May 7, 2019; CityLab
“Zoning’s beginnings had a lot to do with the exclusion of low-income people from certain areas of the city, and in the intervening century, zoning has continued to be used to confine low-income people and people of color to particular areas of a city,” notes Nicole Javorsky in CityLab. Zoning has long facilitated the concentration of environmental hazards like hazardous waste facilities, fossil fuel storage and transportation sites, and other polluting facilities in communities of color and low-income communities. But now some cities are using zoning to reverse this damage.
The 49-page report authored by Ana Baptista of the Tishman Environment and Design Center at the New School in New York City and published by the National Resource Defense Council argues, “If zoning and land use policies got us into this mess, they have the potential to get us out of it.”
So, what are these policies? The report surveys 40 policies from over 20 cities, three counties, and two utility service areas across the country that promote environmental justice and focus on six areas:
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 or expanded 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 examples of each of these practices. Regarding bans, in Baltimore, Javorsky notes, “In 2018, environmental justice advocates, including local neighborhood groups and national environmental groups with local chapters, successfully pushed for a ban on new crude oil terminals in Baltimore.” Other municipalities passing similar bans are Chicago; Portland, Oregon; Oakland, California; and Seattle and Whatcom County in Washington.
Broad environmental justice policies have been adopted in three of the 40 communities surveyed—New York City, San Francisco, and Fulton County, Georgia. In San Francisco, the city has spent $12 million since 2000 “in grants for local community projects serving environmental justice areas.” A third mechanism, used in both Fulton County and San Francisco, requires consideration of environmental justice in development plans. In New Jersey, both Camden and Newark have similar policies.
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A fourth strategy used by cities is to revise comprehensive plans to set environmental goals, a strategy used by Eugene, Oregon; National City, California; Washington, DC; and Fulton County, Georgia. DC, for example, has a section in its comprehensive plan that aims to protect all communities from “disproportionate exposure” to hazards. A number of cities surveyed, including Seattle, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis, have adopted approved “green zones” to promote improved heath and sustainable economic development.
Amortization policies are a fifth way for cities to phase out existing polluting facilities. For example, National City, California, located south of San Diego, “has an amortization ordinance, which phases out industries near sensitive areas and includes a process for relocating businesses.”
Finally, the report lists San Francisco and Oakland, California; Chicago, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; and Erie, Colorado as cities that have all used public health codes to protect people from air pollutants.
All told, Baptista finds more than two dozen cities that have enacted environmental justice policies, using at least one of the six strategies she identifies.
Is this enough? It’s far from clear. The persistence of environmental racism is deep-seated, and no one should underestimate the severity of its challenges. Just last week, for example, NPQ covered a story about the 250,000 residents of Los Angeles, mostly Latinx, who face lead and arsenic poisoning. But in her report, Baptista chooses to emphasize the progress resulting from local reform and ends on a hopeful note:
Fed up with inaction at the state and federal levels, and aware of inherent gaps in the reach of state and federal environmental laws with respect to local, cumulative impacts, [environmental justice] communities turned to their local institutions to formulate responses. This localization of efforts opened up the opportunity to hold local leaders and agencies more accountable to the expertise and demands of local environmental justice organizations and impacted residents. The insights gained from these policies will fuel a new era of local environmental justice policies taking a holistic approach to achieving environmental justice.