Climate Just Cities: An Interview with Joan Fitzgerald
March 22, 2022

Joan Fitzgerald is a Professor of Urban and Public Policy at Northeastern University, and her research focuses on urban climate action and strategies for linking it to equity, economic development, and innovation. She’s identified leading cities in North America and Europe and offers strategies for other municipalities to accelerate their climate action. Her ongoing Climate Just Cities Project examines strategies for urban climate action in the post-COVID era so that equity is placed at the forefront.

Why do you feel cities are an important place for policy innovation?

I've been interested in cities since my undergraduate days. I started out more looking at the economy of cities, and very early on, looking at sustainability. I wrote a book in 2003 that asked: What if sustainability and equity were the two dominant goals in urban economic development? As climate change became more of an issue, I flipped the question to: How can urban climate action support equity and green job opportunities? More than half the world lives in cities, and most global GDP is generated in cities. Cities are where problems get created and solved.

You do a lot of work thinking about different cities all across the globe and their policies. Can you talk about what you've seen in United States’ cities versus cities elsewhere?

On average, European cities are much further ahead than US cities. While the US is still debating whether climate change exists, that's been a given for decades in Europe. They have EU-level and national mandates on various aspects of climate change and provide financial support for cities to act. So, cities in Europe are supported by higher levels of government, whereas in the United States, only some cities have that, but it varies a lot. For example, in California, it's like a separate country in how far ahead it is on its climate legislation. That's why San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles are known as leaders.

US cities tend not to have the power, and even when they do have the power, they don't use it.

I recently did a blog post on Planetizen called Preemption of Green Cities in Red States. What you have is cities that are trying to do good work on climate and act aggressively, but then the state legislature just cuts them off at the pass. For some cities in Europe, it’s the opposite situation. Another factor in some European cities is that city governments have more powers. For example, in Sweden and Germany, cities can be major decision makers. When a developer wants to build on city-owned land, the city has the leverage to say, “You can build here, but here's the energy standard you have to build to. Here's the number of affordable units you have to build. Here’s how much you have to donate to our public transit system.” Here in the US, even in a city like Boston where developers are lined up to build in the Seaport District, the city is still giving out subsidies. US cities tend not to have the power, and even when they do have the power, they don't use it.

The lack of affordable housing is probably the most pressing issue for many urban residents. What are the greatest barriers that you see to creating more affordable housing, and how can they be overcome?

We need as a society to commit to housing affordability being a right, but also to wider programs that redress past discrimination.

The federal system that we have of subsidizing affordable housing is broken, and it doesn't meet the demand by far, so it often falls on cities to fill in the gaps. There are all kinds of strategies for overcoming these barriers, though. For example, Michelle Wu and some of the other Boston mayoral candidates support rent control as one way to keep housing costs down. Others want to completely eliminate single-family zoning, which is a big barrier in many communities to building more multi-unit affordable housing. There are also land trusts where a community organization buys land and then uses it for affordable housing. People can buy the housing and then commit to affordability terms, including what they can sell it for at a later point. So there are all kinds of strategies that cities can take on the housing front. We are starting to see cities attempt to redress past housing discrimination through reparation funds. We need as a society to commit to housing affordability being a right, but also to wider programs that redress past discrimination. Housing is one way to do it, but there should be a lot more money from the federal government going into those programs.

An integral part of reducing municipal emissions is advancing public transportation and deprioritizing cars. How do you see the electrification of transportation playing a role in this shift?

With the electrification of cars, the first thing you need to develop is the charging infrastructure. There's where cities have a big role to play. But also I think the electrification of cars gives the US an opportunity to totally rethink the idea of car ownership. One of the things that Los Angeles is doing through its BlueLA program is an electric car sharing program. They are implementing it in low-income neighborhoods at highly subsidized rates. When you think about it, 90 percent of the time, your car just sits there. So, what if we use more of a shared ownership model — kind of like Zipcar, except with all electric cars — and you just use cars as you need them? I think that's part of the answer for equitable adoption of electric vehicles. It’s also important for cities to electrify transit vehicles as buses are the main form of transportation in many low-income neighborhoods.  

There are many climate justice advocates who stress the importance of high quality public transit. Can you talk more about deprioritizing cars as a society and what we can do to make sure that we change that culture?

Many European cities have closed streets to car traffic, and these policies are wildly popular. That's one of the things we saw implemented here during the pandemic and people really liked it, so the first step in deprioritizing cars is just taking away parking. Also, parking has to be much more expensive, prohibitively expensive. I live in a neighborhood where you have to have a parking sticker. I can have more than one — I could have ten if I want, completely free. So a policy change could be having your first sticker be $50 and your second sticker is $500. We need to stop subsidizing parking. Politicians are afraid to do this because it could be unpopular, but even little measures like that can be effective. If you made parking more expensive, people would think twice, and maybe consider a shared car. Another way to do it, as seen in New York’s Bus Rapid Transit, is to create lanes that are just for buses so they can really move through the city. It takes multiple measures to deprioritize cars: parking being expensive, prioritizing buses, prioritizing bikes, prioritizing walking, and not making the car the center of the streets.

So ecodistricts have received a lot of attention as a leading innovative solution to the climate crisis, but there are concerns about these neighborhoods being inclusive and justice-oriented. Can you talk a little bit about the role of green gentrification in ecodistricts and neighborhood greening?

That's the $64,000 question: How do you do this without gentrifying? You could fairly accuse many of the ecodistricts I've talked about in my book of eco-gentrification. But Malmö, Sweden is an interesting case. They took an old shipyard and manufacturing area, and they built everything possible green in that area to illustrate what a green community looks like. The planners and the mayor at the time said, “We know we can do this; we know we can take a space and do everything, including waste management, stormwater management, renewable energy, and public transit. But if we can't do it in an existing neighborhood, then you know, then what good is it?” So they went into the Augustenborg district in Malmö, Sweden, which was an immigrant community and one of the poorest in the city. The public housing that had been built there in the 70’s was really inefficient and in need of energy retrofits, and the area was highly vulnerable to flooding. They took input from locals and used their feedback to create what is essentially an ecodistrict. This comprehensive approach allowed people to stay in the neighborhood while keeping housing public. So to me, that's the model of how we need to do it. What I would argue is you take areas that have been redlined, focus your efforts on those communities and say, “Okay, we're going to do this — let’s call it greenlining — and take districts like the Talbot-Norfolk Triangle area in Boston and build affordable green housing. We're just beginning to see this emerge, like the green zones in Milwaukee, the green zones in Buffalo, and Providence. All I can say is it just requires a great degree of diligence when doing this and making it work for the people who already live by maintaining affordable housing. And it's not easy.

Which policies do you think are false solutions that cities should be wary of in their efforts to achieve both sustainability and equity? What do you mean by “random acts of greenness” false solutions?

Random acts of greenness are policies that are popular, or people think they're having an impact, but they're not, like Bigbelly trash cans. The idea is on the right track—they pack the trash, and then they don't need to be emptied as often. But it doesn’t work that way, and their biggest contribution is probably keeping rats away. Another example is recycling programs. We put all this money into recycling and only six to nine percent of it actually gets recycled.

Random acts of greenness are just these little things you see. The idea is you do the low-hanging fruit, and then you build towards big things. My argument is, instead of conducting “random acts of greenness,” we have to create synergies amongst all these areas. Transit-oriented development is a great example, where you invest in public transit, make it accessible, and construct relatively dense housing that promotes walkability. That's synergy. We need ecodistricts where you're coordinating between all aspects of sustainability. For example, parks, if designed right, create recreational space while performing stormwater management services, reducing the urban heat island effect and helping to manage stormwater. So you need to look for not just how you can do random things, but how you can connect actions and investments to really build towards something bigger. Focus on more transformational change of the community than random acts.

Can you tell us about your upcoming book?

The book is called "Cities in the Struggle for Climate Justice," and I'm working with Julian Agyeman at Tufts as a co-author. I think how it differs is that my other work mainly was from the perspective of what cities, urban planners, and politicians need to do. This one is focused more on the activists and what they're doing, how to link what the activists are doing, and know about their communities, with what cities are doing. So it's much more about how to better integrate that. We're going to be focusing on about six cities, such as Oakland and Cleveland, that are attempting to do this. Not necessarily the climate superstars that you know, but they are cities that are really struggling with how to make this link between justice and climate action.

And finally, where do you see really exciting work being done in cities right now?

Well, I think what Oakland is doing is quite exciting with how it's focusing on energy justice. I mean, they're really putting justice at the forefront of everything. I think the planning process that they put in place in Providence is transformational. Austin as well. Both Providence and Austin rewrote their climate plans, and they're calling them Climate Justice Plans or Climate Equity Plans. Now a plan is just the first step. They're gonna hit all kinds of snags in implementation. But they figured out the plan, and now, the proof of the pudding is in implementation.

Joan is currently working on her next book "Cities in the Struggle for Climate Justice." You can read more of her work on Planetizen and in The American Prospect. You can buy her most recent book “Greenovation” through the Center’s affiliate link.