Fighting for Economic Development and Environmental Justice with a Wireless Router

Dispatches from the Shareable Cities

A recent post in Think Progress tells a fascinating story about Michigan’s most toxic zip code—48217 in southwest Detroit.

Bordering a major Interstate Highway and surrounded by industry engaged in coal burning, tar sands crude oil refining, steel production, and salt mining, the neighborhood inhales approximately 1.6 million pounds of hazardous chemicals each year. Not surprisingly, its residents struggle with major health problems including high rates of cancer and pediatric asthma.

Over the past two years, neighborhood-based activists have embarked on an innovative approach to community organizing. In an era when internet access is a fundamental first step in being informed and engaged, the 48217 zip code was on the far side of the digital divide. Many residents had no reliable access to information about the sources of their poor air quality or other critical community issues. As a result, the community lacked a coordinated voice in demanding change.

A graphic representation of how a mesh network works. Photo courtesy of
A graphic representation of how a mesh network works. So two years ago, the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, sponsored by Allied Media Projects, began to build a Mesh Network, a local area network based off of a single internet connection. These networks are built house to house, making it easy not just to tap into the World Wide Web, but to create community action bulletin boards. Image courtesy of Color Lines.

A similar mesh network in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood allowed public housing residents to share resources and help neighbors in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy — indeed, the mesh network kept working when all other communication and power infrastructure failed. The Red Hook project is tied in with a larger economic development program that trains residents as digital stewards, building highly marketable skills while serving critical community needs.

Community organizing through shared internet service. Such a simple idea with such bold implications.

Are you as inspired as we are by the use of smart, shareable technology to support neighborhood-driven change? If you are and want to dig deeper, make sure to register for our upcoming EcoDistricts Summit while space is still available. We’ll be looking at the future of district-scale sustainability from every angle.