Weitzman News

Posted September 17, 2020
  • Varshini Prakash speaks at The McHarg Center's September 2019 event ‘Designing a Green New Deal’

New Climate Policy Initiative Launched by The McHarg Center

Last year’s Green New Deal for Public Housing Act belonged to tenants first. Before it was a piece of legislation, it was a loose set of demands made by residents of public housing and organizers in New York and around the country to address a backlog of repairs, make investments in energy efficiency and carbon reduction, and create job opportunities for low-income communities in the process. And by the time it was introduced in Congress, backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the proposal had been refined, formalized, priced out, and backed up by a wealth of data developed by groups like The Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology, the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative, and Data for Progress.

Now, the same researchers who helped develop that proposal are bringing their efforts to a bigger scale. This fall, the McHarg Center is launching the “climate + community project” (ccp), a push to turn grassroots demands for climate justice into formal policy proposals and actionable legislation, developed by researchers with connections to climate movements, and vetted by members of the communities with the most at stake. The ccp, which received funding from the Summit Foundation in Washington, D.C., is planning to launch with a series of  policy briefs and proposed laws in the next year. For Billy Fleming, the Wilks Family Director of the McHarg Center and Assistnant Professor of Sociology Daniel Aldana Cohen of the new climate + community project, the ccp builds on work that the Center and Cohen’s Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative have been developing for several years and gives the Weitzman School a more active role in the current movements for climate justice—work that resulted most prominently in their report A Green New Deal for Public Housing last fall and the introduction of H.R. 5185 by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Sanders based in part on their report.

“This is an opportunity for us as a Center, as a school, as an institution to think about how to best use our resources,” Fleming says. “The idea is to translate movement demands  into concrete legislative and policy recommendations, and to connect with a member of Congress and other legislators who can then bring those ideas onto the floor of Congress or a state legislature.”

The work has already started. One of the first proposals to come out of the project will be a “Green New Deal for Public Schools,” calling for a federal investment in public-school buildings to improve their health and energy performance, as well as new investments for teachers, guidance counselors and other support services. The proposal reframes the school’s role as a hub of community services in areas that are vulnerable to climate change and economic and educational disparities, says Akira Drake Rodriguez, an assistant professor of  city and regional planning at Weitzman who is developing the brief. The original New Deal under President Franklin D. Roosevelt included investments in physical infrastructure, but little in the way of human investment, Rodriguez says. Like other components of the Green New Deal, the school proposal is being developed with an eye to political coalition-building.

“We’ve got people who are environmentalists, people who are public school teachers, parents, people who are trying to invest in communities,” Rodriguez says. “That really allows us to bring together a lot of interests that didn’t really have a cause to mobilize around before.”

Among those working on the proposal is Jamaal Bowman, the Democratic nominee for Congress in New York’s 16th District, representing parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, Fleming says. In addition to Fleming, Rodriguez, and Daniel Aldana Cohen, assistant professor of sociology and director of the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative in the School of Social Policy and Practice, the ccp draws together scholars working on climate issues around the country. They include, among others, Shalanda Baker at the Northeastern University School of Law, Myles Lennon of the Institute at Brown for Environment & Society, Johanna Bozuwa at the Democracy Collaborative, Mijin Cha at Occidental College, Yonah Freemark and Carlos Martinez of the Urban Institute, and Thea Riofrancos, an assistant professor of political science at Providence College.

The project is meant to amplify the work of junior and mid-career scholars and activists, Fleming says. And it’s meant to build on relationships between those scholars and leaders in the social movements, says Xan Lillehei (MLA’20), a former research assistant who now coordinates the ccp at the McHarg Center. Those relationships will guide the development of the project, as scholars work to elevate and formalize the demands of on-the-ground organizers, Lillehei says.

“We see this work as advancing the asks of movements and organizers and communities who are disenfranchised across various planes,” Lillehei says. “A lot of that is disenfranchisement through policy, so this is a way of working with the tools that led to those conditions in the first place.”

The climate + community project grows out of work that Fleming and others have been doing at the McHarg Center and the Weitzman School for several years. Last September, the Center partnered with the Architecture Lobby and Cohen’s SC(2) to pack Irvine Auditorium for the Designing a Green New Deal event, which brought together scholars and activists in the climate justice movement like Varshini Prakash of the Sunrise Movement, Rhiana Gunn-Wright of the Roosevelt Institute, Julian Brave NoiseCat of Data for Progress, and Naomi Klein, among others. Fleming also led an interdisciplinary studio focused on envisioning the Green New Deal’s potential to enhance the built and natural environments, which recently won the “Award of Excellence” for student collaboration from the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). And last winter, the Center released “An Atlas for the Green New Deal,” which curates critical contemporary and projective climate and built environment about the United States that is often hidden behind paywalls and opaque government websites and collects it all in one place, made free and available to anyone with an Internet connection. This semester, the McHarg Center, in collaboration with the Landscape Architecture Foundation, the Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes, the ASLA, and the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture, is running a “superstudio” on how the concept of a Green New Deal can be translated into specific projects. For Fleming and the other members of the new climate + community project, the Green New Deal, which has become the rallying cry of the climate justice movement, is going to remain the framework of much of its policy work for the foreseeable future.

“Movements, through their collective knowledge and experience, know these issues way better than we do in academia,” Fleming says. “And the single-best use of our time and resources is to ask what we can be doing with our time, with our power, to elevate and to push those demands further.”