Interview: On Belonging and Becoming

Julian Agyeman works toward sustainability that embodies justice: “I’m the one who asks the awkward questions.”

By Kofi Boone, ASLA

Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, is a pioneer in the overlapping terrain of social equity, environmental justice, design, and planning. His decades of scholarship, including the groundbreaking book Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World (The MIT Press, 2003), have shaped global dialogue on the links connecting improved environmental quality and social equity. In a recent conversation, Agyeman shared his thinking on aligning issues of social equity and environmental justice with teaching and practicing of built environmental change. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Kofi Boone, ASLA: Let me say, off the top, I am greatly inspired by your work. Can you walk me through how you arrived at your scholarly focus?

Julian Agyeman: I was always into nature. At 11 years old, I got a membership to what was called the Young Ornithologist’s Club, which was the junior division of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds [in Great Britain]. I looked through a pair of binoculars and it opened my eyes. My high school sports teacher was wondering why I wasn’t turning up to sports on Saturdays. It was because I was bird-watching! I started out my career in 1982 as a high school geography teacher, and having a geography and botany background was a really useful thing. I was teaching physical geography, soils, geomorphology…you know, landscape. I initially looked at landscape design. The other thing that I looked at was environmental psychology. But there was a master’s degree [program] in conservation policy. And I thought, Wow! What is policy? It was, you know, figure out how to get that road closed or how to get a green space in your neighborhood. It was a whole new thing to me because all of my training had been in science. Suddenly, it dawned on me: There was this whole new approach to thinking about environmental and social science.

KB: You know, it’s sparking so many things. I arrived at landscape architecture through a circuitous route. My family is from Washington, D.C. My parents moved to Detroit, and that’s where I was born and grew up. All kinds of social and environmental challenges in the neighborhood I lived in were visible and apparent to me even as a kid. In high school, I wanted to be a professional musician. I went to Interlochen Arts Academy in northern Michigan. It’s a performing arts high school in the woods. It was the first time in my life I was out of the urban environment, and I was enamored with it. I took an ecology course. And I learned about wild edible plants, tagging songbirds, hiking and backpacking, and all that stuff. I made a pivot from music to thinking about these other issues and went to the University of Michigan. I got a bachelor’s in natural resources. I was there during the academic emergence of environmental justice. Michigan had several renowned faculty [members], including Bunyan Bryant. I took as many classes as I could in environmental justice.

JA: Was Dorceta Taylor there?

KB: She arrived when I started graduate school. Actually, she taught me research methods and gave me one of my lowest grades (laughs).

JA: You’re not bitter about it, are you? (laughs)

KB: No, I’m good. The combination of landscape architecture and environmental justice has been a passion of mine professionally and now academically. I’ve been trying to bring those two together and to position landscape architecture as another pathway to pursue the project of social equity.

JA: You know, this is a part of me. My research is part of who I am. So I have a white mother and a black father. I have always been at the borders of two worlds. And I think that’s really helped me to thrive at the border in research terms. I’m a border explorer. A lot of professionals, when they come up to the borders of their knowledge, they feel really insecure. I feel extremely secure. Because I am both the bridge across it in my own person, but also a bridge across it academically. It’s powerful.

KB: Did you run into the same kinds of racial dynamics in Great Britain that we’ve experienced as African Americans in the United States?

JA: Oh, absolutely. When I was teaching out of the Urban Studies Center in London, we were sending most kids to the countryside. They would go to look at somebody else’s environment. Being a geographer, I knew that 80 to 85 percent of British kids went to urban schools. Why were we sending kids to study somebody else’s environment? Were we downplaying their own environment? Almost making them feel that the urban environment wasn’t the environment? Another thing happened while I was actually teaching: I was taking field trips into the Lake District where Wordsworth used to talk. The Lake District is, I would argue, the jewel in the crown of British national parks. It’s a beautiful national park. Of course I was looking at glaciated scenery, and it got me thinking, why are these hikers staring at me in front of 20 or 30 kids? You know, as a black teacher in the countryside, I’m wearing all the correct gear and I look good. What’s the problem? And, of course, it then brought up to me this idea of blackness in what is a white space. This is where my friendship with Carolyn Finney started. I wrote a piece in the early 1990s called “Black People in a White Landscape.” Carolyn’s version was Black Faces, White Spaces (The University of North Carolina Press, 2014). Now, racial histories in the United Kingdom and in the United States are very different. There’s a book called Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (Pluto Press, 2010). It’s a really interesting book. It opens with a very provocative but true argument saying that there were Africans in England before the English were here. Given that, this idea of blackness being out of place in the countryside seems strange.

KB: I heard your remarks at the University of Sheffield Department of Landscape Architecture’s 50th anniversary celebration. You were describing how important gardens were for different folks, particularly immigrants. You said, “Food and gardens are the umbilicus connecting where you are from and where you are now.” Could you elaborate on that?

JA: You know, I was thinking about this. But there is an important step before we get to that. One of the comments that I made, right in the very beginning of that talk, was about the tension between belonging and becoming. What you and I as professionals, what we’re trained to do, is to think about the landscapes and cities. We’re trained to think about what they can become. Smart cities. Sharing cities. Sustainable cities. The healthy city. The walkable city. That’s where we are as professionals. But the corollary of becoming is, who gets to say what the city or the landscape can become?

KB: Absolutely.

JA: Who gets to belong? Who has a right to the city? There can be no reconciliation, whether it’s First Nations people, or immigrants, or refugees, or people of color, without recognition. So what do we think about these two necessary concepts, belonging and becoming? This is really important to me. And I realized how important this is to professional programs, like yours and like mine. Tufts University has a highly ranked urban and environmental planning program [17th overall and first among urban planning schools without a PhD program per Planetizen’s Guide to Graduate Urban Planning Programs, 5th Edition, 2017], and our focus is on social justice and sustainability, which, in a sense, is belonging and becoming. I mean, social justice is the belonging part. The becoming part is learning about sustainability. That’s why students come to Tufts University. They want this fusion of belonging and becoming. Otherwise, it will just fall to us who can stay in the city to say what cities become. I want a bigger constituency deciding on city futures by having a bigger constituency who feel that they belong.

KB: I get that.

JA: But back to your point on food systems. I was asking, what does local food mean in a multicultural society?

KB: Great question. We teamed up with a black farm cooperative called GRRO (Green Rural Redevelopment Organization) just outside Raleigh, North Carolina. When you’re questioning what is local food, I can relate. We were charged in part with visualizing a system that helps black and brown people have healthier lives through producing food for healthier diets. GRRO wanted to use the demand for a healthier diet to fund the components of a more sustainable food system. But a barrier was the cultural context of the ingredients of familiar southern dishes: high salt, fat, and sugar content contributing to cardiovascular disease. And so the products that were being produced by others without a cultural lens, that were so-called healthy foods, were not in any way aligned culturally with the eating and gathering traditions of the people affected. The people wouldn’t eat them. And so, part of our job was not just helping to determine where to put the water, plant a tree, or put a path. It was having those conversations about what are the culinary traditions? What kinds of things were important culturally? How can we start to adapt those things to provide a healthier alternative and then use that as sort of the catalyst to build the rest of the system?

JA: Right. We’ve talked about local a lot in my food justice class this semester. When you look at the imagery surrounding “buy fresh, buy local” campaigns, blackness is absent. There is imagery of a past America as in, let’s get back to something where things were simpler, yeah?

KB: Yes.

JA: There have been a lot of critiques of the term “local.” Just having local food does not imply greater social justice. I could take you to small farms in Upstate New York where the people are treated just as badly by these local farms. The end game for this should be adjusting the sustainable food system. I found Julia and George Bowling. They are two elderly white farmers in Maryland who are growing African crops. Why? Because they realized that in the Washington, D.C., area, there are more than 120,000 Africans—many middle- and upper-middle-class doctors, lawyers, and professors. My father’s from Ghana. Maryland is trying to get people out of tobacco farming and to diversify their revenue streams, and the Bowlings—being good American entrepreneurs—have seen a market. They’ve got a thriving market now selling African food to Africans. What is local in a multicultural society?

The University of Maryland Extension has done research on what African crops are wanted and will grow in Maryland. So all my work is trying to say there’s another way of looking at this. Let’s have multiple narratives emerge, and let’s make sense of those multiple narratives. The umbilicus idea….

KB: Yes, I was going to ask you about the umbilicus.

JA: This is actually the beginning of my next book coming out in April (The Immigrant-Food Nexus: Borders, Labor, and Identity in North America, The MIT Press, 2020). We start with a very powerful quote from one of our chapter authors who talks about this umbilical idea. Through recipes written on scraps of paper, you know? They’re both memories of the past and dreams of a future. I think they’re very powerful. It brings in the notion of translocalism, which is another point that I made, that a lot of immigrants don’t see their food as being something different. So the Filipinos in San Diego or the Chinese Canadian farmers in Vancouver don’t see their food as different. Chinese Canadians make up 20 percent of the farmers in the Greater Vancouver region. They grow a range of Chinese crops. They think their food is local food. Translocalism destabilizes this fixed notion of what is local. The “100-mile diet” and such. So that’s part of the way that you could look at this piece that you’re doing, this tension between belonging and becoming, and I’m the one who asks the awkward questions. Not in order to shame or embarrass, but just to say, look, we have had dominant narratives, and now the paradigm is shifting. We’re a different nation now, and we need to think differently.

Kofi Boone, ASLA, is a professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University in the College of Design and a member of the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s Board of Directors.

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