Growing up in the south Bronx, says Majora Carter, "it didn't occur to me that what I had here was an environment." Her neighborhood was surrounded by waste treatment plants, garbage dumps and power stations, and she glimpsed nature only when visiting the blueberry patch in her aunt's backyard in New Jersey. Since then, Carter, 40, has been making up for lost time. An artist and urban planner, she created Sustainable South Bronx (SSBX), an organization dedicated to the idea, says Carter, that "poor communities of color are just as deserving of clean air, clean water and open space as wealthier ones."
For Carter, that has meant rallying residents to oppose even more dumping and waste treatment, while bringing nature to urban neighborhoods. Carter helped design the "green roof" above her headquarters and has started a "green collar" job-training program for South Bronx residents to install similar roof gardens, consisting of a thin layer of soil and dense vegetation, on other buildings. Green roofs generate oxygen and insulate buildings, which cuts energy use. They also absorb rainwater, reducing the amount of runoff that city sewage plants must process. Carter recently obtained a grant to design a factory that would transform recycled materials into new products, and create some 300 to 500 local jobs.
For her pioneering work, Carter received a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," which she has used to expand the work of SSBX. Among other projects, Carter has been talking to Google.org, the search company's philanthropic arm, about ways to take the fight against climate change to poor communities. In the South Bronx, diesel trucks pass through 60,000 times each week hauling waste. "People here aren't going to install solar panels on their roofs or drive a Prius, but they can demand institutional change and decent business practices." SSBX and other environmental justice organizations recently forced the operators of a local sewage treatment plant to mitigate the gut-wrenching odors in the area.
Carter's pride and joy is the South Bronx Greenway, a tree-lined pedestrian and bicycle path that connects residential neighborhoods to the Bronx River waterfront. Carter discovered the way to the water one day when her dog Xena led her through a garbage-filled vacant lot. Inspired by the possibility of open space, she helped raise more than $30 million in public and private funds to build the greenway and transform the lot into a park and playground. One day last October, Carter and her fiancé, James Chase, exchanged wedding vows there--with a perfect river view.