The Greening of Southie: Bringing to Light Issues of Environmental Justice

I recently watched two awesome documentaries relating to the environment. One was Flow, about the effects of privatization on water resources and communities around the world, was an excellent reaffirmation of how important water issues are. The other was The Greening of Southie, about the first green building to go up in South Boston. It is the latter that left me with several questions about the impacts of green building.

First, let me start by saying that the film does a great job of explaining what green building is, how one gets the LEED points necessary to be a ‘green building,’ and the challenges that go with creating a green building. It also brought up issues about community impact, without actually saying anything about them, that I will expand on below.

LEED is a standard of building that promotes using green materials to reduce the impact of a building, whether residential or commercial on the environment. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. There are several different kinds of LEED, one for neighborhood design, one for renovations, and several others. While the movie was from 2007 and thus a little dated, the property managers aimed for earning enough points to earn a gold rating. Each point comes from doing something green — using local vendors is worth one point each, using renewable resources like bamboo over hardwood is one point, etc.

All of this sounds wonderful, and there have even been updates to LEED to take into account new technologies and the transportation costs of transporting materials. However, there are some drawbacks to green building that the film did a wonderful job of pointing out.

There are definite race and class lines drawn by who can afford green building. The building in the film, the Macallen Building, was a residential luxury condo complex, ranging from $500,000 to $2 million per condo. South Boston has traditionally been a working class neighborhood, meaning that a majority of the people in South Boston would not be able to afford homes like the ones brought into the neighborhood — not to mention the definitive racial line that exists between high income and low income families.

In addition, the new building will drive up property values and rents displacing people from the homes or forcing them to give up local businesses. With the incoming of a luxury apartment complex, there comes other amenities like shopping franchises, which threaten the life of mom and pop stores in the area.

My final point of contention with green building is that it is intended to promote the use of local materials. Yet in the film, they ordered innovative environmentally friendly materials from China, Australia, Bolivia, and from the Midwest in the United States. The one vendor that was awarded a point for being ‘local’ was 3 hours away in Maine. Granted, this is substantially closer than China or Bolivia, but to me it still does not signify local. How do we promote environmentally friendly design and innovation in the United States (making it local) if we are importing the technology from abroad? And how does one reconcile the fact that we are using so much oil and energy to transport materials from abroad with the fact that we are building and environmentally friendly building? Does saving energy costs outweigh reducing fossil fuel consumption? Should it?

These are some of the questions I was left with at the end of the film. I know that LEED has sought to reconcile some of these concerns since the film was released in 2007, and I know that there are more companies in the United States producing environmentally friendly materials now than when this building was being built. However, I think the questions are still justified and timely as we look at the future of green building. How do we pair green building and being environmentally conscious with social justice issues of race/class? Environmentally friendly extends beyond reducing carbon emissions and replacing light bulbs with CFLs — it needs to be a holistic approach which includes community sustainability as well.

Why does green building have to be another thing on the list of things that are only for upperclass white people? Environmental movements are about more than just saving the environment, but about environmental justice meaning making sure that everyone has equal access to environmental solutions. Why must they make living in or creating a green building something that can be bragged about? Is that the point of being environmentally friendly? a badge of honor to say that you did something?

Within the LEED certification there are levels as well: certified, silver, gold and platinum, with each level representing the amount of environmentally friendly effort and materials that went into the building (aka the amount of money spent on making it environmentally friendly). Again, it reduces being green to being the best at being green, or having the most money to become the most green. So some people can say they are they best at being green, yet not live green lifestyles, or sustainable lifestyles, or even have buildings that do not support sustainable lifestyles or life choices.

Environmental issues should not be reduced to monetary value or an award that someone can hang on their wall. Yes, the innovations and technological advancements in green building are moving in the right direction. But, as Steve Ma (the owner of Live said last night, it needs to be a holistic approach, and people should ‘go green’ because it’s about people and doing what’s right for people.

The most poignant moment in the film for me, was when one construction worker (who had been hesitant about this ‘green stuff’) looked at the camera and commented how great this building was — he’ll never see it fully finished/lived in but one day he can drive his kids past it and tell them how he was a part of it. Here is someone who was a skeptic, got turned on to the idea, and can’t yet achieve it. Green building and making environmentally friendly choices for your home should be available to anyone who is on board — if we limit who can become green by class (and thus race. even gender was not fully represented as leaders in the green building movement), we are turning people away from doing something good.

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3 Responses to The Greening of Southie: Bringing to Light Issues of Environmental Justice

  1. Kathryn says:

    Interesting- I've heard about this film but never seen it. Sounds like there are some significant parallels between green building and organic/sustainable food movements. One note, though- everything is a lot closer in New England. Getting building materials from Maine to Mass is kind of like eating farm produce from Lancaster if you live in Philly. I would consider it local.

  2. Lisa says:

    It was a really good film, and I would definitely recommend it. Interesting about New England — I hadn't thought about how distance is relative!

  3. webcabbie says:

    Too bad no one realised everyone that moved into that building would own an S.U.V. and still take cabs everywhere. Elitist asses!

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