Detroit wild: Race, labor, and postwar urban environmentalism

Brandon Michael Ward, Purdue University


Suburbanization and the growth of metropolitan inequality after World War II created deep environmental inequalities for the residents who remained in Detroit's central city. Lacking access to environmental amenities like parks and recreation opportunities in the suburbs, and facing environmental hazards like air and water pollution and locally unwanted land uses, many residents pioneered an urban environmental activism that differed sharply from the mainstream environmental movement. Emphasizing local landscapes and local environmental challenges over more distant issues like wilderness protection, endangered species protection, overpopulation, and overconsumption of resources, they created an activism grounded in the realities of daily urban life. Primarily, urban environmentalism consisted of working-class whites, many of whom were associated with the United Auto Workers union, and inner-city African Americans. Despite often having disparate agendas and strategies, they agreed that their communities were worthy of environmental protection every bit as much as suburban communities and wilderness landscapes. They worked to mitigate industrial pollution, clean up local neighborhoods, provide adequate park and recreation space, and combat the environmental challenges associated with urban decline and deindustrialization. This research challenges historians to see cities as important sites of environmental activism.




Gabin, Purdue University.

Subject Area

American history

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