Environmental Justice for All

Zoning codes and land-use laws govern the way cities are planned and built. Their development has excluded low-income people and people of color.

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The environmental justice movement became nationally recognized in the 1980s when a national study identified “race as the single most important factor in determining where toxic waste facilities were sited.” Hazardous waste facilities, fossil fuel storage, other polluting industries, and even transportation sites (airports, bus stations), are disproportionately placed in and around low-income communities and communities of color. Their negative impact on already vulnerable communities is rooted in and perpetuated by municipal zoning codes and land-use laws.

Zoning codes and land-use laws are established at the city-level and govern the way cities are planned and built. Historically, their development has excluded low-income people and people of color from certain areas of the city, often exposing them to environmental hazards. Some cities are now using these same administrative tools to right past wrongs. A recent report from The New School shows how cities are implementing new zoning codes and land-use laws with environmental justice in mind.

The following municipal policies not only illustrate the way cities are working to protect communities from environmental hazards by working within the constraints of an established system, but also provide a model for the thousands of cities yet to address longstanding environmental injustices.

Bans on [new or unwanted] expanded land uses

One of the most direct ways to address environmental injustice is to ban industries harmful to the public’s health and the environment from developing new projects on city land. Seattle, Baltimore, Portland, Chicago, and Oakland have all passed laws that ban fossil fuel storage and infrastructure expansion.

General environmental justice policies

New York City, San Francisco, and Fulton County, GA have all passed broad environmental justice policies or programs to promote environmental justice.

In 2012, San Francisco officials launched a program that set aside $12 million in grants to help local community projects and nonprofits promote renewable and efficient energy sources and green spaces. The funding also gave rise to a community health plan established to address health inequities in the city, like access to safe housing and healthy foods in low-income communities.

New York City leaders funded an interagency group to identify environmental justice areas and create a plan that could help city leaders understand and incorporate environmental justice initiatives into citywide policies. The effort ensures environmental justice gains are not only preserved, but that policymakers are transparent about their efforts to protect low-income communities and communities of color from environmental harms.

Fulton County administrators started an environmental justice initiative that created an Environmental Health Planner position and began to work with the Department of Health and Wellness to tackle public health issues using local tools. The initiative resulted in amendments to laws impacting environmental justice, and environmental justice content explicitly written into Fulton County’s Comprehensive City Plan 2035.

The environmental justice movement became nationally recognized in the 1980s when a national study identified “race as the single most important factor in determining where toxic waste facilities were sited.”

Environmental review process

Most municipalities consider development and expansion proposals through an established planning and zoning review process, but they don’t always consider how new developments could harm vulnerable or historically overburdened communities.

Challenging development applications one at a time under traditional review processes is notoriously difficult without environmental justice requirements in place, and review boards are also often reluctant to deny development applications from industries that carry political influence or promise jobs for the local economy. So environmental reviews can be a powerful way for municipalities to regulate development in their jurisdictions, prevent exposure to noxious materials, and help communities challenge new development applications when they otherwise couldn’t.

Fulton Country, GA; San Francisco, CA and Camden and Newark, New Jersey have crafted their own review processes to include environmental justice initiatives. In addition, both Boston University and the New Jersey Environmental Justice Initiative created model ordinances designed to assist other cities in creating their own review processes.

Proactive planning

Proactive planning focuses on future development and allows cities to promote environmental justice through detailed “land-use” plans that establish new standards for industry growth. Plans sometimes create target investments to mitigate pollution or establish stricter criteria for development. Some cities may also go a step further and include plans that attract environmentally beneficial developments like green spaces or green industries. Twelve cities in the US have established proactive planning ordinances.

Public health codes and policies

Cities have the ability to create public health codes to protect residents from things like noise, odor, dust and light. For example, San Francisco passed a public health code in 2014 that strengthened ventilation requirements in buildings surrounded by dangerous air pollutants. And in 2017, Detroit established new rules that require dust control measures to prevent dust from escaping facilities that handle bulk materials.

Unlike the other approaches, this type of policy targets existing public health codes that apply to entire cities, not just certain communities. San Francisco and Richmond, CA; Chicago, IL; Detroit, MI; and Erie, CO have all used public health codes to protect people from air pollutants.

The environmental justice movement is local. These examples provide a blueprint for other cities interested in adopting wide-ranging environmental justice policies.

Photo by Thijs Stoop on Unsplash