Call to action: Public hearings on land use
This is the latest in a series of columns discussing the Environmental Justice Principles drafted and adopted by delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held Oct. 24-27, 1991.
This week, Communicating Justice looks to EJ principle #16: “Environmental Justice calls for the education of present and future generations which emphasizes social and environmental issues, based on our experience and an appreciation of our diverse cultural perspectives.”
As Detroit City Council members and the Detroiters they represent consider the impact of selling off large portions of public-owned lands and assets we are called to directly engage this particular principle. While the proposed sale of over 1,900 public-owned lots to Hantz Woodlands naturally brings our attention to the lower eastside of Detroit, it becomes important for Detroiters citywide to share what we know with one another, think critically, reflect, ask questions and listen to others in our community from a place of respect for the many and diverse perspectives present in our city.
Last week, City Council called for a public hearing on Hantz Woodlands to be held before the proposal returns to the council chamber at a special session on Dec. 11. A time has not yet been set. Keeping our EJ principle in mind, a public hearing like the one proposed can be seen as a space of community education, what many call a learning circle, where neighbors, by expressing their personal concerns from their diverse cultural perspectives, can learn from each other.
While it is important that we recognize the wisdom of Council in demanding a public hearing, some of their deliberation was disconcerting and I’m personally concerned about the City Planning Commission’s ability, within this short time-span, to effectively announce and facilitate a hearing that will be well-attended by Detroiters who are directly impacted. As of the publication of this article, the date and location of this hearing has not been announced.
My concern is extended due to the fact that, on top of this hearing, the City Planning Commission is already tasked with facilitating a public hearing on the important and adjacent, yet separate, issue of the proposed Urban Agriculture Ordinance on Dec. 6, 5:45 p.m., also on the 13th floor of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center.
I do not doubt the CPC’s intent or ability to host a well-announced public hearing that properly engages folk directly impacted, but with their existing workload and the importance of these two issues there is concern that they can achieve the level of community engagement that Council is seeking and that many Detroiters are demanding.
During City Council’s’ discussion on the public hearing, many Council members expressed a concern over making sure they hear from Detroiters from the lower east side. While I support this, what I found disconcerting was the attempt to draw a line between those who live within the Hantz Woodlands “footprint” and those who live outside of it.
There exists deep and valid concern over how the global resource extraction tactic called scarcity will play out for those in and around the footprint, but we should not fall into the historically tried and true trap of isolating this issue to Mr. Hantz. This deal, which has been fast-tracked without any accountability by the mayor’s office and blatantly spun and morphed by Hantz, could set a precedent for the way that the city sells off assets in the future.
While it is vital that community members’ questions are answered and that we heed the visions of the people who could be living in between Hantz’ tree farms, it is important that we also recognize and address this as a citywide issue and strive to co-create a space for all Detroiters to be heard. I posit that if we listen closely, and from a space of deep respect, we can experience these public hearings and those in the future as spaces to share with and learn from one another. Please look for and share the forthcoming public hearing announcement from the CPC and, if you tweet, look to #HantzOff, #LandGrab and #DetroitFuture for updates.
Gregg Newsom serves as the communications coordinator for the Detroit Food Justice Task Force (detroitfoodjustice.com), People’s Kitchen Detroit (peopleskitchendetroit.org) and other grassroots organizations.