Who knows best?


Following the paths of least resistance, governments and corporations often locate polluting facilities in urban and rural settings that disproportionately disfavor poor minorities. Communities affected by such health disparities hold the knowledge and experience required for companies, regulators, and policymakers to manage the adverse effects of their practices.

Mill Creek, Philadelphia – a city with harsh socio-economic conditions and racial discrimination, “was laid waste by the flow of water and capital and the violence of redevelopment and neglect.”[1] Experts and regulators failed to identify the slowly unrelenting infrastructural failure. The San Francisco Bay Area’s analysis of  toxic air releases found consistent health disparities according to race. These findings affirm a substantial body of evidence which have found correlations between polluting facilities and minority communities since the late 1970s and motivated community responses. It is through such community engagements that local knowledge is enhanced to produce change.

Having a particular social group consistently suffer from environmental hazards isn’t simply unsustainable but also against the principle of environmental justice that “all people and communities are entitled to equal protection of environmental and public health laws and regulations.”[2] While no one individual may be responsible for targeting such communities, biased policies and regulations have created systematic health inequities. This is deeply connected to factors of income, land use, and power dynamics that, together, strongly influence the decision-making process determining where polluting facilities may go. Thus, “differential access to political power and policy voice”[3] combined with a historic legacy of structures based on race have created an environment which systematically disfavors minorities and people of color.

Resulting from this, movements that began in the 1970s to address such issues now challenge “the exclusive nature  of environmental decision-making.”[4] These recognize that traditional technocratic methods of assessing impact are insufficient for fully understanding local problems. Instead, qualitative information and local knowledge are also fundamental to the development and implementation processes for minimizing inequalities and decreasing exposures to potential environmental hazards. Through processes of co-production and leveraging the local expertise of “street science,” policymaking can holistically include the partial and plural positions of professionals and lay people.[5] The active participation and inclusion of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income for the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies can ensure the mitigation of environmental hazards. For instance, Fisher et al.’s GIS analysis of air toxics in West Oakland presents a traditional analysis that, when combined with community members, was able to achieve positive health outcomes.[6] But their methodology lacked a wholly inclusive participatory model that used local knowledge throughout their process. Instead, examples such as those in Greenpoint/Williamsburg and Mill Creek illustrate the ways in which locals and “experts” can cooperate for the production of knowledge.  Planners must go beyond superficial community meetings that superficially hear laymen’s opinions without including them in the decision-making process. Only then will communities and policymakers be able to balance economic development with social justice and environmental protection for sustainability.

Furthermore, this is a process which must not stop once a decision is taken. As impacts and consequences evolve, unanticipated changes may often occur. Such situations require adaptive planning and adjustments that consistently integrate communities’ plight. An example of such an endeavor could be found in the Richmond Bay Campus planning process. Using a variety of resources and paths to engage with and analyze the potential impacts of the campus expansion, communities have been informed, involved and integrated. As the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society (HIFIS)’s reports explains, potential benefits from improved neighborhoods and rising property values bring risks of displacement and gentrification. With these are tied problems of increased car use and greater overall emissions. While anticipating such issues during planning processes is critical, communities must continue to stay involved even after an agreement has finalized a decision to ensure its ensuing consequences are properly administered.

Environmental justice is not simply about toxic facilities and polluting industries, but about place-based determinants that influence people’s quality of life. From the availability of quality food to the decreased options for public transportation, power dynamics consistently shape the capabilities people have based on factors outside their control. In the growing age of the city, understanding the effects such choices have on people will greatly contribute to improved targeting and leveraging synergies for positive cumulative impact.

[1] Spirn, Anne. 2005. Restoring Mill Creek: Landscape Literacy, Environmental Justice and City Planning and Design. Landscape Research, Vol. 30, No. 3, 395 – 413, July.

[2] Bullard RD. 1996. Symposium: the legacy of American apartheid and environmental racism. St. Joh’s J. Leg. Comment. 9:445-74

[3] Pastor, M. J. Saad, R. Morello-Frosh. 2007. Still Toxic After All These Years: Air Quality and

Environmental Justice in the San Francisco Bay Area. Center for Justice, Tolerance &

Community, University of California, Santa Cruz.

[4] Water and Environmental Justice. 2012. The Pacific Institute

[5] Corburn, J. 2005. Street Science.

[6] Brulle, R. & Pellow, David. 2005. Environmental Justice: Human Health and Environmental Inequalities. Annual Reviews Public Health. 27:103-24


7 thoughts on “Who knows best?

  1. frobertsgregory

    Thank you for posting! EJ issues are at the heart and center of sustainable development as far as I am concerned. EJ forces us to reckon with the past, present and future. I loved how the Mill Creek article encouraged us to promote landscape literacy in addition to traditional conceptions of literacy. Landscape literacy values local knowledge and memories. I think this is the first step towards democratized environmental decision-making. Environmental or green knowledge is inherently interdisciplinary, so we have to value different types of knowledge before we can all sit at the table. Capacity building is also important.

  2. You state that to mitigate environmental hazards all should participate and be included in the environmental policy and regulation process. However, as you mention, including everyone is a challenge, and having everyone, or at least a majority, participate is even harder. So how can we improve that? Personally, I believe that it all starts with education and social norms. We should aim to make people realize the importance of their involvement and participation in the processes from a young age, be conscious of it and internalize that idea as not only a duty,but a right, people would exerce it and defend it with the same passion they defend many other rights (e.g. free speech, private property, etc).

  3. aldotudela7

    Thanks for this thorough and well-written posts. I agree that there are social and environmental injustices present in our current urban realms. Although you do mention it, I think that zoning laws and housing policies are one of the main reasons for these issues to be geographically localized among the most vulnerable communities. We need to change these policies to finally have tools that deal with social and environmental injustices.

  4. niavila

    Great post. Promoting active participation and inclusion of all people is a big challenge. Even if the system is improved to be all inclusive, will that guarantee participation of all people? This becomes an individual behavioral issue that is very difficult to understand and change. Despite these difficulties, you are right, inclusion is necessary and cannot be overlook.

  5. One thing we talk about in my Community Development Studio all the time is that the work we are doing in Bayview Hunters Point SF could almost be done in any American City. That each has its placed of legacy environmental injustices and that while each requires a unique approach, lessons from one should be brought to another. This point reminds me of that as you go through EJ issues in several places and Caitlin’s comment about another case internationally. Very thoughtful and well-written entry!

  6. jennamhahn

    I really like your blog, I feel like it pulls together many themes we have been discussing throughout the semester. I am curious however, you state: “The active participation and inclusion of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income for the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies can ensure the mitigation of environmental hazards.” This seems like a wonderful goal, but I am curious how we go about reaching it, especially in places that are not as open to collaboration, or aren’t even aware of their implicit or explicit exclusions – especially on the implementation and enforcement sides, since those have extreme imbalances of power for minorities by who are the decision-makers and enforcers. I suppose that is an ongoing struggle we have to work to undo in order to truly plan sustainably.

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