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Commentary: Green way to create jobs, save cities

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  • Majora Carter: Green projects are not a panacea and will need trial and error
  • She says green jobs can help economy and restore our neighborhoods
  • Carter: Greenery can reduce pollution and cut energy costs
  • She says a public electric grid can empower producers of alternative energy
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By Majora Carter
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Majora Carter founded a nonprofit environmental justice solutions organization to improve the economy and environment of the South Bronx in New York City (Sustainable South Bronx) and was named a 2006 MacArthur Foundation "genius" Fellow. She is president of The Majora Carter Group, LLC., hosts "The Promised Land" on radio and has been named one of Essence Magazine's 25 most influential African-Americans.

Majora Carter says green projects create good jobs and sustain neighborhoods.

Majora Carter says green projects create good jobs and sustain neighborhoods.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- In the midst of our economic and environmental crisis, I am grateful our new president embraces the potential of green ideas.

He faces challenges from two directions. Often, advocates forget to manage expectations about how the green economy will grow. In addition, those vested in the pollution-based economy desperately want "green" to fail. Both sides of the debate require equal attention.

An extreme example of the former was a journalist who recently asked me: "How are green jobs going to help crack addicts?" They aren't. Crack addicts need a different kind of help first.

Green jobs are not a panacea. Moreover, if they falter at all, green economic solutions are not likely to receive a similar level of support as do automakers or short-sighted bankers. Like any new industry, there will be some trial and error. The beauty of smart strategies that lean heavily on green is that even our mistakes result in lives changed for the better.

I know firsthand. I grew up in an ongoing economic and environmental crisis called the South Bronx, New York City. Joblessness and environmentally borne health problems keep people from realizing their potential and keep governments burdened with growing social welfare, public health, incarceration and infrastructure costs.

I moved back into my parents' home -- and to my old neighborhood -- in the late '90s to afford grad school. It felt like a defeat, but it was the best move of my life. A little distance and education gave me a fresh look at how we regulate.

During that time, our city and state governments attempted to concentrate more polluting facilities in poor sections of the city. We already handled far more than our share, and had less than one tree per acre.

I helped organize people and organizations to shift those policies toward positive green economic development, and in 2001, I formed Sustainable South Bronx, a nonprofit environmental justice solutions corporation.

The Bronx River was one of our first projects. We knew that river restoration could start at any scale and grow. But we also saw that the labor was being imported -- while we had 25 percent unemployment. We put a job training and placement system together that eventually included river bank and estuary stabilization, urban forestry, brownfield remediation and green-roof installation.

Many of our participants were formerly incarcerated, and all were on some form of financial assistance. This type of work is extremely therapeutic for people who have suffered the trauma of prison, poverty or combat. People who sometimes have a hard time participating in society do better when they work with living things and know that their work improves our collective society. And they got paid!

The Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training program, or BEST, maintained a job placement rate of more than 80 percent, with 10 percent of those going on to college. I am very happy to report that Mayor Michael Bloomberg is following our lead and has unveiled a tree planting and maintenance program modeled on our efforts, but with his access to funding.

Our cities are getting hotter, and storms have become more intense. Our air is dirty, and in some places -- often where it is dirtiest -- there are no trees. If we put plants of specific varieties on green roofs, along our streets, on exterior walls, throughout parking lots, everywhere, we will put a living machine to work, 24/7. This is horticultural infrastructure, and it's an important part of the solution because of three main benefits:

1. It cools cities, allowing them to use less energy when it's hot

2. It absorbs heavy rains, reducing the massive costs of pumping and treating runoff in our sewage systems

3. It cleans local air -- resulting in less asthma -- while sequestering some of the carbon dioxide.

It turns out that these are all climate-driven employment areas, too -- trends that will grow in demand as climates change because our urban plant life will have greater demands placed on it.

This is important because most green jobs will be easily filled by skilled workers who are not on traditional construction projects anymore. We need to develop new labor markets in areas that don't quite exist yet to absorb both the people and the change in climate.

On the energy production side, we can learn lessons from a past success: the Internet.

The Department of Defense built a decentralized method of transferring information as electrons. This "decentralized electron distribution," or Internet, allows a homemaker selling goods, a pastor preaching a sermon or a doctor diagnosing an illness to connect where they are needed.

That's how we should distribute electricity.

It's always sunny or windy somewhere. We can generate clean, renewable electricity (often in low-demand regions) and get it to where it's needed by building a national smart grid to distribute clean power -- like a high-voltage Internet. This will enable any energy producer, large or small, to sell power to anyone. In this arena, clean power can outcompete dirty energy. Smart grids can happen at the building level and scale up to global, just as the Internet did.

Tax breaks for alternative power are good, short term, but remember: Once the Internet was up, eBay didn't need a tax break to start exploring the wealth of information and productivity out there. A woman selling goods from a trailer home in Georgia could sell to the world, so she did. I want to give her the opportunity to put up solar panels and wind turbines and sell clean power to the world with the same ease. How are you celebrating?

That can happen only if the distribution system -- the national smart grid -- is not privately owned. A level playing field for all electricity producers can truly tap the power of the free market. We currently have a patchwork of regional fiefdoms that exclude innovation.

Once we stop concentrating dirty, legacy power sources in poor communities, our public health costs will drop and the quality of life for millions will improve. Priceless. As we continue to think greener and smarter, we'll see new possibilities, like the long-term power-generating potential of an intact Appalachian mountaintop with wind turbines vs. chopping it to pieces for a few years' worth of burnable coal and centuries of environmental devastation.

Integrated horticultural infrastructure and a national smart grid have three important things in common: They can begin to have positive effects at a small level and expand to large scale, they are long term, and they produce jobs with money that circulates within our economy. We need those kinds of jobs, first. We need those kinds of jobs yesterday.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Majora Carter.

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