Media conference last week, I heard about “third places” for the first time. A third place is a public place where people can spend time and get to know each other. But I’d never realized third places provide a balancing effect. Third places can strengthen community ties by bringing people out of their houses and apartments.

I am typing this blog post from a location where there are no coffee shops within an easy walking distance. If I wanted to sit in a public place and type this entry, I’d have to walk for half an hour to get to the library. At the library, I can type, but I can’t talk with people.

I think our over-emphasis on the importance of being at home, in the United States, mirrors our misconception that people want to spend all of their time with their families or roommates. Other cultures see this differently. For example, the Iroquois organized their communities around a central space.

An Iroquois community with shared space in the center
An Iroquois community with shared space in the center

I’m interested in the question of whether or not there’s an inverse relationship between the size of people’s houses and the availability of coffee shops and other public spaces. From my experience, that seems true. Coffee shops and community centers tend to show up in areas where people live in apartments. I haven’t looked up any articles about this, though.

Why does it matter to build community interaction? Networking, mutual aid, friendships, local economic development, and offline social circles can begin in these third places. Websites like Meetup.com give people the opportunity to connect through shared interests. Meetups often happen at coffee shops. Book groups, music shows and other social events also happen there.

If your community lacks meeting places, that can encourage people who seek out social and cultural events to move away. This shift could change property values, reduce business development, and make the area less attractive to people under 35.

The perception that “responsible people are at home” also affects street behavior. I notice major differences between neighborhoods where people expect foot traffic and neighborhoods where they are surprised to see people using the sidewalk.