Majora Carter: Landscape Architecture

Majora Carter is an unlikely champion for sustainable development in the South Bronx. Having seen her childhood neighborhood devolve into an industrial wasteland in the 1970s, she never even wanted to come back. “It didn’t seem like it was a place for culture—it certainly wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, and it wasn’t a place that fed me spiritually,” she says. Yet at age 38, Carter was the recipient of a 2005 MacArthur Fellowship for her work promoting green initiatives in the community through Sustainable South Bronx, the organization she founded in 2001.

In the late 1990s, when Carter grudgingly moved in with her parents to ease the cost of her MFA studies at New York University, the city was preparing to shut down its sole municipal waste landfill, Fresh Kills, and divert 40 percent of that garbage stream to the Bronx. It seemed to Carter a disproportionate burden, considering that the borough already shouldered 40 percent of New York City’s commercial waste. “Having all of those waste-treatment plants here was already creating this toxic brew that added to local health problems, in particular asthma,” Carter says.

Mobilizing her neighbors to fight the city’s plan was her first official step into community activism. “We knew what we didn’t want in our neighborhood—but we didn’t really know what we did want,” she says. “That’s where the community planning and design elements came in.” Carter hung out her own shingle to formally address her neighbors’ requests, such as clean air, waterfront development, and jobs that don’t degrade the environment.

Other artists and activists have also returned to the South Bronx, which is undergoing a slow but sure revival, and Carter has been a big part of the change. “The thing that makes Majora stand out is that she always intertwines environmental sustainability with local economic sustainability,” says landscape architect Kathleen Bakewell, who along with researcher Joyce Rosenthal created a demonstration green roof atop the SSB office building.

Unveiled last September, the green roof—one of the projects of which Carter is most proud—is intended to show how rooftop vegetation can contribute to cooling and divert storm water that causes sewer overflows. In addition to the roof, which prompted Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión Jr. to promise incentives for future green roofs, SSB recently completed a feasibility study for a four-mile-long, bike-friendly greenway along the South Bronx’s underused waterfront. Cosponsored by the New York City Economic Development Corporation and supported by $1.2 million in funding raised by Carter, the design for the greenway was undertaken by Mathews Nielsen, a New York-based landscape architecture firm. Carter reports that $20 million is already available to execute the scheme. If a $500,000 no-strings-attached grant seems inconsequential, the activist says that an association with the MacArthur Foundation goes far beyond monetary support: “It has opened up doors for me so that I can become a vehicle for the platform of sustainable environmental and economic development.” She adds that when she conceived of SSB, she saw it in part as a demonstration project—much like the green roof above her office—that could be replicated in other neighborhoods.

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