Find Your Sustain Ability: Majora Carter "The Prophet of Local"

Whether she's turning a landfill into an award-winning 3 million-dollar park, or transforming a neglected streetscape into a picturesque, Parisian-cafe inspired greenspace, Majora Carter's vision and drive for sustainable, local living is potent and compelling.


  • Lee Ball: Here with me today is Majora Carter. Majora is an American, urban revitalization strategist and green real estate developer. Majora Carter is probably the only person to receive an award from John Podesta's Center for American Progress, and a Liberty Medal for lifetime achievement from Rupert Murdoch's New York Post. Fast Company named her one of the 100 most creative people in business. The New York Times described her as the "Green Power Broker." The Ashoka foundation's recently dubbed her the "Prophet of Local." Thank you Majora for taking the time to be with us today.

    Majora Carter: Thank you. I'm so happy to be here, and yes, this is the amazing podcast studio I think I've ever been in.

    Lee Ball: Let's just launch right into it. I've really enjoyed listen to your comments and getting to know you a little bit this afternoon. I'd love to hear about your story a little more, how you came to value sustainability, value the environment, and people.

    Majora Carter: I think to start that story, I mean, it really does go back to how I grew up and the kind of neighborhood that I grew up in, which is a very low status community, urban community, in the South Bronx in New York City, which was still to this day is often known as a poster child for urban blight. Very poor community of color, we call it "low status," because there's just been issues around its social, environmental, and economic development. It's never really I think come into its own, at least not for the past 70 years or so.

    Our work really has been about how do you show that you don't have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one. My early work really focused specifically on more of the environmental project based programs, whether they were working to transform dumps into parks, or create greenways around heavily trafficked streets, and also doing green job training and placement systems, and has since moved into real estate development. Because I realized that how communities are planned and developed is really what creates a community that people either feel connected to and place some value in not just because they own a piece of property, because they see that community itself as something that has value, that makes them feel good about being in it. In low status communities, that's often absolutely not what people that are born and raised there tend to feel about the place.

    Lee Ball: So was there, when you were a little girl, was there a place that was natural? Some woods, or the river, a place that you just remember going to and spending time?

    Majora Carter: I had the benefit of my parents actually taking me out of the neighborhood in order to experience nature. My parents were from the South and even when they moved up, like I had an aunt who had a blueberry farm in New Jersey, and it actually sold more blueberries than I think any other farm did at the time. When I was a little girl, or we had relatives that lived in Connecticut and they had land around their house, so I saw that but within my own community, with it being what was considered an urban ghetto, there wasn't anything like that.

    I knew that it existed, but it never occurred to me that there was anything like that there. As a matter of fact, I knew that there was a river right by my house called the Bronx River, and I only knew that because I saw it on a subway map, like literally the name of it. But it was the place where industry was, where prostitutes were, and that's where truckers would go to find them there, and so if anything, my idea of the urban environment was that it was a scary place to be. Just by the nature of it being located in urban area, it wasn't worth speaking about at all.

    Lee Ball: Right. I'm fascinated to ... I'm curious how people develop a sustainability ethic, and my experience, my childhood was kind of the opposite of yours. I spent a lot of time in nature, in a relatively small city with your classic kind of suburban neighborhoods, but a lot of wooded areas and wooded lots and ponds and creeks, and the ocean not too far by. I attribute my sense of having a strong sustainability ethic to maybe having a lot of logged hours in that space. So it's fascinating to me that you still ended up with a strong sustainability ethic, but it was maybe because of what you've witnessed, maybe culturally and with the environmental kind of injustice all around you.

    Majora Carter: Yeah, and again my idea of nature was also heavily influenced by gosh, what was it called? Mutual of Omaha's "Wild America."

    Lee Ball: Yeah, "Wild Kingdom."

    Majora Carter: "Wild Kingdom!" Oh, my gosh. Like, we watched that-

    Majora Carter: ... as a family.

    Lee Ball: (singing). Mutual of Omaha

    Majora Carter: Oh, my gosh. I can't believe you remember that, too. All the nature shows, like oh, my gosh, but again, this was not my reality. Of course, that couldn't happen in a place like the South Bronx in New York City, or any urban area like that. But what was interesting, I think my sustainability ethic really came from discovering that all communities were not treated the same, because I was taught like many kids that come from communities like that to measure success by how far we get away from those places.

    Like, especially if you're a smart kid who's identified early as being a bright one, you're expected to leave. You're encouraged to leave and go to college, and never return, and people will talk about you because you got out of the neighborhood and isn't that great? I was one of them who's like, "Sure, I'm happy to do that. I really want to." It's like, "I'm a little tired of seeing my buildings in the neighborhood burned down. I'm tired of seeing people that I know and love be killed or be a part of the criminal justice system, and having our neighborhood be thought of as just the epicenter of all the things that are bad about America." I was like, "Yeah, I'm out. I'm totally out."

    But it was only when years later and it's true, I didn't come back out of any particularly altruistic reasons at all. I started graduate school and needed a cheap place to stay and that was my parents house. Then, discovered that my city and state were planning on building yet another huge waste facility that was going to bring about another third of the city's waste infrastructure to our community, and a particularly egregious kind that really would have had even more of an impact on the quality of life and health of the people that lived in the community.

    There was a moment when I was just like, "Good God, I can just finish getting my degree and get out, take my cheap rent and as it is, and move on as soon as I can, or I can stay and be a part of the solution." That's what I wanted to do, but I wanted to do it in a way that wasn't all about just fighting against stuff, because believe me, there are plenty of people that do that. I'm not saying that there aren't some things that need to be fought, because we do, but there was the other piece around how do you create more opportunities to actually build? So, what are we actually not just fighting against, what are we fighting for?

    That's when most of my early projects came to be around, that you took a place that had been dumped on, on the Bronx River, for decades and that I only discovered because there was a US Forest Program that was literally giving tiny little seed grants to community groups that were working around threatened or underserved urban rivers. I got one of those little grants and was able to leverage that, gosh, about 300 times over, into this beautiful three million dollar park, that's winning national awards and I'll speak for its excellence in urban design.

    But now, it's only been there for coming up on 11 years this year, and it's like it's always been there, when actually no, it was a dump 12 years ago, literally. I'm so happy about those type of things, but my real focus now is in real estate development because I realize how all communities are dictated by the way real estate is developed in them. You can determine how it's going to either flourish in one way or another. Are they going to be the kind of economic developments that provide health and economic vitality to a community? Or, is it just going to extract the talent that's in there? We think about how do you create a community even looking at it as your own company?

    Companies retain talent, good ones know that part of their strategy for staying relevant and supporting their own bottom line is by keeping the talent to help make sure that happens. What we thought when we think about communities that way, part of what we do is we have to retain the talent that's actually born and raised there, and so instead of essentially encouraging the people in those communities that are going to grow up and "be somebody," and have them do it some place else, we want to give them reasons to stay in their own communities. We realized through our own series of data collection tools, that folks were leaving because of mostly lifestyle related situations, and whether it was a good place to get a good cup of coffee, or have a dinner, or buy a book, or have a drink with a friend, or just buy decent groceries.

    Those type of things were lacking in our communities, and so people weren't leaving because the crime rate was bad, because it's been going down like every single year since the '90s actually, and people often ... Parks are there now, and people's families are there, and there is a community there. They're leaving because they don't have those other type of things that they have grown accustomed to, because they did all the right things. They got an education, they got a job, and if they want to set down roots in place that's actually going to inspire them. What we're trying to do is build that kind of community so that they want to stay, first and foremost.

    We do want to attract other folks there, because we think diversity is really important and we realize that economic diversity is also incredibly important, as well, as is racial diversity, and having them all in the same place, actually I think helps make a much more stable community from all concerned.

    Lee Ball: You talked about how you love data earlier today, and you just made me wonder if you had explored a community like you started with and then compared to a community that you have now. I thought of it because I read an article about a street design change, so your classic street with strip malls and no bike lanes, and then compared to a smart growth, new urbanism situation with greenways and bicycle lanes and mixed use residences, and opportunities for coffee, opportunities for taking your dry cleaning right down the road. You increase those personal connections with people because you're walking around and you meet all these people and you make friends, and you're more resilient, and so on and so forth.

    Majora Carter: Yeah. I was actually really moved by, similarly, a study or an article I read about after the heatwave in Chicago. It was a number of years ago, but what I found most interesting was there was this study about these two neighborhoods that existed side by side, and they were both equally poor communities. One of the neighborhoods actually had these rather informal social spaces and the other did not, and so the mortality rate in the community that did not have any kind of social space so that people could actually see, if so and so didn't show up and they normally do. Whether it was to like a little green market where they would buy their native fruits and vegetables, they didn't show up today, so people would know.

    It's like, "Oh, I haven't seen Miss So and So, we need to go check on her," so in that community where they didn't have those spaces, the mortality rate was extremely high. Yet, in the other one, it was not so high at all.

    Lee Ball: Wow.

    Majora Carter: The initial data lumped them together to say, "Well ah, it wasn't that bad," at least the mortality rate because they just fudged them together. But when they looked at them separately, they realized they were very low fatalities in the other one from heat related deaths. The only thing that was different that the study showed was that there were those social spaces. There was a sense of social cohesion there, and even though it was a very poor neighborhood, people knew to look out for each other. That, again, it was informally designed, and maybe some of these social spaces might have been technically illegal because they were like fruit stands where they shouldn't have been there, but who cares? It saved some lives when it came right down to it.

    So as far as our own work, we've absolutely seen that level of building a space that's social which is a coffee shop, like one little coffee shop that's very attractive, and that folks like to be seen in because it's so pretty, and we knew that they, because they told us through the data that we collected, these are the type of places that they would go to when they leave the neighborhood. So we were like, "We need to build one of these things in our own neighborhood," and collect their dollars so that it stays in the community and it's actually hiring somebody from this community.

    But it also becomes this third space that's neither work nor home, and just provides people with a sense to get together. Whether it's economic developments and certainly the streetscape that we've built. Actually, we've added to our own streetscape by actually putting benches in front of the coffee shop, like going down a portion of the street, and little coffee shop tables in front of them as well, so there's this Parisian café type feel which people love, again, to be seen at. Then, there's a greenway that goes down the middle of the street.

    So it is actually an incredibly attractive spot, creating those kind of places that allow folks to feel that way. That is what we're doing, and we're doing it because this stuff, if i have anything to do with it, it'll absolutely outlive me but really setting the stage for it to happen. That's the important piece that's really why I get up in the morning.

    Lee Ball: Nice. You create parks and natural areas that you didn't have, and so a little boys and girls might have a different experience growing up in the South Bronx.

    Majora Carter: Absolutely. They have that experience and it's funny going down there to the park that the people that know me will call it Majora's Park. Everybody else calls it Hunts Point Riverside Park, and it's true. Whether or not people have any idea that I had anything to do with it, especially younger people. They just think that it's been there forever. It's just like, "No, baby" but it's good that they think it's there, because they'll also feel like it's theirs to protect. We've had instances where that has been pressed and like one of my favorite stories is and I was ... This was when the park was probably about six years old, and ... No, four. It was four.

    I remember I was actually doing a consulting gig so I was nowhere, I was actually on the other coast, and I saw it, but someone sent me a link to a news report that the park had been vandalized, and it was clearly by one person that just you know like spray painted really not particularly attractive graffiti on it. I remember feeling, I'm 3000 miles away and I'm just like, "What am I going to do?" And I couldn't, I was with a client, I had other stuff to do, and so I couldn't get on the phone and call the commissioner, do anything, or stuff like that. Or I could have but I was just like, "Majora, that's not your job right now."

    But by the time I got home three days later, any trace of vandalism was gone. Because the next news story that I saw were people literally saying, "You've got to be kidding. How could somebody come here and do this to our park? Like, this is unacceptable." And because there was such a groundswell of people claiming it as their own, the city literally got rid of every ... I mean, it was much more extensive damage than any one group could handle, but by the time I got home, it was as if it had never happened.

    Lee Ball: Well, that's beautiful.

    Majora Carter: Yeah. I was like, "I had nothing to do with it." I'm like, "You know what? I've done my piece and just passed the ball on" and that makes me super happy.

    Lee Ball: That's community.

    Majora Carter: Yes, precisely.

    Lee Ball: I have to ask you, you remembered Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom." Do you remember the Native American with the tear in the litter commercial?

    Majora Carter: Yeah, of course I do. Oh, my gosh, I lived for it during School House Rock and all the Saturday morning commercials. You kidding?

    Lee Ball: Yeah. I mean, that had such an impact on me, and have you looked at it recently? I don't even think he was a Native American. It's really hard to watch.

    Majora Carter: It was this really nice I think he was a Jewish guy, might have been from the Bronx if I remember correctly. Yeah, no, he was definitely-

    Lee Ball: It might have been the Bronx River.

    Majora Carter: It was very funny. It was really funny, but he played that part well. It was good.

    Lee Ball: Yeah. Okay, I'm going to ask one more question. What's giving you hope these days?

    Majora Carter: What's giving me hope is the perseverance and resilience of folks to continuously be innovative, even though I think there are many out there who think that the world is falling apart, and they're still just doing the work, and really not being afraid of what could happen but really trying to create hope and possibility in their own work. That's what makes me happy. I mean, the work that we've been able to do I think just gets sweeter because I know that I'm responding to the well stated hopes and aspirations and needs of folks who have told me the kind of things that would help make their lives better, and their communities more livable.

    I feel like my job really is to put meat on those bones. That's what I do as an urban revitalization strategist, as a real estate developer, and I feel like I've been really blessed and privileged to be in a position to continue that kind of work.

    Lee Ball: Nice. Well Majora Carter, it's been a treat talking to you. Thank you so much for coming to Appalachian State and we hope to have you back sometime.

    Majora Carter: Thank you. I'd love to be back.