Advocacy Planning and Environmental Justice in Michigan’s Most Polluted Zip Code

Photo by Lisa Berglund

The 48217 zip code of Detroit is considered the most polluted zip code in Michigan. This fact was discovered by public health scholar-advocates concerned with environmental justice in this majority Black city. Many residents of 48217 are children of the second great migration, and part of a very tight knit community that boasts a lingering spirit of ‘real Southern values’ of respect and warmth. They are also afflicted with high poverty rates, plummeting land values and some of the highest cancer and asthma rates in the state.

But leveraging scientific findings to advocate for the community is not a practice left to scholars. 48217 is an example of a community that has adapted to technocratic practices themselves, taking on the role of data collectors and researchers as a form of resistance. This activism is often entirely independent of the efforts and knowledge of expert activists who are professionally trained. But despite the rigor of this scientific approach to activism, the work of residents goes invalidated and is brushed aside by the development powers that be. When it comes to flexing the tools of scientific expertise, in 48217, it’s less about what you know, and more about who you are.

The scholars in public health who advocate for the community are in good company. Academics in fields like urban planning and law, environmental non-profits, and the public health director of Detroit have spoken unwaveringly about one point: their expertise shows that allowing this level of pollution from petroleum, electricity and steel production in close proximity to homes, is deadly. With what they tout as strong relationships to the 48217 community, these professionals share figures and charts at public hearings and other venues, hoping to leverage their status as experts towards environmental justice. These professionals and their fight against environmental racism is a continuation of a tradition of advocacy planning that was introduced into planning scholarship in the 60s. But this type of technocratic practice towards political ends (even when a given community benefits from them), has met its critics. Some say is at odds with the experiences and knowledge of communities living with planning injustice. Tom Angotti wrote on this site earlier this year that, “Planning schools and the profession are now equipped with powerful new tools enhancing this technocratic power. With GIS, green technology and computer assisted design, planners have moved even further away from people.” But is the knowledge that drives activism by communities like 48217 necessarily different from that of so-called technocrats? Furthermore, are advocacy planners more successful than communities at inciting change?

A HISTORY of RESISTANCE

The 48217 community has developed a strong culture of resistance over many decades of heavy pollution, problematic planning practice and all-around disinvestment. As one life-long resident and activist said, “If we don’t fight for it, we don’t get it.” Even the neighborhood’s name is emblematic of this resistance. It may seem odd to call a neighborhood by its zip code, but residents have described it as a form of resistance in itself. There are many explanations for the naming. One resident recalled that they started using the zip code when racialized gerrymandering oddly split the neighborhood into two different congressional districts. It was the community’s way of saying that even though their vote was divided, they were still united. Similarly, another resident believed that the name came into use when Interstate 75 was constructed, bisecting the neighborhood and displacing residents. Again, they wanted to say that in spite of a political disregard for the community, they would not be divided, physically or otherwise. Other residents said that the use of a number was simply a way of expressing that they felt dehumanized and forgotten. A resident, and local business owner said, “We often get forgotten about out here. We are a huge community full of families. I think that our situation out here in 48217 is very distinct, and it’s very unique and I think that the city has turned their back on us.”

However, the media portrays a limited view of this resistance. They often gather quotes from residents who have been locked in a struggle with planners and local politicians. The depiction of the community in the media is one of heartache, anger and the loss of loved ones to diseases like cancer and kidney failure. Another common story that is told by the media is one of community advocates: the development experts who leverage their status to speak on behalf of the community. However, what the media has missed thus far is the community’s commitment to telling their story through science, mirroring the strategies of professionals in order to advocate for themselves.

COMMUNITY DATA EXPERTS

48217 residents have long been dissatisfied with the types of air quality measurements taken by the EPA and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) that typically tout the safe levels of toxins. While headlines focus on this type of advocacy by professionals in public health, planning and law, it is essential to recognize the technical expertise of residents – that steps far beyond the personal histories, or anecdotal accounts, that are often considered in participatory planning processes as “community knowledge”.

To the contrary, the 48217 community has created data that challenges some of the air quality readings and health outcomes reported by environmental regulating agencies, and self-reporting by heavily polluting industries. Contrary to assumptions that are sometimes made about marginalized communities by advocacy planners (who often have the best of intentions), 48217 residents have done their homework. Living in the shadow of industry, the 48217 community has familiarized themselves with the environmental regulations and planning policies that have worsened their air quality and decimated their property values. They are well versed in the mechanisms that allow Marathon Oil and other industries to continually and legally increase their emissions of harmful toxins. They are adept and strategic about organizing class action lawsuits, and they see through bureaucratic practices that allow industry to pollute with impunity. They also have a deep understanding of the science behind air quality measurements and the health impacts of such staggering rates of air toxins.

At one point, they requested that the city fund a cancer cluster study for residents in the neighborhood, but were denied. Residents took matters into their own hands by systematically surveying, home by home, block by block, who in which households had been diagnosed with cancer. The results they uncovered were shocking. On one block alone, they found that 17 residents had died from cancer or had been diagnosed. A resident who led the survey effort said, “That’s when we all learned that something was horribly wrong. We discovered that in just about every home we visited, someone told us that someone had died in that house from cancer. Or, someone was presently diagnosed with it.” Despite this evidence, a long-term study of the area’s cancer rates has yet to be funded.

They also worked with an environmental non-profit to take air quality readings from inside homes, which are believed by health professionals to trap toxins and create hazardous environments. The community-initiated tests revealed startling amounts of indoor toxins. Despite the rigor of this community collected data, no action has been taken that would indicate that the city or environmental regulating agencies believe scientific testing can be managed and completed by the residents of 48217.

48217 residents have taken on the practices of professional planners as well. In a study initiated by the area’s county commissioner (a resident of an adjacent area of Southwest Detroit), they put together a blight study of their community, going house by house, meticulously recording the status of homes in different degrees of disrepair. They did this in hopes to secure funding for blight removal. These efforts were to no avail. The residents’ practice was no different from those professionals that conducted the Detroit Blight Removal Taskforce Report only a few years later. But the Detroit Blight Removal Taskforce Report was actually used to decide where blight removal funding should go. Again, the community used the same methodology that, for all intents and purposes, was used by professionally trained technocrats. But the resident-led strategies and shocking figures never created a stir that made for real change.

Despite the technical knowledge possessed by the community, they are kept at arm’s length and obstructed from being able to change the systems that pollute and oppress them. The MDEQ – responsible for making decisions on emissions increase permits—and also responsible for the Flint water crisis – holds hearings where their experts provide data about the safety of air quality. The results shared at these hearings almost always side with industry, and pave the way for companies like Marathon Oil or Great Lakes Steel to increase their pollution. These hearings also provide no meaningful opportunity for community members to speak their piece outside of disjointed, one-off public comment periods where individuals can share their opinions and experiences in one and a half minute increments. But residents take these small opportunities to dispute the science being presented that favors industry. In a public comment, one resident activist said, quoting Malcolm X, “A little before my time a man a lot smarter than me said you cannot stab me with a nine-inch knife, pull it out seven inches, and call it progress. Do not show me a graph that says you’re only poisoning my children a little bit.”

PROFESSIONAL KNOWLEDGE or INTUITION?

If 48217 is any indication, we can expect that many forms of “technical knowledge” are actually quite intuitive. Many types of knowledge that planners describe as unique to the profession, like land use and environmental planning, might be considered common sense if you are part of a community that has been victimized by unjust development practices. Residents of 48217 resist harmful development patterns and learn planning and environmental practices as a matter of survival. Of course, there are many times when the professional planning community uses overly technical plans and jargon that are not accessible. But should advocacy planning make the assumption that communities without professional training are incapable of initiating activism without the help of technical experts? The activism of 48217 residents might suggest that there is a much bigger gray area than the technocrat-community binary insisted on by many advocacy planners. The role of communities in producing technical data has been part of the environmental justice movement (see Street Science by Jason Corburn among others). But the dynamic is always portrayed as one where a benevolent planner and expert-activist steps in to help the community comprehend issues like air quality, EPA regulations and planning constraints for environmental justice. While this type of intervention is sometimes necessary and extremely valuable, it represents the default assumption of a lack of knowledge of science held by communities facing injustice.

For 48217, the issue is not that marginalized communities inherently lack technocratic knowledge. The issue is that race and class oppression that are at play in planning processes prohibit technocratic knowledge from being accepted as valid when it comes from communities, rather than professionals. When planners insist that we are the only ones who can comprehend legal, professional and technical practices, planners play a role in the exclusion of communities of certain backgrounds. Even further, the assumption that certain communities are unable to comprehend scientific and legal concepts is ignorant to the fact that advocacy planners themselves, often with professional training, fight an uphill battle to be heard. In other words, why do we highlight the deficits in community knowledge when technically trained advocacy planners see limited results towards justice themselves? It is necessary for community planning to step beyond the community-technocrat binary, and gain a more sophisticated and individualized understanding of community knowledge, without broad brushing in the name of justice.

 

Lisa Berglund is an assistant professor in the School of Planning at Dalhousie, University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her research focuses on community development in the context of post-crisis and post-disaster cities. She is particularly concerned with the historically demonstrated potential for race and class disparity to be reproduced in cities rebuilding due to economic, social and/or political crises.