edens.jpg
by Harry Wiland and Dale Bell, with Joseph D’Agnese
(Chelsea Green Publishing, 2006)

Edens Lost and Found is the companion book to a four-part PBS mini-series of the same name. Both look at four U.S. cities — Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Seattle — to survey some of the ways people are re-creating their urban environments.

We don’t need to wait for politicians to make cities sustainable, authors Harry Wiland and Dale Bell urge. Ordinary folks are already doing the work.

In L.A., Tree People founder Andy Lipkis, who is neither a scientist nor an engineer, convinced city officials to re-consider their long-failing storm-drainage systems and begin to replace them with a system that would not only prevent flooding but also capture rainwater to replenish reservoirs, improve air quality, reduce green waste, and cool the city. In Philadelphia, artist Lily Yeh has turned a tiny garden that started in an abandoned lot into a thriving community arts center. Edens features these and other stories along with compelling, large-format color photos.

Easy-to-read sidebars offer practical tips for a variety of projects: how to green a roof, design a nature trail, turn your backyard into an efficient part of your city’s watershed. Throughout, the explanations of the science of sustainability are accessible and engaging.

But the vision and utility of Edens Lost and Found is limited by its failure to connect environmental and social/economic-justice work.

The authors repeatedly point out that planting trees raises property values and offer a sidebar on how to “green” that “old row house” you’ve “snap[ped] up” in a neighborhood that has “become desirable again.” While rapid-fire gentrification in most U.S. cities is displacing entire communities, tenants are likely to feel fear or anger, not a sense of the “positive,” when they hear about rising property values in or the “new” desirability of their neighborhood.

In another section, Philadelphia neighbors “reclaim” a park from what they call “the element” – “prostitutes and pushers.” While the space they have created, lush with flowers and trees, sounds beautiful, the notion of “cleaning up” a neighborhood by displacing some of the most marginalized people within it does not. Because this process is described uncritically in a book that also includes several mentions of residents working closely with police to improve their neighborhoods, the allegiance of the authors to dominant, and oppressive, systems seems clear.

Two of the four chapters open with descriptions of what European colonizers must have seen when they stumbled upon the sites of these modern-day cities, as if that moment of “discovery” can best reveal the original, uncorrupted state of these lands. Perhaps the point was to emphasize the damage wrought by those colonizers and their descendants, but the perspective we’re given to identify with is theirs. An extended section praising the vision of William Penn for “his ‘holy experiment’” in Pennsylvania only emphasizes a troubling tendency of the authors to call for a “safe” (to privileged folks, that is) kind of environmentalism that leaves various oppressive systems, which are decidedly unsafe for oppressed people, unchallenged.

For all its helpful tips and inspiring stories, Edens Lost and Found fails to make the leap from mainstream environmentalism to environmental justice. The roots of environmental degradation and social and economic exploitation are connected, and need to be addressed as such. And that requires incorporating the voices and visions of the most marginalized people in each community, not pushing them out (or locking them up or forcing them to scramble for affordable housing in another, not-yet-tree-lined neighborhood) like so much toss-able waste.

Reviewed by Jessica Hoffmann. This review is adapted from a longer essay that appeared in Social Policy.