1. The Imperative for Equity and Representation in the Sustainable Infrastructure Sector

    February 4, 2019

    By Kareem Heshmat.

    My name is Kareem Heshmat and this summer, I represented Texas Southern University as an Environmental Fellow at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Baltimore, Maryland. Established in 1909, the NAACP is the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization dedicated to ensuring the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminating race-based discrimination.

    My research at the NAACP centered around green infrastructure projects that used equitable development principles, including an analysis of green rating systems, corporate social responsibility and government policies that support climate resiliency. The summer culminated with a research presentation at the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on August 7th-8th at the Centering Equity in the Sustainability Sector summit hosted by the NAACP. While there, participants gained a full understanding of existing equity measures in sustainable building standards and ultimately collaborated with the NAACP on its plans for a new headquarters.

    We may not realize that despondent, inner-urban neighborhoods are actually sanctioned relics of racial segregation, an “unfortunate” product Jim Crow policies, institutional redlining and preemptive gentrification that were (and still are) predominantly shaping American cities today. The Federal Aid Highway Act signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 established a uniform, interconnected national highway system but also urbanized poverty through a system of bypass loops that allowed drivers to circumnavigate around the city core. As a result, the American suburb was legitimized at the expense of the city cores and the nonmotorized residents who lived there. Urban Renewal in the 1960’s and 1970’s saw public housing projects razed to the ground to make way for private development, acutely displacing marginalized populations of low-income, minority residents including the elderly, women and children.

    Communities of color and low-income communities bear the brunt of the impacts of unhealthy, energy inefficient, and disaster vulnerable buildings. The disproportionate negative effects of climate change on already struggling populations will exacerbate systemic poverty and perpetuate generational inaccessibility to resources such as quality schools, job security and higher education that are meant to lift populations out of poverty. Given the immense energy demand of our built environment, our housing, business and transportation infrastructure necessitates major consumption of fossil fuel based energy. Yet, as one looks around the tables or worksites of the sustainable and regenerative building sector, there is little representation of the populations most impacted by our current proliferation of unsustainable, inefficient, sometimes unsafe, and often unhealthy building stock. Whether it’s as policy makers, advocates, architects, project managers, contractors, or even in the construction workforce, the most impacted communities are grossly underrepresented in the design, construction, and occupancy of sustainable, regenerative, healthy buildings.

    Environmental issues in the 21st century necessitate a departure from the faceless, maladapted, top-down regulatory approach that historically gave way to cyclical disinvestment in core, urban and impoverished areas. Juxtaposed with the bottom-up grassroots potential of affordable green infrastructure, communities can no longer solely depend on the government for a general solution to localized issues. As an urban planner, it is imperative that urban and marginalized communities be democratically represented in plans that affect the places they live, work and play. Meaningful consultation builds agency, self-determination and develops innovative resiliency strategies to address equity while mitigating the harmful effects of climate change. Community participation ensures ownership, viability and the persistence of civic projects. Examples of green infrastructure in critical areas include:

    • Modular, micro projects like solar installations, rain gardens and urban agriculture to promote renewable energy, climate resiliency and local nutrition.
    • K-12 education initiatives to encourage responsible citizenry through composting, energy need reduction, etc.
    • Housing that encourages intermingling of economic and political classes, not isolating reduced rent housing to undesirable parts of town; mandating LEED certified new home builds, etc.
    • Mixed-use neighborhoods of cultural significance that celebrate community heritage; urban art that pays homage to different demographics; tree-lined boulevards provide tree canopy, shade and biodiversity.
    • Walkable streets that prioritize pedestrians through traffic calming (narrow streets) & protected cycling lanes. Reduce parking availability, no “free” parking.
    • Reducing waste by requiring organic waste collection and composting; increased support for recycling; reducing rampant consumerism that promotes e-waste that sits in landfills.

    Through this effort, we will develop a replicable model of ensuring the centering of equity in all aspects of sustainable, healthy, safe, and regenerative infrastructure, including access, affordability, co-benefits, cultural resonance, inclusive decision-making, financing, service provision, procurement, contracting, employment, communications, monitoring and evaluation, and so much more.


    Kareem Heshmat is an Urban Planning and Environmental Policy Masters student at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas. He is passionate about renewable energy, waste composting and alternative transportation. Kareem would like to extend sincere gratitude to the JPB Foundation, the Environmental Grantmakers Association, Dr. Bullard and Dr. Johnson from Texas Southern University, and Ms. Jacqueline Patterson and Ms. Jane English from the NAACP for making this fellowship possible. Kareem is a 2015 graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.