In this episode of the Green in Action podcast, host Kimberly Vermeer speaks with Dana Bourland, Enterprise Community Partners alum, founder of the JPB Foundation Environment program, and fellow Island Press author. Kim and Dana get personal about their motivations to push for healthy and equitable housing and discuss what that looks like on a community scale. They dive into the lessons from Dana’s new book, Gray to Green Communities: A Call to Action on the Housing and Climate Crises. Listen in for a timely conversation about the fundamental shift in approach needed to address the housing and climate crises – from interdisciplinary thinking, bold national measures, to a strong commitment to racial and social equity.
- Anti-Racist community development
- Constraints of the affordable housing finance system
- Gray to Green: A Call to Action on the Housing and Climate Crises
- Healthy building materials
- Systems Change
- The Integrated Design Process
- The lack of a national commitment to high quality affordable housing for all
Dana Bourland, AICP, She/Her/Hers
Dana works at the intersection of issues related to health, poverty and the environment. Dana led the creation of the Environment Program at The JPB Foundation with a focus on transitioning to a just, equitable and clean energy future, increasing access to the benefits of nature, detoxifying the built and natural systems, and strengthening the field of environmental justice. Formerly Dana was Vice President of Green Initiatives for Enterprise Community Partners where she led environmental strategy for the national affordable housing and community development intermediary. Dana developed and oversaw all aspects of Enterprise’s award-winning Green Communities program including the creation of the Green Communities Criteria and Enterprise’s Multifamily Retrofit Program.
Dana is the author of “Gray to Green: A Call to Action on the Housing and Climate Crises” published by Island Press. Dana is a graduate of Harvard’s Graduate Program in Real Estate and holds a Master of Planning Degree from the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, Univ. of Minnesota. She was named one of Fast Company Magazine’s Most Influential Women Activists in Technology and is featured in and has contributed to numerous publications including the book “Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy”, “Greening Our Built World: Costs, Benefits, and Strategies”, “Women in Green”, “Growing Greener Cities”, “Becoming an Urban Planner” and is included as faculty in Fast Company’s 30-second MBA program. Dana is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, an Ironman finisher, runner, and avid traveler.
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Moving Beyond Green Buildings with Dana Bourland Transcript
DANA BOURLAND: Gray really connotes this practice that benefits a few in the short term, but negatively impacts the majority of us and our planet for the long term. And then green being this practice that connotes a building practice that benefits all of us while supporting the health of our planet now and for the long term.
[Intro Music fades in]
DANA BOURLAND: I’m Dana Bourland. I’m the author of Gray to Green Communities: A Call to Action on the Housing and Climate Crisis.
[Full intro music]
KIMBERLY VERMEER: The housing and climate crises are urgent and complex. For people doing the work, addressing these parallel crises requires a fundamental shift in thinking.
Hi! I’m Kim Vermeer, the host of Green in Action, the podcast where we celebrate green leadership in affordable housing. For this episode of the show, I had a conversation with thought leader, green practitioner, and fellow Island Press author Dana Bourland about her new book, Gray to Green Communities: a Call to Action on the Housing and Climate Crises.
We started with comparing notes about the book-writing process.
KIMBERLY VERMEER (Interview Audio): It’s such a big accomplishment to write a book and get it published. It’s a labor of love, it turns out. [Laughs] And how, you know, how long did it take you, to go from concept to release date to make it happen?
DANA BOURLAND: Ten years! I started really started in July 2012, and the book was actually published January 2021.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: Of course, writing the book wasn’t the only thing Dana was up to in those 10 years.
She created the environment program at the JPB Foundation, one of the largest private foundations in the US. But the two of us had met before that, when she was Vice President of Green Initiatives at Enterprise Community Partners, where she had a big hand in building the Green Communities program.
When Dana and I compared notes, we realized that we had some common experiences that drew us toward green affordable housing. As we reflected, we recognized that the priorities in our work – like valuing housing stability and healthy housing — are influenced by our earliest experiences.
KIMBERLY VERMEER (Interview Audio): I’ve always thought about the stability aspects of where you live, and the community and the connections that you make, because I moved at key points where I lost all of those connections. And, you know, to this day, my oldest friends date from high school, because I moved at so many disrupting times earlier in my childhood, right? All those moves in that sense as being something why creating stable, predictable, affordable places for families to make a life and to think of housing as the foundation for family economies, you know, could have its roots in that that mobility I experienced as a as a child.
DANA BOURLAND: “Yeah, definitely, I can relate to that, 100%. I spent my first 10 years moving around different houses in England, sort of southeast of London. And I vividly remember this one house. But I just remember this massive orange Aga stove in our kitchen. And I have three brothers and their chores were to go out to the backyard and get the coal from a bin that was needed to keep the stove going. And that’s one of the things I vividly remember because my oldest brother had very severe asthma. But when we eventually came to America when I was ten, his asthma cleared up and he became a very successful athlete. And so looking back, I can just clearly see the connection between our indoor air quality from this Aga stove, his actually going into the coal bin, which I’m sure was not good for his respiratory health. For me, it was those kind of connections, you know, sort of the physical aspect of our housing.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: Looking back, Dana and I could map out the impact that our housing had on our family and our experiences, our health and opportunities growing up.
DANA BOURLAND: My parents were always sort of looking for housing that they could afford, particularly housing, as we became school age children that was also in a school district that they felt like was of the quality that they wanted for us. That really impacted my understanding of how it just becomes kind of luck of the draw of kind of who gets good housing and who doesn’t. And I just became very attuned to that as a young person.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: Dana and I both see healthy, affordable housing as a basic human right. In my book Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing, Walker Wells and I make the argument that green affordable housing is essential, but only one piece of a larger puzzle. Dana’s book carries that argument forward with a call for systems change. Systems change is both a process and an outcome. It requires understanding the interconnections between many pieces and identifying the levers that can change the underlying structural systems that impact our lived experiences.
In the sustainability world, usually the word “Gray” refers to civil engineering stuff like pipes and stormwater management. But in her book, Dana expanded that concept to apply it to housing – and going beyond individual buildings and projects to think about the entire housing system. That systems thinking can apply on a larger scale, too.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: (Interview Audio): Last year, I spoke at the U.S. Green Building Council’s Equity Summit and one of the other speakers there was Diane Dillon Ridgeley. And during a conversation about, well, “green is too expensive” and this is an argument you and I have [Laughs] battled with since we were sweet young things starting in this many years ago. Right. And I’ve been reflecting ever since on her comment that, you know, there’s always been a cost. It’s just a matter of who pays. And you get at that in many different ways in the book. But in the first chapter, you said gray housing is often just good enough for now.
DANA BOURLAND: I love that quote that you mentioned, that it always has a cost, just who pays? Because that’s so true. And that’s what’s so extraordinary to me about the moment that we’re in, is that the people who have had the least to do with the housing and climate crisis are indeed the ones who are paying for it the most. And I think of one of the examples I provide in the book is of Crystal Barbour. She has had this great way of talking about the impact of her gray housing on her family and the fact that she would just eat cheap when it was electric bill week.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: Crystal Barbour is one of the rental housing residents that Dana interviewed for her book.
DANA BOURLAND: As you know so well, the older homes spend three times more per month on their utility bills as a result of just the older appliances, the less efficient building systems that are used. And I also, just, you know, in terms of who pays, it’s everybody living in these communities with the peaker plants, the power plants, the coal plants, the incinerators, the landfills. And it’s the future generations who now are going to really have that tremendous bill that they’re going to have to pay related to climate change.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: Less efficient building systems don’t only impact the environment – they impact the people living there, and their health, stability, and overall sense of wellbeing, both in the short term and the long term. Housing is more than a real estate– our systems of housing, health, transportation, land use, and employment are all connected.
After the break, Dana and I discuss the challenges when shifting from a gray to green system.
KIMBERLY VERMEER (Advertisement): Check out the book that inspired the Green in Action podcast! Get my book, Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing, to learn more about how organizations across the country are taking action to create sustainable communities and how you can, too. Walker Wells and I wrote the book with real world practitioners in mind – it’s a comprehensive resource on how to incorporate green building principles into affordable housing, from the very beginning of a project through construction and into operation. My favorite part of the book-writing process was meeting the people and hearing the stories behind the book’s 14 case studies, from New Hampshire to California. Buy the book today at publisher Island Press, as well as Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, or an independent bookstore near you.
Now, let’s get back to the show!
KIMBERLY VERMEER: Part of Dana’s book tells the vital history of the Enterprise Green Communities program and her role in developing and leading it. But as she describes, green building practices keep running up against the building materials and construction industries, the constraints of the affordable housing finance system, and the lack of a national commitment to high quality affordable housing for all.
KIMBERLY VERMEER (Interview Audio): Well, a huge amount of progress has happened and in no small part to the leadership from Enterprise and from the Green Communities criteria, but you wouldn’t have written your book, I wouldn’t have written my book [Dana laughs] if we didn’t know there’s still so much to do. And that as much as we wish it were what everyone did and that it was easy to do, it’s not.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: In her book, Dana lays out four big challenges when going from Gray to Green and frameworks for addressing them. The first challenge is accessing healthy and environmentally friendly building materials and restructuring the manufacturing industry that creates them.
DANA BOURLAND: You can build a completely green, affordable development with off the shelf materials that are healthy and are already green. But we have a long ways to go to really drive better access to greener materials that address also this need to think differently about materials from an embodied carbon perspective. And so that’s one of the places I think we could all do a lot better job of coming together around and really demanding materials that are healthier, because if they are manufactured in a much healthier way, then we can end that pollution cycle for those communities where those materials are being manufactured, where we know both that that pollution is going up into the atmosphere and causing climate change, but it’s also going into our homes and our schools and impacting the health of people and children. So I would love to see us think differently about that connection between our materials and our green housing and drive that systems change more rapidly.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: When we think about the housing and climate crises together, we can get more done faster. Making it easy to make the right choices about healthy and sustainable materials is one big hurdle to overcome in the green movement. That brings us to the second challenge.
DANA BOURLAND: Inexperienced and unavailable workforce is still an obstacle. And so having a workforce who understands not just energy and energy efficiency and weatherization, but does understand how to also improve the health of the home. And then also, a workforce who can install solar can think about those other aspects of green infrastructure. Even currently, even though the solar industry is expanding, we’re still leaving out whole populations. You know, I think it’s three out of the ten green jobs are held by women. So we have a long ways to go in building a workforce that has the opportunity to gain experience and then also to build out a career.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: The third challenge is the insufficient and unnecessarily complicated structure of funding for affordable housing.
DANA BOURLAND: The cobbling together of so many different sources of funding and financing is just a humongous challenge. But I would stress just scattered and sort of uncertain financing that’s available to developers and owners who want to provide green housing that’s affordable for everyone. This just has to change.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: Dana’s fourth point is that we won’t be able to fully address the first three challenges without a commitment on the national level.
DANA BOURLAND: The fourth issue that I raised, which is just a lack of national commitment, you know, even under the current administration for whom climate change and racial equity are two of the big policy pillars, we have not actually made a national commitment to making sure that everyone has housing that they can afford regardless of their race or income. And so I would cite that is number one, because if we had a national commitment, we would make sure everything else fell in place.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: But we can’t think of these challenges separately. Dana calls us to address them as an interconnected system, and to widen the lens to all aspects of community development. She continued,
DANA BOURLAND: Now, if I had my magic wand, it would be for us to stop thinking about these things in silos, to stop thinking about it as here’s our housing cost here’s our infrastructure cost here’s our sewer and water costs, our health costs. We’ll think about it as a whole community, and again, it’s back to this sort of way of thinking, I think we can ignite imagination for doing things very differently and really advancing a much better way of delivering our housing goals while addressing climate change in the process.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: It’s imperative to hold onto this call for new systems thinking when approaching national policy – seeing things from a perspective of interdependence.
Dana raises a caution flag about the ambitious new funding proposed by the Biden Administration. You can’t just do the same ol’ same ol’.
DANA BOURLAND: It’s time to just change the rules of the game. You know, this is a massive opportunity in front of us to have an administration who is willing to put trillions of dollars towards meeting the backlog of infrastructure needs in this country and understanding that housing is a piece of our infrastructure. So I’m really excited to play a role in helping to change the rules of this game. You know if 40 percent of all of the administration’s climate and clean energy investments are going to go to underserved communities, then we have to make sure that that happens. But if all we do is put new money into it, we will get the same results, just maybe more of them.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: You can’t spend new money the same old way and hope for different results. Dana’s work at the JPB Foundation has been an opportunity for her to rethink how and for whom money is spent.
DANA BOURLAND: One of the reasons I was so excited to join the foundation was that it would give me an opportunity to connect some of the dots. So having spent 10 years working to green all of the housing in this country, it gave me an opportunity to sit down and think about, ‘OK, how would we make that happen? I think it is the role of philanthropy to connect some dots and to take risks and to be way more patient in seeing the big picture and sticking with things that are on the right path to making the kind of systems change we need.
KIMBERLY VERMEER (Ad): I hope you’re enjoying this episode, and our first season of Green in Action! We’re already getting excited for season two, and we’re looking for ideas.
Are you a green building practitioner doing innovative and vital work? Or do you know of people, projects, or programs at the forefront of sustainable and equitable community development that our listeners should learn about? Submit ideas for potential future episodes of the pod at our website, urbanhabitatinitiatives.com. We look forward to sharing more great stories in season two, and we’d love for yours to be one of them!
Now, let’s get back to the show.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: Something that’s embedded in all four of the challenges in Dana’s book, and one of the biggest dots to connect, is social equity and anti-racist community development. Dana and I discussed the racist legacy of housing, and how green systems thinking can contribute to redressing the damage.
DANA BOURLAND: The very first challenge is to admit that the very sector in which you and I do most of our work and so many other hundreds of thousands do as well, that our housing sector…. is one of.. most manifested ways that you can understand how race plays out in this country and our housing practices are embedded in racist policies and practices. So how do we become anti-racist? I don’t think I can give you just one silver bullet, but I think that a starting place is to acknowledge that we do have a role to play. And if we’re not actively pursuing anti-racist practices and programs, then we’re actually contributing to a more racist and unjust system.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: Historically, community development and urban planning is a realm where racial injustice has been physically baked into how our communities are built and organized – through segregation, redlining and blockbusting in the post-World War II era, discriminatory distribution of municipal resources such as schools and services. How are those hurts going to be repaired?
DANA BOURLAND: This is a big learning for me over the years. Just who else is at the table? Who’s going to benefit? Where is this wealth being created? Who’s going to own that wealth? Because oftentimes you and I know it’s going to be white people and people already in positions of privilege. It’s not going to be black and indigenous and persons of color. And so we have to actively look for ways to change the rules of the game to ensure that every step in our goals to meet our housing and climate crises are advancing racial justice.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: One of the ways to set anti-racist systems change in motion is through the integrated design process, which emphasizes uplifting all voices to produce not only better buildings, but more equitable communities.
DANA BOURLAND: For me, integrated design, as I’ve said and as I write about it, is this way of thinking. And why I’m such a big fan is because it allows us to slow down and get people around the table for whom this work is going to impact and to get into a frame of mind of designing with, instead of designing for. And I think housing has really epitomized our racist policies and practices in this country going way, way, way, way back. And, you know, even in recent history, just federal sort of financing mechanisms have created these practices of excluding people of color from certain communities, loans and other financial products. And so, we have a lot to do from a kind of reconciliation and repair framework. And so integrated design, as simple as it is, is just signaling that there’s a different way of doing this work that requires we understand the history of the land, we understand the community and the culture, and we’re in service of that.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: Racism and social equity issues are layered into our built environment. The only way to fully address the tangled issues of health, poverty, equity, and the environment is to understand them in tandem through an integrated, interdisciplinary approach. That requires a fundamental shift in how we think about ourselves in relation to others.
Dana hopes this is one of the main ideas that readers take away from her book.
DANA BOURLAND: Take away the fact that we are all connected, that what I do impacts you, what you do impacts me, and that we need to think about those interconnections and to stop locking people in to obsolete housing that extracts from our collective well-being. Not only are we connected to one another, but together we can do so much more. And I do hope that the readers of the book understand that we can make a quantum leap in averting both the dual crisis of climate change and housing affordability in one fell swoop from gray to green. And I really hope people walk away with a deeper understanding of how these systems are connected, how we as human beings are connected. One of my favorite words is Ubuntu: I am who I am because of who you are. And I hope that that is something that comes out of reading the book.
[Outro theme music]
KIMBERLY VERMEER: Thank you Dana Bourland, for your good work and for this important call for systems change to meet the urgent needs of affordable housing and climate. If you would like to hear another conversation between Dana and me, joined by Dawn Phillips, Executive Director of the Right to the City Alliance, find the recording at our publisher’s website, www.islandpress.org.
You can learn more about Dana and buy a copy of Gray to Green Communities: A Call to Action on the Housing and Climate Crises at her website, danabourland.com. You can find also find her on the Island Press website, on LinkedIn, or on her Twitter, @dbourland.
Thanks for listening! This is the Green in Action podcast, where we share stories of green leadership in affordable housing. Connect with us! We’re on Twitter @UHIPodcast, LinkedIn, and we have an email list you can sign up for at our website, urbanhabitatinitiatives.com.
Subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts, and rate us and review us on Apple Podcasts. Thanks for doing that – we love hearing what you have to say.
If you want to learn more about the Integrated Design Process, check out our episode “Getting into Integrated Design,” or get a copy of my book that I wrote with Walker Wells, Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing. The book is available from the publisher Island Press, as well as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Or, you can search for “Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing” at www.Bookshop.org, to support an independent bookstore near you.
This episode was written and produced by Kimberly Vermeer, and Klara Kaufman. Sound engineering and audio editing by Carl-Isaak Krulewitch. Music by Matt Vermeer. Kimberly Vermeer is the Executive Producer. Green in Actionis an Urban Habitat Initiatives production.