Who Gets Green Space?
As a Radcliffe-Salata Climate Justice Fellow, Fushcia-Ann Hoover is thinking about the biases built into our neighborhoods.
Fushcia-Ann Hoover arrived in her hometown of Saint Paul, Minnesota, in May of 2020, stepping out of her car and into a city and a nation on fire a day after the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
“I felt very vulnerable, and I felt very scared in a way that felt different,” she recalled. “And I was very angry.”
This was not the first time. Her work had long been informed by a broader landscape of racial violence, including her own experiences. In the past, she would have been one of thousands taking to the streets. But this was different. This time she found herself feeling alone, in a hometown rapidly changing under gentrification and corporate urbanization.
“Part of it was trying to figure out where I want to contribute, what my skills are that I want to bring to the fight,” she said. “Being out in the streets and protesting wasn’t a place that I could be every time. The energy I had when I was younger, in my 20s, I just didn’t have it at the time. So how can I use what I’ve learned to make a change that’s going to be lasting and helpful?”
One of Hoover’s academic heroes is Clyde Woods, an associate professor at the Center for Black Studies Research at UC Santa Barbara and an original thinker and prolific scholar who passed away in 2016. Woods believed strongly that the purpose of public social science was to explore and “suture” the links between knowledge embedded in communities of color and the knowledge disseminated by universities.
At this point in our walking interview, Hoover paused by a round sticker next to a square of dirt on a Cambridge sidewalk, a short block from multimillion-dollar homes, marking the site of a future tree.
“I’ve been seeing these walking around Cambridge,” she said. “It’s interesting because there are a couple studies out of Philly where the researchers evaluating a few city tree programs found that the people most likely to request trees are for places that had a tree to begin with. I see these around here and I think, ‘Who is designating that this is a spot for a tree? Was it a tree that was already here that because of updates to roads or bike lanes was removed?’ And then I wonder if the same thing is happening in Dorchester or Everett.”
Environmental racism is built into the fabric of our infrastructure. Defined as any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or (intentionally or unintententionally) disadvantages individuals, groups, or communities from low-income and racially minoritized backgrounds, environmental racism tends to concentrate environmental benefits and amenities in predominantly white spaces and communities while communities of color are left to shoulder the burdens of these investments and amenities without any political decision-making power.
The environmental justice movement opened eyes to how environmental racism impacted Black communities, the health problems of living near power plants or landfills, the wealth, health, and quality-of-life drawbacks from having little access to open green space, and even the simple climate-friendly perk of an abundance of shade trees to cool a neighborhood’s homes and streets.
But still, over time, despite legal mechanisms like the National Environmental Protection Act and the Civil Rights Act, environmental racism persists, Hoover believes, because planners, engineers, and conservationists continue to use the same old metrics and tools to assess a neighborhood’s value without considering the system’s intrinsic biases.
Hoover, by the way, is a trained engineer and an assistant professor of environmental planning in the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at the University of North Carolina Charlotte as well as a 2023–2024 Radcliffe-Salata Climate Justice Fellow. She uses her intimate knowledge of engineering and planning processes to deconstruct—then reconstruct—ways of approaching the disciplines. When she arrived in Saint Paul, she had just completed work with the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) analyzing green infrastructure in 19 cities across the United States.
Although she didn’t initially want to go into academia (she was headed towards becoming a program officer at a nonprofit), she realized she was going into the wrong place but at the right time.
“I was one of the few people with an engineering and science background, capable of understanding both the science rationale and ‘objectivity’ of the work as well as the racial and racialized experiences of how we live in cities and how we manage spaces and who gets to be in those spaces,” she said. “And I knew that type of work was really important, and I could only do it with the level of autonomy I needed in the academy.”
She began as an undergrad with a mechanical engineering major and a Middle East studies minor at the University of St. Thomas, but some of her closest friends were studying English, sociology, and Africana studies. “There are ways that the social sciences and humanities were really affirming identity and helping me contextualize my experiences as a Black woman in a very male, white-centered learning environment,” she said. “I was looking for something to balance that because I was feeling suffocated, and I didn’t see myself reflected among my peers or among the faculty despite strong encouragement from two key engineering faculty mentors.”
Then came graduate school at Purdue University, where Hoover entered an interdisciplinary sciences and engineering program that required students to take classes outside their department and college. “I think being able to do that also helped me start seeing the hole in the logic of engineering approaches and also recognize the way that highly technocratic approaches by default have bias that gets integrated into the system, and then we see that in the work,” she said.
Hoover is unique in that she understands the logic that feeds the assumption that there is an inherent objectivity in engineering and planning, that bias is not possible. “Observations are influenced by your identity and your experience, and I try to help people see that,” she said. “But it’s tough. There’s a lot of resistance, because I also recognize that for specialized researchers and academics, there’s a lot that is tied up with their work identity. So I think a lot of people are so resistant to those facts because it feels like an attack on their identity. If you are saying that what I have assumed to be objective and rational and unbiased as an engineer is not actually that, then what does that mean for everything that I thought about myself and the work that I do? That’s a very scary and uncomfortable place to have to sit.”
Hoover’s Radcliffe fellowship has been a fantastic opportunity to be able to pause, read, and think about the next phase of her work.
“I’ve been increasingly engaging Black geographies and Black feminist ecologies as I think about how to build new pathways in engineering, ecology, and science,” said Hoover. “This includes the focus of my Radcliffe project, where I am hoping to develop environmental planning policies and procedures in North Carolina using that framework. Because I want this work to be in partnership with Black women and femmes, it is necessarily slow-moving, as I build relationships and create space for the direction of the research to come from the women themselves.”
Scholarship around Black geographies is rooted in the work of scholars like the aforementioned Woods, Katherine McKittrick, Jovan Scott Lewis, Camilla Hawthorne (also a Minnesota native), Danielle Purifoy, Priscilla McCutcheon, and many others. Black geographies roots Blackness to place, including the historical and contemporary imaginings and realities of Black place making. Black feminist ecologies, meanwhile, holds Black feminist scholarship—see Patricia Hill Collins—which posits the unique space Black women hold as both gendered and racialized people with ecological understanding and principles of observation.
“How do you measure the value of a person or the benefits that you get from your connection to place?” she asked. “I am bringing in both of these rich theories and practices, as well as environmental justice activism, to build what I hope will be a new theory to practice approach.”
Mac Daniel is the associate director of communications and senior editor at Harvard Radcliffe Institute.