The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released an extensive new publication that serves as a guide for low-income, minority, tribal and overburdened communities to build smart, environmentally just, and equitable developments using strategies that are accessible and affordable. The guidelines build upon precedents of past successes within struggling communities, whether these struggles are in the face of discrimination, social or economic prejudices, or environmental injustice. The EPA identifies seven common elements that have been illustrated in in-depth case studies of communities that have struggled with those very issues. By targeting community groups, governmental agencies, private and non-profit partners, regional and local planners and residents of these communities, the EPA’s smart growth guide for “Creating Equitable, Healthy and Sustainable Communities: Strategies for Advancing Smart Growth, Environmental Justice, and Equitable Development” seeks to bring access to valuable information about the inherent possibilities to creating healthful, sustainable, and prosperous communities under a variety of circumstances.
Join us after the break for a breakdown of the EPA’s findings and how they address equitability in community development.
Let’s begin by defining the various components of the EPA’s plan. ”Smart Growth” is a range of strategies that integrate environmental protection, public health, support for economic development, and strengthening communities. The basic principles, as defined by the Smart Growth Network, are mix land uses and transportation modes; apply compact building design to preserve open space; provide a range of housing choices; create walking neighborhoods; develop the values of the community and establish “place” through culture, history, economy and geography; preserve natural areas and open spaces; invest in existing communities; collaborate with investors and developers for fair, predictable and cost effective development; and encourage collaboration between community engagement and developers. These principles apply to a variety of scales and are simple guides that were developed in 1996 to give a framework for working communities and equitable development.
“Environmental Justice” is a term, often misused, that has been thrown around in politics since it emerged as a concept in the 1980s. The EPA carefully defines it as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, sex, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies”. This implies that no group should have to bear the burden the negative effects of development, such as pollution, industry, manufacturing facilities, and crime. History teaches us that this concept was much needed throughout the 19th and 20th century. There are countless incidents where whole communities have been razed and destroyed due to environmental damage caused by industrial complexes, infrastructural development, weapons testing, terrorism and pollution of every variety.
Mike Davis’ Dead Cities gives thorough accounts of such environmental disasters in a series of essays that are factual and informative and inherently eye-opening, especially for those living in the United States. In one essay, Davis describes the effects of nuclear weapons testing that occurred near the reservations of Native American tribes – far enough away for the US government to determine them safe, but not nearly far enough to escape the effects of radiation. These self-described “downwinders” are only a fraction of the story, citing a rise in cancers, birth deformations, and illnesses following the testing. Davis’ true point of retelling these horrific incidents of environmental terrorism? We are all “downwinders”. Though most immediate to the direct victims, the effects of environmental injustice is ultimately a state-wide, or nation-wide, if not global problem. After all, can we really classify the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of April 2010 off the coast of Louisiana a “local problem” for the gulf? Every such incident, every misstep in our treatment of the environment and of local communities, is a far-reaching problem.
“Equitable Development” is a broad term that refers to applying strategies that encompass the interests of all members of a community regardless of race, income or ethnicity and provide equal access to healthy, vibrant and sustainable developments, amenities, services and opportunities. Equitable Development is a result of environmental justice and smart growth that work effectively in a collaboration to produce access to environmental, health, economic and social necessities. It fuses the many parts of a community in a form of development that concerns itself with the overall wellness of its residents.
What the EPA’s new guidelines do is support a program that promotes environmental justice through equitable development using smart growth strategies. These are inherently touchy subjects for community development because precedent shows that low-income and minority communities are typically prone to receiving the low end of the bargain when it comes to building new infrastructure, establishing waste treatment facilities or new factories. These communities end up inadvertently sponsoring developments that destroy neighborhoods. On the flipside, when a neighborhood recovers from these environmental injustices – when these abandoned lots, brownfields and dilapidated homes become parks and community centers and residences – the community is transformed into an affluent neighborhood that pushes out the original residents never solving the initial problems of the communities – rather, establishing a new community in place of the old.
In response to this criticism, the EPA argues that the “unintended consequence [of gentrification] has caused some environmental justice and equity proponents to question smart growth’s inclusivity, and has contributed to a divide between smart growth and environmental justice. However, some communities have worked hard to bridge that divide, and have found that a wide range of tools and strategies can be used to engage community members in neighborhood planning and visioning, provide affordable homes and transportation choices, support local businesses, and minimize displacement in other ways”. Lisa Garcia, Associate Assistant Administrator for Environmental Justice at the EPA adds, that “communities across the U.S. are showing that they [environmental justice and smart growth] are actually complementary. Bringing them together can help community-based organizations, local planners, and other stakeholders achieve healthy and sustainable communities for all Americans”.
In the 88-page document, the EPA cites example after example of communities transforming into vibrant and healthy places of economic development, culture and sustainability. The previously mentioned seven common elements that emerge as patterns in this developments become common sense after understanding what smart growth, environmental justice and equitable development entail. They are listed below, as described in the EPA’s Executive Summary of the report.
1. Facilitate Meaningful Community Engagement in Planning and Land Use Decisions
2. Promote Public Health and a Clean and Safe Environment
3. Strengthen Existing Communities
4. Provide Housing Choices
5. Provide Transportation Options
6. Improve Access to Opportunities and Daily Necessities
7. Preserve and Build on the Features That Make a Community Distinctive
Check out the Equitable Development Report for a wealth of information about the case studies that helped build this document and the strategies that can be incorporated into future developments. This report is social justice, environmental justice and economic justice in a nutshell – the possibilities for stronger, more vibrant, more equitable communities.