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