Empowerment forum

Equal access to the decision-making process is a key element in environmental justice. Here, a group gathers for an empowerment forum in Newport News VA. (Darius Stanton/Chesapeake Bay Program/2017)

As we continue our crusade as stewards to conserve the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, it is impossible not to think of the 18 million people who live, work and play in its watershed.

Environmental protection is a job for all of us. But local governments leaders are the secret weapon for strengthening the connections between residents, their communities and their environment to maintain sustainable practices over the long term and reach our local and common goals. Local elected officials have the opportunity to understand the complex environmental needs of their communities and voice those concerns.

The end result should be to create and maintain a resilient society that promotes ecological wellness and improved health for all, right? To achieve our common goals, we must have real and frank conversations about environmental justice.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” The movement began during the Civil Rights era, when individuals fought against hazardous dumping sites that bordered their communities and caused numerous health concerns.

Similar documented cases of residents fighting for equitable support led to a first-of-its-kind toxic waste study by the United Church of Christ Commission on Racial Justice in 1987. The commission found that “over 15 million African Americans, 8 million Hispanics, and half of all Asian/Pacific Islanders and Native Americans resided in communities with at least one abandoned or uncontrolled toxic waste site.” This study showed the disproportionate correlation between race and socioeconomic status and the placement of hazardous sites.

These situations can be directly traced to redlining, which established neighborhood boundaries that limited or restricted access to certain amenities and services based on discriminatory social constructs. It derived from an era when the Home Owners’ Loan Corp. designed color-coded maps of major cities to inform financial lenders of mortgage risks in certain areas. According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, “Neighborhoods considered high risk or ‘hazardous’ were often ‘redlined’ by lending institutions, denying them access to capital investment which could improve the housing and economic opportunity of residents.” The impact of environmental inequities on historically redlined communities still exists prominently today.

For the EPA, environmental justice is achieved when everyone has the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and has equal access to the decision-making processes that ensure a healthy environment.

It is important to remember that these goals do not pertain to low-income or racially marginalized communities only. When we talk about environmental justice, we talk about equity among diverse societies and landscapes as well. For example, a bustling urban sector and an active coastal town do not experience the same challenges. Factors associated with climate, population density, air quality, infrastructure and recreational access, to name a few, all vary by location and should not be generalized or dismissed. As local elected officials, understanding our communities’ demographic, regional and land use data is paramount to creating equitable and sustainable strategies.

We also must do our part to inform and engage our constituents on policies that promote a sustainable society. We have an obligation to translate how protecting the land we live on, the water we drink and the air we breathe is critical to the everyday lives of local residents. We can do this by acknowledging our current needs, future goals, and truths related to the environmental inequities we identify and assess.

So, how can local decision-makers challenge injustice in their communities? Sustainable neighborhoods are key. Here are some actions that can meaningfully integrate environmental justice principles into advocacy and decision-making while fostering a sense of place among residents.

Identify smart growth solutions. Smart growth is a concept that prioritizes meaningful societal development by encouraging collaboration and the implementation of “green” initiatives. It supports inclusive housing according to the culture of the community, safe walkable neighborhoods, incorporating green spaces and the analysis of innovative long-term developmental strategies. This approach aims to connect residents to their neighborhoods, and local governments to the development process, in an efficient and sustainable manner.

  • Support efficiency measures in affordable housing. It may sound costly, but the installation of energy-efficient devices within residential buildings and affordable housing can have many benefits. The EPA’s Energy Efficiency in Affordable Housing guide for local governments analyzes the potential impacts. It explains the benefits, such as improved housing costs for low-income communities and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Insufficient planning for residential neighborhoods, including both the misuse of energy-conscious external (windows, insulation, etc.) and interior materials (paint, indoor appliances, etc.), can lead to the overproduction of nearby industry, increased environmental and public health risks, and higher displacement of residents.
  • Invest in green infrastructure. Installations of forest buffers or rain gardens help beautify the community while capturing polluted runoff. They also help combat climate-related problems. Green infrastructure may meet with reluctance, though. Check out the EPA’s guide to Overcoming Barriers to Green Infrastructure to understand what can work best.
  • Create workforce benefits. It’s important to understand the return on investment from establishing careers dedicated to launching and maintaining green initiatives. Building a green workforce can stimulate the local economy, create opportunities for a diverse public and improve the value of sustainable practices on a consistent basis.

The impact of sustainable communities can lead to increased life expectancies, an influx in the local economy and the attainment of your environmental goals. And that can affect your community for generations to come.

So the next time you think about conservation, ponder the gaps between the communities you serve. Only together can we protect our local waterways, so let’s encourage each other and get on the same page. Are you doing your part to fight for all through environmental justice? If not – talk about it.

Jasmine Gore is a councilmember in Hopewell, VA, chair of the Local Government Advisory Committee to the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council.

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