How Racial Justice and COVID are Shaping the EcoDistricts Movement

In our resiliency and EcoDistricts practice, we perform thought experiments to imagine futures that, while possible, seem exceptionally unlikely. We help communities identify their vulnerability to natural disasters, economic hardships, failed infrastructure, or racial inequities and together we chart ways to address each possible crisis. Perhaps it was a failure of the imagination that we never thought it possible that all of the speculative scenarios would be compressed into a single year and that decades of city-making could be rewired so profoundly. The change is staggering, but so is the opportunity.

The challenges and opportunities will arise from our desire to be in community with each other. Propinquity, or the state of being close to someone or something, has been turned inside out as we not only socially distance ourselves physically in buildings or on the street, but also segregate ourselves by limiting whom we choose to associate. Virtual connectivity has helped create new ways of relating, listening, and recording and while we may mourn the loss of in-person collaboration, we have found new ways to share and create together. 

Physical patterns and spatial practices have been dislocated, but it has given us a license to find new ways to use familiar places. While the office may be empty, civic spaces like streets and parks are more important than ever and we are discovering the previously overlooked in-between spaces of our cities. Collaborating around shared values and coming together, albeit socially distanced, to plan events, gatherings, and marches, are galvanizing new alignments of people around important issues. I hope that this spirit of creativity, imagination, and collaboration remains, even when the need has abated.

When we defeat the virus, our communities will not be resilient by bouncing back to the way they were before. The urban equation has been reshaped and resiliency will mean transformation into a new system. Take for example the thousands of people who are moving–for space, for amenities, for security, or for opportunities. They are bringing their resources to new places, whether that be home with family or to different communities. As a result, there will be a new energy in some neighborhoods and for others, a loss of vitality. I am deeply concerned that the intersection of financial ability, networks of power, and simple self-interest could lead our nation into a new round of economic and racial segregation, and we must be proactive in our response. EcoDistrict practices can address demographic reorganization, as a shared vision, goals, and a plan of action reinforce a commitment to the common good and the value of building community. 

EcoDistrict planning can be a forum for hard discussions on collective self-determination and offers a counter to individual self-interest. In Pennsylvania, the Etna EcoDistrict was deep in its first year of implementation projects when COVID occurred. According to Mary Ellen Ramage, Etna Borough Manager, the community was able to quickly pivot in the crisis because of the relationships forged and the knowledge gained during their two-year EcoDistrict planning process. Etna leaders and volunteers quickly mobilized to support the community needs and, somewhat ironically, the crisis may have unexpectedly deepened their influence, as they reached out to more of their neighbors than they might have under ordinary circumstances. 

In other communities like the “BEN” communities of Braddock, East Pittsburgh, and North Braddock, the decades-long racial justice dialogue has been amplified by recent events. The Triboro’s multiyear Comprehensive Plan process has unpacked longstanding concerns around economics, access, and environmental hazards. The national dialogue about these issues have made the communities’ goals more visible and demonstrated that their burdens are not theirs alone. In these communities and in other neighborhoods, racial and social equity conversations have grown deeper and wider. There are many, many voices to learn from. 

Today’s thought experiments prepare our communities for tomorrow’s possibilities. Rainstorms may seem distant when the sun is out, but collaborating on EcoDistrict principles is planning for that rainy day. We are in the middle of a series of storms, but I remain confident that the shared will for transformation will come from being in community with each other.

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