In the Fight for Climate Justice, Let the People Lead Front-line communities are mobilized and making gains. It's a matter of survival, says advocate and activist Elizabeth Yeampierre

By Mary Braswell

In the fight for real climate justice, the smartest strategy is also the simplest: Listen to the people on the front lines.

That was the core message of attorney, environmental advocate and community organizer Elizabeth Yeampierre during a May 3 online dialogue with a UCLA audience.

“The path to climate justice is local,” said Yeampierre, executive director of the New York nonprofit UPROSE and co-chair of the national Climate Justice Alliance. “We don’t need people to helicopter in and determine what’s in our best interest. We know. And we’re really sophisticated at getting this done.”

Communities around the country that stand to bear the brunt of climate change are forging vast coalitions and getting results, she said.

“We’re organizing, base-building, getting policy implemented and putting down infrastructure. …  Big stuff that people think is not even possible is happening,” she said.

Yeampierre spoke about the trajectory of UPROSE, which came together in 1966 as a grassroots effort led by the Puerto Rican community of Brooklyn’s industrial Sunset Park. Now, she says, the nonprofit mobilizes residents of all races and every generation who are working to secure their own futures by restoring balance to the planet.

“It means returning the sacred to the mother,” she said, describing a distinctly spiritual and matriarchal dimension of climate adaptation. “Land, air, water, animals, plants, ideas and ways of doing things and living are purposefully returned to their original purpose.”

The movement is powered by young people of color motivated not by a “woke moment,” she said, but because “it was a matter of survival for them to organize.

“Climate change is like nothing we’ve ever experienced. We need to approach this with deep humility, and hold on to each other, share information and build from the bottom up.”

That has not been the approach of government officials, corporations and even the Big Green environmental organizations that use a top-down approach to drive the climate agenda, Yeampierre said.

“It’s easy for people to put a green patina on something … to satisfy their liberal guilt,” she said. “But you don’t get to speak for our communities. How dare you? …

“When you compromise justice, you’re literally compromising our lives. You’re basically saying how many of us can live, how many of us can get sick, and how many of us will die. And I don’t think that the privileged have a right to do that.”

Yeampierre’s UCLA talk was part of the University of California Regents’ Lecturer program and the Harvey S. Perloff Environmental Thinkers Series. The lecture was part of a weekslong commemoration of UCLA Luskin Urban Planning’s 50th anniversary, including appearances by several thought leaders on sustainability. Upcoming speakers include Robert Bullard of Texas Southern University, often described as the father of environmental justice, and Dolores Hayden of Yale University, a scholar of the American urban landscape.

Urban Planning faculty member Kian Goh, who researches social movements and climate change in cities around the world, moderated the conversation with Yeampierre. Goh is associate faculty director of the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, which co-sponsored Yeampierre’s lecture.

During the talk, Yeampierre stressed that the United States is at a crossroads as civil rights enshrined for half a century are under attack.

“Whether it’s our voting rights, our reproductive rights, or even our ability to save ourselves from the impact of extreme weather events … we’re here this evening because we know we’re in a moment of deep reckoning, and that the lives of our people are at stake.”

Watch the lecture on Vimeo.

Goh on Decolonization of Public Parks

Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Kian Goh was featured in a New Yorker article about the legacy of landscape architect Frederick Olmsted and the future of public parks in the United States. Olmsted, who was born 200 years ago, is regarded as the father of landscape architecture but has also been criticized for his work that displaced Black and Native communities. Goh explained that she uses Olmsted as an example of the lineage of urban parks — but one for which students swiftly see the limits. “Green space has a history of exclusion, even though the original ideals might have been different,” she said, adding that her students “don’t think that the ideas of folks like Olmsted stand the test of racial and social-justice critique now.” Moving forward, her teaching is guided by the question: “How do we decolonize ideas for public parks?”


Luskin Summit Takes On Global Climate Justice

Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Kian Goh led a dialogue about equity, grassroots activism and climate change in the Mar. 2 Luskin Summit webinar “Cities and Global Climate Justice.” Goh, who serves as associate faculty director of the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, started the conversation by discussing community-based activism in Jakarta, Indonesia. Eric Chu of UC Davis spoke about competing visions of the urban built environment and the power of activist groups to reimagine what their communities will look like through a lens of justice and equity. Hugo Sarmiento of Columbia University noted that, in Colombia, the main drivers of risk are social, economic, political and oftentimes racial exclusion from the housing market. “Residents have already been displaced by war and conflict, and now they are being displaced by the city,” he explained. Idowu “Jola” Ajibade of Portland State University said issues such as environmental degradation, homelessness, joblessness, and lack of access to sanitation and health care affect the way that climate change is perceived in the Global South, where many communities are already marginalized. “The ways in which people are challenging the system also helps us think about how we might transform the urban society more equitably,” Ajibade said. Kasia Paprocki of the London School of Economics and Political Science discussed how the transition from a rural to urban economy is seen as a necessary and even positive development, which dismisses the experiences of many of the individuals being displaced. Michael Fleming of the UCLA Luskin Board of Advisors was on hand to welcome the panelists.


Goh on Eco-Friendly Ambitions for Indonesia’s New Capital

Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Kian Goh was mentioned in a Science article about the anticipated environmental burden of Nusantara, the planned new capital of Indonesia. Nusantara will replace the overcrowded and increasingly flood-prone Jakarta, and planners are envisioning an environmental utopia, including green recreational spaces, eco-friendly construction and energy efficiency. “The big question, of course, is how and if they’ll achieve these ambitions,” Goh said. “Planning scholars are by and large skeptical of plans for smart or sustainable cities ‘from scratch.’” The construction of Nusantara could also have a significant impact on the ecology of Borneo, and the residents of the old capital Jakarta will continue to suffer from rising sea levels and flooding due to climate change. “Jakarta will still be the economic center of Indonesia … and still have to take on its social issues and environmental issues,” Goh said.


Global Mini-Summit: Cities and Global Climate Justice

LUSKIN SUMMIT 2022: Research in Action

This is the second of three sessions being organized by Global Public Affairs at UCLA Luskin as a Global Mini-Summit in cooperation with the UCLA International Institute to focus on policy issues from an international perspective.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 2

Cities and Global Climate Justice

As climate change becomes increasingly urgent, cities around the world are making ambitious plans to mitigate its causes and adapt to its impacts. Too often these plans are unjust. Plans meant to adapt to climate change impacts or protect the city might do so only in unequal ways, or threaten to displace marginalized residents in vulnerable places. This online session led by author and professor Kian Goh of the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy explores how grassroots climate justice activists in cities around the world fight back against unjust plans, build power among their constituents, and propose alternatives for a climate-just future.

February-April: Additional online webinars on various topics, many with a global perspective.

End of April: Presentation by Zev Yaroslavsky of the Luskin School about the results of the seventh annual Quality of Life Index.

Notes:

  • Details about participants in the various panel discussions are being released as sessions draw near and will also be posted on the Summit registration page.
  • All events will allow for remote access. Any in-person presentations that occur will be planned in full accordance with the latest UCLA and Los Angeles County COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
  • Visit the LUSKIN SUMMIT LANDING PAGE for more information on future Summit sessions.

Goh Rethinks Emergency Preparedness

In an interview with Curbed, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Kian Goh offered her input on developing climate adaptation plans to address increasingly frequent flooding in New York City. Nine years ago, Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc in the city, killing 44 people, destroying 70,000 homes and causing $19 billion in damage. New York City has had three major cloudburst-flooding events over the past two months, reigniting conversations about how to best prepare for inevitable future storms and flooding events. “It’s not a matter of resources, it’s a matter of planning,” Goh said. She highlighted the need to identify and address infrastructural inadequacies and rethink emergency preparedness. For example, the Dutch city Rotterdam has built “water squares” that serve as recreational spaces between buildings but can also be a place for stormwater during flooding events. “It’s about convincing engineers and maintenance crews and city budget officials that there’s a different way to do things,” Goh said.


A New Role for a Climate Justice Expert  As associate faculty director at the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, Kian Goh brings a global perspective on environmental issues

By Les Dunseith

UCLA’s Kian Goh, who studies the politics around cities’ responses to climate change, becomes an associate faculty director as of the fall quarter at the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy.

She said the institute is a leader in working with and alongside movement-based organizations fighting for change.  

Goh, an assistant professor of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, noted that the typical presumptions of objective research in the social sciences sometimes conflicts with the desire to see the problem from the point of view of oppressed groups, in order to challenge unjust systems and promote greater equity in decision-making in cities. Overcoming this hurdle as it relates to urban responses to climate change is one of the objectives of her recently published book, “Form and Flow: The Spatial Politics of Urban Resilience and Climate Justice.”

“This type of positional research is more attuned to how structural power actually works,” Goh said. “And it’s what I think the Institute on Inequality and Democracy does incredibly well. I’m so excited to be part of it.”

Ananya Roy, the inaugural director of the Institute which was founded in 2016, said Goh’s global perspective and her expertise in community responses to environmental problems are ideally suited to bolster the institute’s efforts to pair critical thought with social movements and activism in the interest of combating societal inequalities.

“Climate justice is of central concern to the institute’s current research priorities, from housing justice to abolition,” said Roy, professor of urban planning, social welfare and geography at UCLA. “It undergirds all of the ways in which we must understand racial capitalism and make change in the world and professor Goh is precisely the scholar whose rigorous research and capacious vision allows us to do so at the institute and beyond.”

Goh sees her new role as the next step in a progression from working architect to urban planning scholar.

While working as an architect in and around New York City in the early 2000s, Goh found her interests expanding beyond the buildings she was designing, especially regarding urban inequalities and the impacts of climate change.

“I would also be really interested in the history of that neighborhood — how it got to be in the condition that it was in,” she said. 

Goh witnessed first-hand the benefits of community involvement in recovery efforts in Brooklyn following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and that experience contributed to her decision to focus on the topic while pursuing a doctorate in urban and environmental planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her varied academic career began as an undergraduate at the College of Wooster in Ohio and continued at Yale, where she earned her Master of Architecture degree. She previously taught at Northeastern University in Boston, the University of Pennsylvania, the New School in New York and Washington University in St. Louis. 

Goh’s book focuses in part on the Rebuild by Design competition in New York City after Sandy as part of an examination of power relationships and civic activism. The book examines the conflicts that can arise when cities respond to climate change. She looks not only at initiatives in New York but also at the Rotterdam Climate Proof program in the Netherlands and the Giant Sea Wall plan in Jakarta, Indonesia, and analyzes the interconnections of ideas and influence among them.

Her scholarship is firmly grounded in participant observation. 

“When I look at environmental conflicts that are happening in Jakarta, for instance, I will look at what community activists working in the informal kampung settlements there are doing to protect their neighborhoods — from floods but also from eviction and displacement by the city, which claims that they are in overly vulnerable places that need to be cleared,” Goh explained. “This type of close, on-the-ground participatory research, plus a global lens, fits very well with how the institute sees its work.”

At the heart of Goh’s scholarship are people struggling with crisis, whether it be longer-term threats such as rising sea levels or more immediate dangers like wildfires or floods. Joining the faculty at UCLA Luskin five years ago has encouraged Goh to think about the types of environmental justice issues often seen in California, including water use. 

Goh noted the long history of proposals to revitalize the L.A. River from its current existence as a concrete channel whose primary purpose is flood control. 

“Oftentimes, we see some really ambitious ideas to make the river more ecological, more sustainable,” Goh said. Unfortunately, some of those grand ideas fail to contemplate how neighborhoods near the L.A. River would be impacted.

“So, we have projects that are ostensibly for sustainability and for climate protection,” Goh said. “But if they’re not done in a way that takes into account the voices on the ground, the communities that have previously been marginalized and pushed into some of these neighborhoods, then these people stand to be even further marginalized and potentially displaced.”

Thankfully, she is witnessing a greater acceptance among policymakers to look to community organizers and social movements for answers. 

“What I have seen in New York and also in Los Angeles is more government officials who are saying, ‘We need to look more toward what’s happening on the ground,’” Goh said. “What I think hasn’t happened enough is … how does that actually become part of the plans? There are folks who are doing all these focus groups and talking to people, trying to learn. But sometimes it just becomes a report that lies around somewhere.”

At the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, Goh sees a shared commitment to translate ideas into action. She describes her ideas about a research project around climate justice and cities:

“It revolves around two things — climate and power,” she said. “That the issue of climate change in cities is always a matter of who has the power in cities and who doesn’t.”

Goh intends to investigate how climate justice organizers build social movements in cities. She said researchers have shown that inequality matters in environmental planning — poorer people suffer most from environmental harms in cities. 

“It is not enough simply pointing out inequality without taking on the power relationships that are causing that inequality,” Goh said. She plans to work with colleagues at the institute to model a more democratic process in which urban governance decisions are made in cooperation with movement builders.

“These organizers and activists on the ground need to be seen as a necessary and integral part of how we think about planning for climate change,” she said. 

Goh Explores Urban Climate Justice in New Book

A new book by Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Kian Goh explores the politics of urban climate change responses in different cities and the emergence of grassroots activism in resistance. “Form and Flow: The Spatial Politics of Urban Resilience and Climate Justice,” published today by MIT Press, traces the flow of ideas and influence in urban climate change plans in three key city centers — New York City; Jakarta, Indonesia; and Rotterdam, Netherlands. In the book, Goh analyzes major climate adaptation plans and projects such as Rebuild By Design in New York, the Giant Sea Wall masterplan in Jakarta and Rotterdam Climate Proof. Goh also discusses the rise of social movements and efforts among community organizations to reimagine their own futures in response to historical injustices and present-day challenges. Many groups of marginalized urban residents have pushed back against city plans and offered “counterplans” in protest against actions that they feel are unjust and exclusionary. Goh investigates how historically uneven development and global connections between cities have shaped the politics of climate urbanism, and her analysis provides insight on how to achieve a more just and resilient urban future. “Form and Flow” sheds light on the new wave of urban climate change interventions driven by environmental urgency, developmental pressures and global networks of expertise. Yale Professor Karen Seto called Goh’s book “a must-read for urban climate scholars and practitioners,” and Cambridge University Professor Matthew Gandy added that Goh’s “comparative global framework advances the field of political ecology in innovative directions.”


Goh on Community Resilience in the Face of Climate Change

Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Kian Goh spoke about the impact of climate change on cities and marginalized communities during two UCLA Arts and Architecture projects — an episode of the “10 Questions” series focusing on resilience and an interview on the podcast “Works in Progress.” Goh discussed her recent research in Jakarta, Rotterdam and New York, all of which are being forced to confront the growing threat of climate change. “Poor and marginalized populations are often pushed into more environmentally risky areas,” Goh said, and planners and designers are facing difficult questions about how to engage communities in future projects for a more just outcome. Goh described an empowering, grassroots notion of resilience “not only as a kind of individual ability to get back up when you’re pushed down, but that you have a community, you have a social network around you, who will help you if you cannot do it for yourself.”


Goh on Rethinking Homeownership in Face of Deadly Wildfires

Kian Goh, assistant professor of urban planning, wrote an article for The Nation about California’s raging wildfires, the deadly stakes of global warming and a key aspect of the crisis that has not captured headlines: “Yes, climate change intensifies the fires — but the ways in which we plan and develop our cities makes them even more destructive,” Goh argued. Private homeownership, a key part of the American Dream for generations, is an ideal that has blinded us to safer and more sustainable priorities, she wrote. She called for new urban designs that protect whole communities, including their most vulnerable members, rather than individual lots. “Given the scope and scale of the climate crisis, it is shocking that we are being presented with so few serious, comprehensive alternatives for how to live,” Goh wrote. “We need another kind of escape route — away from our ideologies of ownership and property, and toward more collective, healthy and just cities.”