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Restoring a River to Reclaim a City?: The Politics of Urban Sustainability and Environmental Justice in the Los Angeles River Watershed


This dissertation examines the intersection of urban sustainability and environmental justice (EJ) in Los Angeles, California. ‘Urban sustainability’, the idea that incorporating sustainable measures into urban development plans/strategies can ameliorate ecological degradation and social inequality without compromising economic growth, has recently emerged as a powerful discourse with regards to city planning and environmental governance. In this dissertation, I critically interrogate urban sustainability’s claims, questioning how equitable socio-spatial configurations can be created through modes of urban governance, which despite its optimistic rhetoric, are still driven by the logic of capitalist economic development and overseen by the racial state. To investigate the ways in which environmental justice, then, is facilitated and/or constrained under the programmatic realization of urban sustainability, I focus on one particular sustainability project in Los Angeles—the restoration/revitalization of the Los Angeles River Watershed. Restoring the L.A. River is an ambitious undertaking by a diverse consortium of state and NGO actors, and consists of an agenda that goes beyond any single urban environmental issue; it has emerged as a symbol of a ‘cleaner, greener’ Los Angeles. In order to examine this sustainability initiative, I conducted a critical ethnography that consisted of two years of fieldwork in Los Angeles.

Based on this research, I present several arguments throughout this dissertation. I trace the history of the environmental movement to restore the Los Angeles River and sustainably manage its watershed; in doing so, I identify the counter-hegemonic narratives and objectives embedded within this political activism. These activist efforts, I argue, which seek to disrupt the dominant urban land-water management regime in metropolitan Los Angeles, enable the environmental agenda of river restoration to articulate with local environmental justice efforts centered on equitable distribution of greenspace, public health considerations in urban planning, and youth/community development. Despite these achievements, the current plan to restore the Los Angeles River embodies principles of ecological modernization, which rely upon dominant political-economic processes and ultimately stymie a more substantive engagement with the politics of environmental justice. The contradictions of relying upon urban processes—those dictated by capitalist land markets and entrepreneurial forms of governance—that produce environmental injustices, in order to implement sustainability programs that purport to undo those injustices, reveal the inability of this particular urban sustainability project to advance environmental justice. These contradictions reproduce inequalities, which are already observed in the environmental gentrification unfolding in certain riverside neighborhoods. These historically divested neighborhoods are heralded as new sites of urban greening, but often are left unprotected from real estate speculation and housing markets that threaten to displace lower-income residents.

Another major argument of my dissertation is that limited conceptualizations of environmental justice prevent even well-meaning state and NGO actors from effectively promoting more equitable environmental conditions for communities. Many actors involved in the environmental projects centered on L.A. River restoration operate from a narrowly-conceived distributive model of justice. Focusing solely on distributions of environmental burdens and benefits throughout a geographic area, I argue, not only falls into the trap of handling urban places as static and bounded, but also precludes meaningful engagement with other aspects of environmental justice politics. In particular, promoting EJ requires understanding how place-based identity formation, histories of structural racism and cultural marginalization, and access to participatory mechanisms differentially impact afflicted communities. I present the case studies of two neighborhoods (Pacoima and Elysian Valley) and two coalitions (the Chinatown Yard Alliance and Alianza de los Pueblos del Rio) to demonstrate how struggles for environmental justice in Los Angeles involve a politics of place, race, and identity. Through these cases, I conclude that urban sustainability agendas that actually advance environmental justice, then, must move beyond distributive myopia to recognize the underlying socio-spatial processes that create inequitable and unjust places.

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