Chapter Summaries

chapter-by-chapter SUMMARY of  

The Earth, the City and the Hidden Narrative of Race:

Discovering New Foundations for the Great Work of Our Time

By Carl C. Anthony


I intend this book to provide resources to help activists, educators, members of vulnerable communities, and the next generation of environmental justice leaders, address the interrelated challenges of

Protecting and restoring our planetary life support system in the face of climate change;

Ending racial inequities that have existed in our society for the past 500 years;

Creating viable metropolitan regions.

We need to reevaluate how we live in cities and take advantage of new opportunities to increase equity and transform the legacy of racism in the United States.

My goal is to synthesize three key ideas: the Earth — which represents the forces of nature and our global belonging to a single species; the City — a human project in which we as people of different backgrounds, experiences, and history might collaborate to bring beauty into the world; and a largely invisible story about Race that is both tragic and hopeful.

How can we integrate the design of our metropolitan regions and the pursuit of social and racial justice with the need to respect the earth? As a professional urban planner, it has been my job to relate these larger concerns about humanity’s impacts to the ways that we plan, design, and build our cities. Weaving together narratives from deep time, the historic record, and personal experiences, this book makes the case for eliminating racial distortions and bias within a new story of humanity’s place in the universe.


In July of 1963 my brother, Lewie, took a caravan of 50 youth from the Harlem Education Project and their chaperones to Acadia National Park in Maine to experience a total solar eclipse. Hearing reports about the awesome event, I regretted my decision to stay at my desk to catch up on work. I had developed a love of nature, especially of stars and trees, from the science projects assigned by my third-grade teacher. When, as an adult, I encountered the writings of Catholic priest and cultural historian Thomas Berry, I flashed back to my third-grade experiences, and my feelings of gratitude, wonder, and curiosity revived.

Reading, in 1992, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos, Berry’s collaboration with astrophysicist and cosmologist Brian Swimme, I recognized a new story that could serve African Americans — along with everyone else. Recognizing our origin in the birth of the universe, its galaxies, stars, and our solar system, we can place ourselves within the grand saga of an evolving Earth. The formation of oceans and mountains, the emergence of the first living cell, the appearance of plants and animals, the appearance of humans in Africa, and waves of migration to other parts of the world are all elements in this great narrative of our heritage. Thomas Berry called upon us to engage in what he called the Great Work of our time — to protect and repair the life support system of the planet in the 21st century. Clearly this will test our capacity for resilience and spiritual transformation in new ways.



Born in 1939, I grew up in Philadelphia, which was coming into its own as a model of urbanism. On a field trip in the third grade, our class, along with 400,000 other school children, visited the Better Philadelphia Exhibition, which presented a vision of what the city could be in twenty-five years. It incorporated drawings, aerial photos of the city, motion pictures, even a fullscale mock-up of a street corner in South Philly complete with an overflowing garbage can. Excited by the displays I decided on the spot that I wanted to be an architect and city planner.

Unfortunately, the city went into a sharp decline, losing jobs and population and becoming increasingly segregated. I struggled to understand the deterioration of our neighborhood and the flight of white families to the suburbs. Upon entering high school, Lewie and I scored high on placement tests, but our father insisted that we attend vocational school to learn handyman skills. That was the only work he could get despite being highly educated. Alienated and resentful, I dropped out of high school and left home at age 17. A train trip to visit my father’s uncle in Oklahoma gave me my first exposure to the segregated South. For the next few years I lived with aunts and uncles, worked, and saved money.


I completed my high school education at Temple University High School, graduated as valedictorian, and entered Columbia University at age 21. In the intervening years I was fortunate to encounter remarkable mentorship. In the inner-city neighborhood where I worked, I encountered landscape architect Karl Linn and his University of Pennsylvania graduate students, who observed and spoke with neighborhood residents and eventually helped them design and construct what Karl called a neighborhood commons — a combination playground, picnic area, and outdoor theater. He invited me to accompany him on long walks, pointing out creative adaptations and uses of space and teaching me to recognize potential building materials in the rubble left after houses were demolished for urban renewal. He introduced me to the phenomenon of a community design studio that provided design services to disenfranchised communities while exposing students to real-world problems. Karl suggested books for me to read and introduced me to artists, writers, and creative professionals.

When a part-time job had me shelving books at the Presbyterian Historical Society’s Witherspoon Library in downtown Philadelphia, I came across The Condition of Man by architectural historian and critic Lewis Mumford. I couldn’t put the book down and decided to read everything he had written. His writings provoked many questions and deepened my understanding of architecture and the role of humans in creating the world we live in. I wrote to thank him for his work and ask for his advice on how I should be developing my career. I was surprised when he wrote back. We exchanged letters several times and spoke on the phone once. I was most deeply engaged by his book The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. I wanted to write a book like one of his but about black people.

James Baldwin was a great role model for me. I was impressed by his willingness to be critical of himself, African Americans, and American culture, all in equal measure. I resonated deeply with his writings about identity, the sense of being neither African nor American. We exchanged a few letters and later in life I hosted him for a month when he was a visiting scholar in the African American Studies Department at the University of California at Berkeley.


During the 1960s, I received an education as an architect at Columbia University. At the same time, I received a much different kind of learning from the city itself through my work in the civil rights movement, the Harlem Education Project, and the design and construction of the Harlem Neighborhood Commons. I frequented Lewis Michaux’s African National Memorial Bookstore — a hotbed of information regarding all things African and African American. Books by British journalist Basil Davidson and others filled in the enormous gaps in my awareness of African history.

I became friends with Jean Doak, a young white college student with a commitment to civil rights; and we formed a relationship.


I thrived in the atmosphere of project-based learning. I was delighted to learn from world-famous architect Aldo van Eyck, a visiting lecturer, about the Dogon people in Mali and their amazingly designed dwellings. My first year design studio with architect Peter Pragnell was a powerful and positive experience. He recommended me for a summer job with a firm in London, and I travelled around Europe to observe great works of architecture and art.

I participated in several experimental professional projects that deepened my understanding of the role building design can play in meeting people’s needs. I used some of the money earned for Jean and I to travel to Cuba with a group of architects and planners. Later we went to Turkey for a three-month archeological dig.

I used my projects at Columbia to support my commitment to advancing civil rights, and I worked hard to recruit students of color to Columbia’s School of Architecture. Still it was difficult to bridge the gap between my values and the status quo in the field of architecture.


Jean and I spent close to a year studying and documenting building traditions in West Africa, using a grant awarded to all graduates of Columbia’s architecture school — to enrich students’ education through travel.Ó In January of 1970 we flew to Germany where we purchased and equipped a VW van and drove to Paris, France, where we studied maps and other documents in the Musée de l’Homme. Our journey took us to pre-14th century Moorish cities in Spain and North Africa and, with the van on board, on a freighter to the port city of Dakar in Senegal. From there we drove through sub-Saharan Africa crossing eight nations and experiencing rainforest, savannah, desert, and ancient and contemporary building. We connected with the ancient past when visiting cities of the middle Niger River, particularly Timbuktu and Djenné, and experienced the timeless quality of a Dogon village in the Bandiagara Escarpment.

We were deeply impressed by the community participation in building that we witnessed. We gained many insights about African architecture and human settlements. Everywhere we went, building materials were locally sourced and construction techniques were adapted to the ecology of the region. On the other hand I was deeply troubled by the slave-trading fortresses, called “castles,” that dotted Africa’s west coast. While in the dungeon of Elmina Castle, I decided that I needed to understand how Africans had become Americans, and I determined to visit and write about the old plantations of the American South.


In the process of searching for my roots, I gradually uncovered and began to piece together a previously hidden narrative about ancient African civilizations, traditional African villages, the slave trade, and the growth of coastal mercantile cities. Profits from the trans-Atlantic slave trade caused these cities to flourish, which shaped the modern world. I went on to research the architecture of the plantations and the slave quarters. It became clear to me that the enslavement, transportation, and forced labor of Africans made possible the building of wealth in America. The story of African slavery is an essential part of American history but is rarely told in the manner it deserves.

Gradually I came to view the plantation as a precursor to industrialization. It served as a kind of open-air factory that consumed people and lay to waste the natural environment. African captives brought strategies of climatic adaptation that were developed in rain-forested tropics, designs for compounds that accommodate extended-family living, and methods of building with mud and thatch. In the early years of importing captured Africans, slaves had to build their own living quarters, which in layout and construction were similar to the villages they had inhabited in Africa, always using locally available materials.


Soon after our return from Africa, Jean and I moved to California where we found a supportive social community. I was fortunate to work with some of the most creative and innovative practitioners of architecture and planning. My mother came to live with us; and Jean gave birth to our son, Kahlil. I began teaching at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design and continued researching the history of African Americans and the built environment.

In 1976, I published a two-part essay in the bicentennial issue of Landscape Magazine, “The Big House and the Slave Quarter: Prologue to New World Architecture” and “African Contributions to the New World.” My purpose was to show how the ways of shaping geographic space, restructuring the natural world, and designing the built environment had contributed to the creation of a racialized society.

In the late 1970s, I shared a popular perception, based on a belief in progress, that after the Emancipation Proclamation life had improved for African Americans. Gradually I recognized the error in this point of view. As soon as they could, the defeated Confederates rushed to enact the “Black Codes,” laws that criminalized freedmen, placed them in debt peonage, and subjected them to convict leasing, another form of slavery. Countless lives were shortened or ended by ill treatment and grueling work in mines and heavy construction. I wanted to write a book about the years following emancipation called “The Landscape of Freedom,” but I became depressed each time I tried to work on it. It was so painful to contemplate the downward spiral from the hopeful, creative efforts that characterized the early days of Reconstruction to the hateful violence of white mob attacks and the gradual degeneration into the kind of inner-city black ghetto in which I grew up. I wanted to share my growing awareness with my students and colleagues at the university, but only a few black students were interested.

I decided to leave the university and develop a professional practice. I collaborated with black urban planner Virgus Streets to resolve land use conflicts and develop proposals for redevelopment in West Berkeley. I got involved in redesigning industrial plants that had closed. I formed a partnership with architect Randall Fleming, and our work led to a commission to work on the Berkeley Waterfront Plan. I was appointed to the Berkeley Planning Commission. As its chair, I led a campaign to protect both jobs and the environment.


By the mid-1980s the racial solidarity that had characterized the civil rights movement had faded. I was disappointed that hardly any black people attended the community planning sessions that I facilitated. The professional projects I was engaged in – particularly the Berkeley Waterfront Plan and the Plan for Mission Bay in San Francisco – were leading me toward private professional success but away from my desire to use my knowledge of city building to advance the interests of the African American community. Where could I find a foundation for the work I envisioned? Around this time I read an essay by Thomas Berry called “The New Story,” which became a chapter in his first book, Dream of the Earth. Berry asserted that humanity is in trouble today because we do not have an adequate story of who we are.



Berry suggested that a new creation story could help restore our sense of belonging to the natural world and allow us to reimagine the relationship between European immigrants and indigenous peoples. I was disappointed that he made no mention of enslaved Africans or of exploited Chinese and Mexicans. I wanted a new story for African Americans that would take us beyond the dignity-sapping narratives of slavery and colonialism and empower us to take leadership roles in responding to the global ecological crisis.

I was deeply inspired by the Universe Story presented by Berry and astrophysicist Brian Swimme. The more I read and reflected on it, the more confident I became that recognizing our place in the Earth’s long evolution can give African Americans and other people of color a sense of identity and belonging.


Human history begins in Africa. The stories of ancient and medieval African cultures are fascinating. The notion of African culture as primitive and unenlightened is a distortion used to justify enslavement and colonization. Cultural geographer James M. Blaut argued that Europe’s rise to dominance was due more to its geographic location than to any scientific or technological superiority. The euphemistically titled Age of Discovery was marked by theft of land from indigenous people, indiscriminate exploitation of resources, and forced labor of kidnapped Africans.

Slavery was at the heart of a triangular trans-Atlantic trade pattern — from Europe to Africa to the Americas and back . The mercantile cities of the Atlantic Basin thrived on those profits. The largest international profit-making venture was cotton, which depended absolutely on enforced labor of enslaved Africans.

The social construction of race in the 17th century has created a blind spot in our understanding of human evolution and led to a distorted view of racial differences and centuries of bias and oppression. We must forge a new path illuminated by justice, respect for the dignity of each and every human being, and determination to maintain and restore the web of life as the foundation for health and sustainability.


The growing movement for abolition of slavery was balanced against the economic support that slavery insured to individuals and institutions in the North and South. Slaves were the largest financial asset in the American economy. The early days of Reconstruction were full of celebration, creativity, and hope; but before long federal support for the freedmen was withdrawn, and new methods of forced labor were devised. Black Southerners would labor again for white profit.

At first African Americans sought to live sustainably on the land, but before too long their modest allotments were returned to the former slave holders. Northern industrial society was complicit in the betrayal of African American people. When slavery was outlawed, old patterns shifted and new arrangements had to be made. This included highly functional black towns. Through all the challenging new experiences they faced, freed African Americans learned to make do. The ability to adapt to changing conditions had helped them survive slavery. After emancipation, they formed new patterns of resilience.

Finally, many of the freedmen and their descendants migrated into the heart of the nation’s industrial cities, eager to escape Jim Crow laws and traditions and live with greater dignity and opportunity.


Discovering and understanding my heritage was necessary but not sufficient. The city is changing, even as I, and the African American community, evolve. As we become more conscious of the part African Americans and other people of color have played in the making of America, we must make their stories a visible part of the larger human story. This larger narrative must include efforts to repair the divided cities of North America.

I imagine replacing the narrative of invisibility with a more holistic story of an emerging metropolitan region that includes equal opportunities for all. I realized that I would have to connect the hidden narrative of race to a larger narrative of the green ecological city. I used the story of the universe and sociologist Doug McAdam’s theory of social movements as my guides.



Armed with new knowledge and a new perspective, I joined the environmental movement, which I perceived as a source of creativity and hope. I quickly discovered that environmental issues were also racial and social justice issues. In 1989 I joined the board of Earth Island Institute and was elected its chairman. That same year I founded the Urban Habitat Program to respond to the need to create diversity in the environmental movement. I collaborated with Luke Cole from the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation to produce the Race, Poverty and the Environment Journal, which started as a newsletter but quickly expanded. Each issue focused on a different topic; the publication gave readers opportunities to share ideas and build community around particular issues.

Urban Habitat participated in the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, DC, in October of 1991. The primary focus was on fighting environmental racism, which sites toxic waste—producing industries in people-of-color neighborhoods We recommended expanding the focus to include sustainability, inner-city abandonment, suburban sprawl, and equitable access to transportation.

We learned from analyst Myron Orfield to view the city as an integral part of a metropolitan region. With maps and charts he showed us that the newer suburbs had been moving further and further out at the expense of older, inner-ring suburbs. As we had suspected, poverty was spreading to the suburbs. We published his report called “What If We Shared?” in which he proposed that all of the cities and towns in a region put 40 percent of their tax revenues into a common pool, and redistribute it based on need, which could be established by the percentage of school children who qualify for a free lunch.

We started the Urban Habitat Leadership Institute to build multiracial environmental leadership for sustainable urban communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Later the program evolved into the Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute, providing specialized training for the particular commission or board the participant wished to join.

Urban Habitat remained at Earth Island for eight years until, in 1997, I took a position that forced me to resign from the Earth Island Board. While my colleagues in the John Muir Project were absolutely committed to No Logging in national forests, I favored honoring the traditional logging rights of local Mexican communities who had been pursuing land-based livelihoods in the Carson National Forest in New Mexico for generations with no harm to the environment. Urban Habitat moved out of the Earth Island headquarters into a building in the San Francisco Presidio.

When the threat of war with the Soviet Union had ended, I was asked by Congressman Ron Dellums to oversee the conversion of military bases in the Bay Area. When Vice President Gore came to the Presidio to discuss the emerging plan for conversion of that facility, we gave him the report we had prepared, ÒSustainability and Justice: A Message to the President’s Council on Sustainable Development.Ó The report argued that public policy on sustainability should incorporate the three Es: Environment, Economy, and Social Equity. We gave examples of ways that was happening or could happen.

In 1997 we formed the Bay Area Social Equity Caucus, a regional body of 75 social justice organizations, to oversee the work of the Bay Area Alliance for Sustainable Communities. In 2000 I was dismayed to learn that the Association of Bay Area Governments planned to hold a countywide meeting in each of the region’s nine counties, focusing on how the region should grow. Given our limited time and resources, we would not be able to mobilize our communities in time to take part. That meant communities of color would have no say in these important meetings. A new friend and colleague Dr. Paloma Pavel had the great idea of making a short documentary film featuring interviews with people of color who had worked with the Urban Habitat Program and whose concerns were usually left out of the public planning process. The film was shown at the beginning of each of the nine meetings and was well received. Later that year I resigned as executive director of Urban Habitat, leaving the organization in the able hands of Juliet Ellis.


In 2000, I was invited to join the Ford Foundation, to lead its Sustainable Metropolitan Communities Initiative (SMCI). During my time at Ford I oversaw grants to philanthropic organizations, regional equity advocates, African Americans and other communities of color, regional equity demonstration projects, community organizing groups, community development corporations (CDCs), organized labor, a farm and school alliance, and cities facing abandonment. Dr. Paloma Pavel served as my strategic communications consultant. Later she edited Breakthrough Communities: Sustainability and Justice in the Next American Metropolis, drawing on projects supported by the SMCI.

I was tasked by Ford to put together a portfolio on smart growth and regional equity. Although I advocated smart growth policies throughout the 1990s, I remained apprehensive that as societies moved toward smart growth and related policies, they would fail to include social equity or racial justice in their considerations. Smart growth represented a positive shift toward making the environment an important determinant in urban design, but too often it did little more than add a thin veneer of environmental concern to conventional real estate development.

I was able to bring together a group of thought leaders who saw the potential for building equity by focusing on a metropolitan region rather than a single neighborhood, city, or suburb. We identified our informal group as CORE, the Conversation on Regional Equity, and several important books emerged from our dialogs.

Starting in 2004 I served as Acting Director of Ford’s Community Resources Development unit for 20 months. This meant I had responsibilities with Ford offices overseas. I looked for ways to increase our support of urban environmental programs in the underdeveloped world. Although I had been hired by Ford to focus on our nation’s cities, I realized when 9/11 hit that our domestic issues are embedded in a larger global context. I was inspired by grassroots movements in Africa that demonstrated alternatives to slum clearance, improving the outer urban neighborhoods by strengthening their community institutions based on their identified needs and assets.

The devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 underscored the interconnection between environmental preservation and social justice. Katrina was a wake-up call from an angry Earth and a warning about the global effects of our extractive economy and its addiction to fossil fuels. It was a reminder to think not only about how our actions affect the changing temperature of the ocean but also about how these changes will affect people in the United States and around the world differently along the lines of race and class. As we confront climate change, we will need to build a global movement based on a living network of trans-regional movements.


Returning to the Bay Area in 2007, I began working with Dr. Paloma Pavel on a new initiative to address climate change. We called it “Planning Healthy and Just Communities for All in the Age of Global Warming.” When MIT published Paloma’s Breakthrough Communities book in 2009, we decided to form Breakthrough Communities as a project of Paloma’s non-profit, Earth House Center, to support the development of multiracial leadership for sustainable, socially just communities — complementing and reinforcing the successful work of the Urban Habitat Program.

Both Paloma and I had been inspired by the work of Thomas Berry and his colleagues Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker. We wanted to help broaden their vision and make the Universe Story and the Great Work of healing and restoring Earth’s damaged living systems relevant to a larger pool of readers, including marginalized communities, who have historically been denied equal access to housing, jobs, transportation, education, and health care. We recognized the need to extend the work of healing and restoration to the socio-economic landscape and to address human needs along with the needs of compromised ecosystems.

When I realized that climate change was emerging as the number one environmental issue, I focused more and more on the opportunities it presents for changing the racial climate in this country. I saw that the process of reducing carbon dioxide emissions to mitigate rising sea levels could give us opportunities to correct built-in inequalities in our economy and our cities. In the absence of leadership at the national level, California established its own plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, passing Assembly Bill 32 and Senate Bill 375. Breakthrough Communities and 25 other social justice groups met and shared their concerns that the legislation could have a negative impact on the most vulnerable populations in the region, but that it was also an opportunity for us to organize and empower spokespersons to represent the interests of low-income communities of color and to mobilize for greater inclusion of all communities in the planning process.

We formed a coalition we called the Six Wins Network. As people shared their concerns and aspirations, we found that the goals of participating organizations fell into six general areas:

1. healthy and safe communities,

2. robust and affordable local transit service,

3. affordable housing,

4. investment without displacement,

5. economic opportunity, and

6. community power.

As we listened to one another, we began to see that our issues were deeply interconnected and that advocating together as a region-wide coalition was the only way to win. Coalition members began meeting with open-minded commissioners. To their delight, the Six Wins participants found themselves functioning as grassroots lobbyists. After months of letter writing campaigns, small group meetings, and well-attended public meetings, we finalized and ratified our proposal, the Equity, Environment, and Jobs (EEJ) scenario, which would be considered, along with other scenarios, for the Bay Area’s Sustainable Community Strategy. The Environmental Impact Report identified the EEJ scenario as the “environmentally superior” alternative that would best achieve the region’s performance standards. Although the plan that favored wealthy, entrenched suburban interests was adopted in the end, it included three substantial amendments that we put forward.

The next step toward regional equity is to focus on helping not only urban communities but suburban low-income communities as well.

The effects of climate change are with us now. We must work simultaneously toward mitigating the effects and helping our most vulnerable populations, along with the increasing numbers of climate refugees, adapt. Considering what we learned from developing the Six Wins scenario, it is clear that creating sustainable and resilient communities in the face of climate change also provides opportunities for gaining greater social equity and justice. Increasingly African Americans and other people of color are emerging as leaders and activists in urban agriculture and other sustainability projects.

I have come to understand that artistic and cultural expressions have power to cause people to think about situations and issues in new ways and bring people together across divides. We each have a role to play in helping solve the severe environmental, economic, and social problems we face. Some of us will get involved in political processes or set up cooperative businesses or nonprofits or find new ways of sharing space and resources. Others will create art, music, gardens, schools, and networks of mutual aid. The needs and the possibilities are endless. Young people around the world are expressing their caring for the planet, their passion for justice, and their hope for a livable future. They must be acknowledged and encouraged. We must come together as one human family to care for Earth and for one another–working together, listening to each other’s stories, and appreciating and celebrating our diversity.


I envision the Great Work that Thomas Berry calls on us to undertake as the creation of an overarching social and environmental movement to transform the way we think about, plan, design, build, and live in cities – integrating social equity, ecological integrity, and economic prosperity. Undertaking the Great Work also means clarifying the steps we need to take to meet the needs of all humans.

In this book I have tried to bring the hidden narrative of race to light and connect it to a new story that repositions the human species as an integral part of the natural world. Our work in the San Francisco Bay Area building the movement for sustainability and justice is a step in this direction. People need to know that it is possible to promote racial justice at the same time as creating prosperity and restoring the ecological health of our planet. Spread the word!

Recommend to friend...