Does Your City Employ Environmental Justice Best Practices?

By Ayana Byrd May 14, 2019

As report after report confirms that communities of color suffer disproportionately more from toxic air and other environmental hazards, a study released earlier this year examines the policies cities can adopt to save lives.

Published by The New School’s Tishman Environment and Design Center, “Local Policies for Environmental Justice: A National Scan” looks at 40 policies from 20 cities (including New York City, Baltimore and Chicago), three counties and two utility service areas across the United States. Its goal is to be a resource for environmental justice advocates and policymakers as they seek to create better laws.

A central tenet of the environmental justice movement is that people of color and lower-income earners are disproportionately affected by the negative consequences of pollution, climate change and other environmental hazards. This includes, reports City Lab, a tendency to live near hazardous waste facilities, fossil fuel storage and transportation sites, and other polluting industrial facilities. The report, its summary reads, “details how community advocates and their allies transformed local zoning and local land use policies—historically tools for segregation and concentrating pollution in low-income communities and communities of color—into means for addressing the cumulative burdens borne by environmental justice communities.”

From the report’s executive summary:


The reviewed approaches include both municipal and regional land use measures that fall into several categories:


1. Bans on specific types of polluting facilities typically sited in environmental justice communities


2. Broad environmental justice policies that incorporate environmental justice goals and considerations into a range of municipal activities


3. Environmental review processes applied to new developments


4. Proactive planning targeted at future development to address environmental justice via comprehensive plans, overlay zones or green zones


5. Targeted land use measures that address existing sources of pollution, like amortization policies


6. Enhanced public health codes that reach both existing and new sources of pollution that impact public health

The report highlights several policies, including one adopted by Baltimore, which is one of only six U.S. cities that prohibit land use by industries that are determined to be harmful for public health. It also details a regulation in Washington, D.C. that seeks to protect all communities from “disproportionate exposure” to hazards as the city expands.

Says the report, “Led and informed by the lived experience and expertise of local residents and strong community organizations, such places can take on environmental injustices proactively and transform themselves into true sanctuaries for all residents.”

Read the entire report here.