Environmental Justice in Your City

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

For decades, environmental justice advocates have imagined and advanced a vision of environmental governance that protects the most vulnerable communities from harmful pollutants and negative health impacts. Addressing environmental injustice in the diverse contexts of communities around the United States has resulted in a myriad of policy tools and programs for achieving environmental justice at all levels of government. While environmental injustice has global prevalence, environmental injustices are at their core local issues with a local solution space.

Local governments play a significant role in determining local quality of life through planning, zoning, siting, resource allocation, and enforcement. As a result, local governance offers a unique opportunity to address environmental justice issues. Yet, explicit efforts to improve environmental equity and justice are not widespread in local governance. Data from a 2012 International City Council Management Association (ICMA) survey show that even in local governments where sustainability activities are prevalent, less than half are “high-equity” governments (incorporating six or more “equitable actions” as a component of sustainability). Of the “high-equity” governments identified by ICMA, less than half prioritized environmental justice.

Addressing environmental inequality and justice at the municipal level is no simple task. These efforts must confront the challenge of improving environmental health for communities burdened by multiple layers of systemic inequality and structural marginalization. However, efforts are increasing and becoming more sophisticated. Recent projects by organizations such as the Government Alliance on Race and Equity and Living Cities are engaging with local governments to address racial inequity in all aspects of local governance from environment to budgeting. Cities like Seattle, WA, and Portland, OR, have developed plans, toolkits, and initiatives to incorporate racial equity across municipal decisionmaking.

Baltimore, MD, specifically incorporated an equity lens in its 2019 Sustainability Plan in order to “help eliminate the forces that create and sustain institutional and structural racism and other entrenched inequities in Baltimore.” For Baltimore, this means addressing the city’s history of segregation, divestment, and environmental burdens in low-income communities of color. Baltimore implements its equity lens in the form of a questionnaire that guides local government staff in developing and implementing programs that affect city residents. Baltimore’s questionnaire asks staff to consider whether issues of accessibility, disproportionate impact, and displacement are addressed throughout sustainability programming. The questionnaire also assesses whether proposed sustainability programs and policies are in alignment with the priorities of underserved communities.


Equity questionnaires or checklists like these are a good first step in changing how policies are developed. They signal a deeper cultural shift in how local governments work toward seriously preventing and mitigating local inequality. However, while equity checklists can aim to ensure accountability (as Baltimore’s does), there is no metric or standard for what type of policy or program constitutes “equitable enough.”

Ordinances enacted and implemented by municipal governments can offer a more enforceable mandate for ensuring that the needs of vulnerable communities are considered at the local level. A report published by the Tishman Environment and Design Center in 2019 outlines a number of ordinances that require environmental justice issues be considered, including bans on certain polluting land uses, zoning restrictions, and permitting review processes. These ordinances and plans are often developed with leadership from environmental justice community organizations and in collaboration with city staff.

One example of a permitting review process is the Environmental Justice and Cumulative Impacts Ordinance passed in 2016 in Newark, NJ. The ordinance requires any industrial or commercial applicant seeking an environmental permit from a regulating agency at the city, state, or federal level to provide an Environmental Justice Checklist. The checklist directs applicants to assess the cumulative impact of environmental pollutants in the applicant’s area of proposed development. Cumulative impacts are assessed using a Natural Resource Index (which the city’s Environmental Commission is required to develop but, as of December 2019, has not been done). The application is then reviewed by the city’s Environmental Commission, which provides recommendations to Newark’s planning and zoning boards. While the Environmental Justice Checklist cannot on its own be used to deny a permit, it can be a useful tool for informing the Zoning Board’s decisionmaking process and generally strengthening municipal oversight in the permitting process. The Environmental Justice and Cumulative Impacts Ordinance was proposed by environmental justice advocates and developed in collaboration with Newark city staff.

Some city ordinances specifically target environmentally burdened areas of a municipality. For example, Green Zone ordinances restrict the encroachment of polluting industries in neighborhoods that have high cumulative environmental burdens. Green Zone provisions also direct governmental and grant funding and beneficial programs to affected communities. These programs are developed in collaboration with community organizations and are intended to directly address the needs of the communities within the Green Zone. The concept was first adopted in 2016 in Los Angeles, CA, to address intensely concentrated levels of air pollution in the Boyle Heights, Pacoima, and Wilmington neighborhoods. Residents organized to assess the vulnerability of their neighborhoods to environmental pollution and advocated for the Clean Up Green Up ordinance. The ordinance establishes more stringent health standards for new industrial operations, requires new development to reduce the impacts of air pollution on community residents, and provides city support for small businesses. Other cities such as Commerce, CA, Richmond, CA, and Minneapolis, MN, have made similar efforts to adopt Green Zone ordinances.

Considering equity in sustainability planning in Baltimore, the Environmental Justice and Cumulative Impacts ordinances in Newark, and the Clean Up Green Up ordinance in Los Angeles offer just three examples of many local government strategies used to pursue environmental health for vulnerable and burdened populations in the United States. The Environmental Law Institute is investing in identifying best practices for integrating equity in local environmental governance through its Environmental Justice Initiative. Our goal is to collaborate with local nonprofit community organizations to identify, develop, and help to implement local policies that address environmental inequity. This effort builds on our legacy of working with local governments and local community organizations to improve environmental governance. Our past work includes analyzing policy for indoor air quality, advancing brownfield remediation, identifying strategies for securing environmental justice under federal law, and much more. It also reflects our organization’s mission to make law work for all people. As we move forward into the next 50 years as an organization, we look forward to advancing environmental justice as the keystone to improved environmental governance and thriving communities.