This essay examines the intersection of environmental justice activism and state-sponsored sustainable urban development—how is environmental justice activism enabled or disabled in the context of rapid urban development, consensual politics and the seemingly a-political language of sustainability? Drawing on ethnographic research conducted in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, I define a process I refer to as “environmental gentrification,” which builds on the material and discursive successes of the environmental justice movement and appropriates them to serve high-end development. While it appears as politically-neutral, consensus-based planning that is both ecologically and socially sensitive, in practice, environmental gentrification subordinates equity to profit-minded development. I propose that this process offers a new way of exploring the paradoxes and conundrums facing contemporary urban residents as they fight to challenge the vast economic and ecological disparities that increasingly divide today's cities.
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