For the next installment of our “Clear the Air” series on environmental justice, we explore environmental justice and its role in equitable development.
Environmental justice is a pressing issue at the crossroads of planning, zoning, and land use. Amid broader concerns of law, public health, waste management, and public involvement, communities dealing with environmental justice challenges often grapple with planning failures and lax enforcement of zoning rules. In 1991, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit recognized this link, adopting seventeen Principles of Environmental Justice, with a third directly addressing planning, urban policy, and the built environment.
These principles highlight the proactive nature of environmental justice, historically focusing on sectors like housing, transportation, and health care. The interconnected issues—redlining, infrastructure decline, lead poisoning—call for comprehensive solutions prioritizing those facing disproportionate burdens.
While planners are familiar with environmental justice, implementing it effectively, visualizing outcomes, and dispelling misconceptions about its impact on planning have posed challenges. Recent efforts by researchers, advocates, planners, architects, and community builders aim to align environmental justice and planning as complementary goals for enhancing life in underserved communities.
Equitable development emerges as a key method for this alignment, emphasizing public involvement, collaborative problem-solving, and visible improvements in underserved communities. It offers a framework for addressing environmental justice within planning while positively impacting community well-being.
A significant challenge in environmental justice and planning is gentrification—a process transforming neighborhoods, but also compromising cultural assets and services for long-standing residents. While some argue gentrification contributes to job growth and higher property values, the differential health burdens on low-income populations make it socially irresponsible and unsustainable.
Recognizing gentrification as an environmental issue, fairness demands policies protecting the environment should not disproportionately affect a small minority. Concerns about gentrification reflect frustrations with past public involvement failures and fears of losing cherished institutions or facing involuntary displacement, not resistance to change.
The path forward involves embracing expansive concepts like equitable development to encourage sustainable communities, avoiding restrictive approaches. City officials, developers, policymakers, advocates, business owners, and residents must expand knowledge, devise strategies, and form alliances to actively manage gentrification and address burdens faced by populations less resilient to market shifts. This collaborative effort is essential for ensuring a just and sustainable future for all communities.
Read more from the Clear the Air series: