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Building Better Cities, But for Whom?

Searching for the Realization of Our Fullest Potential

I envision a world where environmental sustainability, environmental justice, and social justice go hand in hand. In this world, green infrastructure projects directly benefit the people of a community instead of displacing them with rising costs of living and amenities that cater to wealthy outsiders.

The deep and powerful sense of longing that this vision evokes is difficult to describe:

I get this feeling when I wonder how the global climate would be if politicians had listened to scientists decades ago.

I get this feeling when I visit a “redeveloped” urban area and think about the once vibrant communities that have been displaced by gentrification.

I get this feeling when I wonder what Little Tokyo in Los Angeles would be like today if its residents hadn’t been locked up in concentration camps during World War II.

I get this feeling all the time.

The best way I can describe the feeling is something similar to nostalgia, but for the future. It is a desire to fully realize what could have been and for what has not yet come to be.

I discovered the word I had been looking for: sehnsucht (pronounced /ˈzānˌzo͝oKHt/). This German word captures everything I have been feeling and much more: “utopian conceptions of ideal development; sense of incompleteness and imperfection of life; conjoint time focus on the past, present, and future; ambivalent (bittersweet) emotions; reflection and evaluation of one’s life; and symbolic richness” [1].

Sehnsucht is an incredible motivator, evoking the desire to see humanity reach its full potential. As a multiethnic civil engineer, it pushes me to pursue environmental sustainability in a way that doesn’t leave behind the most socially vulnerable communities [2].



Utopian conceptions of ideal development; sense of incompleteness and imperfection of life; conjoint time focus on the past, present, and future; ambivalent (bittersweet) emotions; reflection and evaluation of one’s life; and symbolic richness

Sehnsucht for Equal Opportunity

As a first-generation American born in Germany with Brazilian, Japanese, Italian, and Lithuanian ancestry, I identify with intersectionality more than anything else. Yet it is my Japanese American identity that has provided a unique opportunity for me to advocate for social justice thanks to the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). I first got involved with the JACL when I moved to Minneapolis from North Carolina for graduate school, and now I am the president of the Twin Cities chapter.

The JACL is the oldest and largest civil rights organization representing Asians in the US, and its members have broadly been seeking justice and healing for the intergenerational trauma they suffered at the hands of the US government. During World War II, approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans, many of them US citizens, were wrongly imprisoned in concentration camps having committed no crime—simply because of their racial and ethnic identity. Most lost their homes, their businesses, and all their possessions aside from the two suitcases they were allowed to take with them to the camps. After the war, Japanese Americans were relocated around the country, meaning they lost the communities they had built as well. Yet, despite their constitutional rights having been violated, and despite generations of hard-won prosperity having been erased, the Japanese American community did not lose faith. They, like countless oppressed groups before them, felt this concept of sehnsucht for what they knew they could accomplish in the “Land of Opportunity.” Japanese Americans organized themselves and, many decades after the war, finally won what few other groups have been able to win: a formal apology from the US government and monetary compensation through the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

This victory, however sweet, was not complete. Compensation was given only to those Japanese Americans still alive in 1988 (and not the descendants of those who had already died). This was a conscious effort by the political opponents of the effort to prevent a precedent being set for reparations to descendants of enslaved Black Americans and countless others who had their land and communities taken from them or who have been enslaved, lynched, massacred, or otherwise mistreated by the US government. It was far from perfect, but it was likely the only version of the Civil Liberties Act that could have passed in 1988 (and only narrowly at that). Still, a precedent was set: the US government admitted wrongdoing, apologized, and bolstered the apology with monetary compensation. The JACL has made it its mission to use the Japanese American story to advocate on behalf of all those who are still seeking justice.

I think we can all imagine a better America, a “more perfect Union,” and a nation that cares for everyone. But, how do we get there? How do we, as individuals, help America reach its full potential? Not everyone can be, or even wants to be, a politician. Not everyone has the time, energy, or privilege to be a grassroots activist. But, in our own ways, there is always something we can do. No act is too small and no voice is too quiet.

Sehnsucht for Sustainability

My other identity is that of a civil engineer. I have always had a powerful connection with water, and learning the science and mathematics to describe it has only increased my interest. At present, I am researching urban hydrology and stormwater management at the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the duty of all engineers is to “first and foremost, protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public” [3]. But how does such an abstract promise to protect the public translate to my work in stormwater management? Since the Clean Water Act of 1977 and the Water Quality Act of 1987, civil engineers have developed many strategies to protect streams and rivers from urban pollution in stormwater runoff. More recently, nature-based solutions called green infrastructure (Figure 1) have been gaining popularity. Rain gardens (Figure 2a) and other green infrastructure practices (Figure 2b) are beautiful, they’re exciting, they’re a step toward the cities of the future, and they’re crucial for cities to be resilient in the face of climate change. But beneath the beauty and seemingly objective altruism surrounding green infrastructure implementations lies a precarious web of interactions, co-dependencies, and potential unintended consequences that have significant environmental and social impacts.

Figure 1: Conceptual diagram of the spectrum between “green” and “gray” stormwater infrastructure, from Taguchi et al. 2020 [2]

Figure 2 Left: a) a newly constructed rain garden filling up during a storm, photo credit Vinicius Taguchi 2018; Right: b) a small stormwater pond/wetland, photo credit Vinicius Taguchi 2019.

In an environmental sense, green infrastructure becomes a part of the urban water cycle, meaning it will interact with the surrounding urban environment (Figure 3). Without proper planning, design, and maintenance, any pollution that might be on an urban surface could flow into a green infrastructure practice and could therefore find its way into underground infrastructure, lakes and streams, and more. For example, de-icing salt spread on roads and sidewalks in the winter could percolate into underground drinking water aquifers, which could make private well water undrinkable and municipal water treatment prohibitively expensive. The result matters more than the intent, and most engineers understand that. What some engineers have failed to consider (in a field that is 86% male and 74% non-Latinx White [4]) are the social impacts that green infrastructure can have.

Figure 3. Conceptual diagram of water interacting with urban green stormwater infrastructure, adapted from Taguchi et al. 2020 [2]

In a social sense, green infrastructure becomes part of the surrounding community. We love to talk about the air quality, mental health, and quality of life benefits that green infrastructure brings, but who actually gets to enjoy these things? A lot of flashy infrastructure projects (roads, parks, public buildings, etc.) are tied to so-called “urban revitalization” efforts focusing on historically underserved communities whose city-owned infrastructure has been left to crumble. These new investments of public funds often only come after hard-fought environmental justice campaigns by the community members have finally won the right to healthier neighborhoods free of racialized pollution [2]. In many ways, however, they are being punished for their sehnsucht. Outside investments often bring with them gentrification and displacement of the very people who lived in and cared for these communities [5], and these include the remaining Japanese American communities. Many of those displaced aren’t losing their homes, businesses, and land for the first time.

To add insult to injury, many engineers and others involved in green infrastructure see gentrification and affordable housing as someone else’s job to solve [6]. As an engineer, it’s nice to believe that I’m doing “enough,” and what I’m doing is the “good,” but doing good is nuanced. Even good intentions can lead to negative consequences, so it is my duty to see my good intentions through to good outcomes.

One Step at a Time

Now you have had a glimpse into the world I long for when I experience sehnsucht. The world that, as I understand it, is promised to all those in America. So, what about Native Americans seeking the return of stolen land and reparations for massacres and genocide? What about Black Americans seeking reparations for slavery and lynchings? What about Muslim Americans seeking an end to Islamophobia? What about Asian Americans seeking an end to the recent waves of violence and xenophobia? What about LGBTQIA+ Americans seeking equal rights and opportunities? What about women in America seeking equal treatment and compensation? What about refugees and asylum-seekers stranded in border concentration camps waiting to become Americans?

Sehnsucht is not a rare feeling. I think we all experience it. That is what we have to work toward as students, professionals, politicians, grassroots activists, citizens, and members of society. We each have a role to play, and that role will look different for each of us. For me, I can use the stories of my community to stand in solidarity with others. I can use my understanding of social justice to challenge inequities in fields where they often go unchallenged. I can share my passion for a better world in the hope of inspiring others to join me in acting on their sehnsucht. So, what will you do?


[1]        “Sehnsucht.” In Wikipedia, November 30, 2020.

[2]        Taguchi, Vinicius J., Peter T. Weiss, John S. Gulliver, Mira R. Klein, Raymond M. Hozalski, Lawrence A. Baker, Jacques C. Finlay, Bonnie L. Keeler, and John L. Nieber. “It Is Not Easy Being Green: Recognizing Unintended Consequences of Green Stormwater Infrastructure.” Water 12, no. 2 (February 2020): 522.

[3]        American Society of Civil Engineers. “Code of Ethics,” 2020.

[4]        Data USA. “Civil Engineers,” Accessed February 1, 2021.

[5]        Klein, Mira, Bonnie Keeler, Kate Derickson, Kayleigh Swift, Fayola Jacobs, Hillary Waters, and Rebecca Walker. “Sharing in the Benefits of a Greening City: A Policy Toolkit in Pursuit of Economic, Environmental, and Racial Justice.” The CREATE Initiative, February 2020.

[6]        Rigolon, Alessandro, and Jeremy Németh. “‘We’re Not in the Business of Housing:’ Environmental Gentrification and the Nonprofitization of Green Infrastructure Projects.” Cities 81 (November 1, 2018): 71–80.


I would like to thank my wife, Micaela Magee, and COSP SPARK Editors, Kristen Reynolds and Kassandra Chhay, for carefully reviewing and suggesting improvements to this article.

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