Objectively, climate change and environmental issues affect everyone. It’s also undeniable that marginalized groups are affected disproportionately by them, having traditionally lived and worked closest to pollution hazards such as hazardous waste facilities or in communities with a lack of clean water.  

As a result of these long-standing injustices, the environmental justice movement has grown rapidly. Addressing environmental inequalities is becoming a priority in recent legislation across the United States, including the latest Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) which aims to improve public health, reduce pollution, and deliver economic revitalization to communities that have been historically left behind.

On everything from clean water and waste management to access to sustainable transportation, it is crucial to put environmental justice at the forefront of your sustainability plans, and community engagement can be an essential tool to achieving this.

What is environmental justice?

At its core, environmental justice is the equitable distribution of environmental risks and benefits. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it is also the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of everyone in a community in the creation of environmental laws and policies.

In Flint, Michigan, a city with a historically large African-American population, residents lived through a water crisis caused by lead-poisoned city drinking water from the Flint River after the state faced a budget crisis. It took five years for the city to rectify the situation, leaving over 100,000 people without access to clean water, and community members were left with little opportunity to have their voices and concerns heard.

Environmental justice seeks to reverse and amend afflictions like these, and also create better future conditions. Environmental laws and policies around topics like land appropriation, resource extraction, and the placement of hazardous facilities have historically placed a disproportionate burden on lower-income communities and communities of color, but the growing justice and community engagement movements have significant potential to bring marginalized populations’ voices to the table.

What areas of environmental and sustainability planning can most benefit from community engagement and environmental justice?

When thinking of where and how you can incorporate community engagement into your policies in the pursuit of environmental justice, it’s crucial to examine the historical and economic conditions of your community to determine the problem areas. Here are a few areas to consider when looking to prioritize plans:

  • Legacy pollution and resource extraction: Industries can come and go over the years based on where natural resources lie. While communities may receive a brief economic boost during times when their area is in high demand, they can be left with toxic chemicals that linger and infrastructure that is left behind for disrepair once industries have extracted and used up the resource they came for. This can result in unsafe living conditions, from contaminated air and water to dangerous abandoned buildings and equipment with no concrete plans for cleanup. It’s important to take a hard look at your community to see how your residents might be affected by legacy pollution and engage with them to hear and address their concerns.
  • Accessibility of sustainable transportation: By promoting sustainable transportation methods and the improvement of current public transportation, funding from initiatives such as the IIJA and ARPA will be crucial for local governments’ ability to tackle both transportation and environmental justice. Robust public transportation and the reduction of single-rider commuting is a key first step in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building more sustainable communities. But currently, many transit-reliant residents, who also tend to be of a lower socio-economic class, and communities are experiencing significant struggles with reliable public transportation. This has a direct correlation to economic stability and employment opportunities and contributes to deeper inequities. Additionally, sustainable transportation methods such as electric or hybrid vehicles tend to be more expensive, therefore making them unattainable for many residents. Implementing and supporting sustainable transportation methods such as improved public transit and accessible electric vehicle programs requires careful planning to successfully integrate with a city’s infrastructure and ensure the entire community can benefit from sustainable urban development. Engage with your community to get a sense on where the current gaps exist and how you can best prioritize funding available to address these gaps and ultimately contribute to environmental justice.
  • Distribution of waste and recycling services: If communities don’t have access to waste and recycling services, residents won’t be as inclined to make it a point of focus in their day to day lives. In the pursuit of more sustainable communities, this is a challenge for many cities who do not have the infrastructure or resources in place. There is a clear trend in the United States that more affluent communities tend to have better programs in place to provide effective recycling services, making it easier for everyone in that community to make more sustainable decisions. Down the line, these same communities also have more influence in where this waste is disposed of in efforts to keep their streets clean. But this waste has to be put somewhere, and where does it usually end up? Lower income communities. So not only is there inequity in the distribution of collection services, there is inequity in the distribution of waste itself. To promote environmental justice, it’s important to consult community members when deciding, for example, which land will be used for garbage dumps and incinerators as well as when developing waste management infrastructure to ensure no one bears too much of the trash burden.

How can community engagement promote environmental justice?

As you look into addressing and fixing environmental justice issues as well as developing new sustainability plans for your community, it’s crucial to recognize and rectify this inequality through inclusive community engagement methods. By rolling out an online community engagement platform while developing these plans to tackle environmental topics, you can access traditionally unheard voices, pinpoint these inequalities, and fill gaps in climate planning to achieve environmental justice.

Environmental justice will not happen overnight, and it is essential to include your community along the way to make sure it is achieved. The end target is to create an open and accessible decision-making process that results in decisions that are economically feasible, environmentally sound, and address public values and concerns. Community engagement in the decision-making and planning process will be an invaluable asset to help you reach the goal of environmental justice.’

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