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Greening the urban frontier: Race, property, and resettlement in Detroit

August 2014

Sara Safransky


In this journal article, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Professor Sara Safransky details the negative consequences of neoliberal environmentalism in Detroit. Although the Detroit Future City (DFC) plan was heralded as a great victory for sustainability (as were similar plans in other post-industrial US cities), it failed to take into account that 90,000 people lived in the neighborhoods it deemed “empty” “frontiers.” Safransky argues that this word choice is intentional, connoting the white settlers of the old American West, whose disrespect for indigenous claims to land led to genocide. In Detroit in the 21st Century, Safransky sees a type of neo-frontierism, a nefarious means to achieve the positive end of Green and Blue neighborhoods. Although a sustainable environment and energy system are desirous, she argues, displacing poor people of color to achieve these ends just leads to an exacerbation of society’s ills rather than an alleviation of them.

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Policy Implications

Safransky’s findings are an absolute rejection of neoliberal environmentalism. In a nutshell, she sees the ways that striving for a clean environment alone only helps the people with the money and political resources to determine where things will be built, who will be displaced, and who will receive the necessary education and training to take the sustainable energy jobs of the future. Consequently, Safransky’s policies seem to support a Green New Deal for post-industrial cities like Detroit. Going beyond diagnosing the problem of climate change (which is as far as neoliberal plans go), the second half of the Green New Deal is a series of promises to working and marginalized people like social democratic guarantees to healthcare, job training, education, and work that ensure they keep their dignity in the great upheaval brought on by Green energy. The Green New Deal, along with its sister Act the Green New Deal for Public Housing, gives everyday people the economic tools they need to protect their land from state and capitalist attempts to accumulate property through dispossession.

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