Planners Network

The Organization of Progressive Planning

Progressive Planning Magazine

Sustainable and Environmentally Just Societies

May 6, 1998 by Administrator in May/June 1998

by Sandra Rodriguez

Communities of color have much to contribute to sustainability because of their front-line experiences in struggles against environmental degradation and health risks they face in their neighborhoods and workplaces. The environmental issues faced by communities of color reflect everyday life experiences of social, economic and political disenfranchisement. Yet, for the most part, their concerns and perspectives have been marginalized from mainstream discussion about sustainability and the environment. These concerns are with environmental racism, the unequal burden of pollution borne by communities of color, and the exclusion of environmental justice principles from visions of sustainable societies.

Environmental Justice

A landmark 1987 study by the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, documented how commercial hazardous facilities were concentrated in and near communities with the highest proportion of racial and ethnic minorities. In the United States, and more recently in Canada, further documentation has shown how the most common victims of environmental pollution are people of color. These communities are disproportionately burdened by environmental hazards including hazardous waste facilities, incinerators, contaminated soil and polluting industries. Environmental inequities are being countered by an emerging movement working towards environmental justice. In October 1991 in Washington D.C. over 600 people working on environmental justice issues came together at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. This was the first time that people of color from throughout North America convened in order to define their environmental agenda and develop a process that would guide what has been described as a multi-racial movement for change. An important outcome of this summit was the development and adoption of seventeen “Principles of Environmental Justice” (see page 6). As a whole, these principles represent a call to action against environmental inequities and address issues of democracy, marginalization, poverty, and discrimination. They state the right of people of color to live in and fully participate in healthy and just communities. They outline a vision for a just and sustainable society, and include elements necessary to any discussion about sustainability.

Rev. Benjamin Chavis, civil rights leader and Executive Director of the Commission for Racial Justice, defines environmental racism as “any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individual groups, or communities based on their race and color.” Environmental racism “combines with public policies and industry practices to shift the costs of industrial pollution to people of color.” This form of oppression is maintained by a system of ideas, laws, and practices that work to regulate the aspirations, actions and livelihood of people of color. The education system, political and administrative bodies, private corporations and the mainstream media reinforce racism on a continuing basis. Racism experienced by these communities is inseparable from their broader experiences of social, economic, and political marginalization. As a result, they seldom frame their struggles as “environmental” problems, but rather as issues of social justice. Issues such as poverty, racism, and access to decisionmaking, which are central to environmental justice struggles, have been noticeably absent from discussions about sustainability. The sustainability literature has mostly been concerned with the physical degradation of the environment and the ecological limits to economic growth. Only recently have social issues been dealt with in any depth. This interest can be seen in the work of Trevor Hancock, a leader in the international healthy cities movement. In his article, “Healthy Sustainable Communities: Concept, Fledgling Practice and Implications for Governance,” Hancock makes the point that social issues need to be addressed if truly sustainable societies are to be achieved. But while there is increasing discussion about the social dimensions of sustainability, these discussions fall short of addressing and naming systemic power relations based on race, class, and gender.

Racism and Sustainability

The truth is that sustainability discussions do not adequately deal with the issue of racism. In some sustainability literature there is an acknowledgment that discrimination in general must be dealt with, but I have yet to encounter a discussion on sustainability that confronts racist relations directly. Discussions of sustainability do not adequately deal with how racism works to limit life choices and reduce the quality of life in communities of color. Nor do they address the systemic nature of racism and how it is reproduced within the institutional framework of capitalist societies.

For planners this is particularly important since the unequal distribution of environmental degradation is partly the result of inequitable and discriminatory planning processes which mediate how zoning and other environmental regulations are organized and enforced. Environmental justice activists have begun to document and expose how discriminatory planning processes not only marginalize the interests of communities of color, but limit their participation, representation, and access to decisionmaking power. It is vital that institutional racism be named and confronted so that power relations are exposed and communities empowered.

Are “We” in This Together?

An underlying premise in discussions of sustainability is that “we” are in this together. This generic “we” assumes that all people are equally to blame for society’s environmental problems, and that “we” all have a responsibility to change our lifestyles to “save the planet.” As Catherine Lerza asks in her article “Race, Poverty and Sustainable Communities”: “Are the poor, the marginalized equally to blame for the waste and pollution that exists, when they are the people least benefiting from economic growth and they are bearing most of the environmental burden?”

East Los Angeles, a predominantly Latino neighborhood, is currently considered a “human sacrifice zone” because there is a large concentration of polluting industry in the area and new polluters continue to locate there. In Toronto, residents of South Riverdale, a predominately low-income community, have been fighting for over twenty years to get lead contaminated soil cleaned up. Throughout North America, but particularly in the United States, the concentration of poverty in urban areas coincides with the residential segregation of people of color. These communities, located in areas with low land values, receive more unwanted land uses such as polluting private and public facilities. Many are ill-equipped to deal with the pollution. At the same time, they are struggling daily to deal with unemployment, poverty, housing, education, and health problems. Further, many residents do not have the economic means to leave polluted neighborhoods for more desirable (i.e., less polluted) locations.

In their article, “Capitalism and the Crisis of Environmentalism,” Daniel Faber and James O’Connor argue that capital “always seeks to pollute in ways that encounter the least political resistance.” Therefore, people and communities that have the least political power and resources to defend themselves are the most vulnerable. Further, these communities are underrepresented on governing bodies where land use siting decisions are made. Under-representation translates into limited access to policy makers and lack of advocates for minority interests.

It is obvious that “we” are not in this together. The assumption that all people regardless of race, class, or gender are in this together needs to be dispelled, and advocates of sustainability need to understand how the costs and benefits of industrial and economic expansion are not equally distributed. Sustainability needs to address the paradox that growth and development are sources of both wealth and destruction, with particular ramifications for people of color.

The Future vs. The Present

Discussions of sustainability tend to be forward thinking and futurist, projecting an ideal vision of a “sustainable city.” But environmental justice advocates reject the single vision of a sustainable city and are more interested in the amelioration of existing inequities. The forward looking perspective does not take into consideration the immediate problems and struggles for environmental justice such as those in South Riverdale and East Los Angeles. While it is important that sustainability be forward thinking, it should also address existing conditions that are inherently unsustainable.

Many visions of sustainable societies, like that of “new urbanism,” reflect the needs and interests of the white middle class. Their prescriptions for a sustainable society are implemented, for the most part, in a top-down fashion that leaves little space for community input.

The environmental justice movement has much to contribute to the sustainability discourse. The movement’s knowledge and strategies are not being developed in academic settings, government institutions or by consultants, but at the community level where environmental justice struggles are taking place. These communities have many ideas about the key elements of a sustainable society and the issues that must be confronted.

Discussions of sustainability need to address systemic racism and its impacts, recognize the unequal burden of pollution on communities of color, and question the people with the power to formulate visions of sustainable societies. They must include a broader understanding of the structural and political forces that maintain power inequalities so that environmental problems and the needs of diverse peoples are addressed within the social, political, and economic realities in which they are embedded. As different constituencies redefine issues and set their own agendas according to their own needs, concerns, and identities, a universal strategy for sustainability will not do. Rather, there will have to be multiple and diverse strategies for sustainability.


Sandra V. Rodriguez is a Master’s student in Environmental Studies and Urban Planning at York University, Toronto, Canada. She is a co-founder of the Multi-Racial Network for Environmental Justice, a community-based environmental justice organization in Toronto.

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Planners Network is an association of professionals, activists, academics, and students involved in physical, social, economic, and environmental planning in urban and rural areas, who promote fundamental change in our political and economic systems.

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