Residents of two Spartanburg, S.C., neighborhoods struggled for decades in the shadow of harmful influences on their quality of life.
Living near an active chemical plant, a former dump and an abandoned fertilizer plant, the predominantly African-American populations of Arkwright and Forest Park endured high rates of illness, unemployment and disinvestment.
The two neighborhoods were a textbook example of environmental injustice where historic legacies of discrimination, negligence and lack of political clout saddle disadvantaged communities with an unfair share of pollution producers.
Sustainability, that goes hand-in-hand with smart growth, can lead to a more equitable future for unfairly burdened neighborhoods.
Arkwright and Forest Park are now a textbook example for a different reason. They’ve shown that sustainability — a conservation-based approach to guiding growth and development that goes hand-in-hand with smart growth — can lead to a more equitable future for unfairly burdened neighborhoods.
The journey began 20 years ago and has produced a host of transformative outcomes along with an excellence award from the American Planning Association (APA) for advancing diversity and social change. The latest plan: plant a solar power farm on a 35-acre former landfill with few other possible uses.
Advocates describe sustainability in terms of a triple bottom line — economic prosperity, ecological integrity and social equity. The first two legs typically overshadow the third, but in Spartanburg all three are prominent.
Urban planning and environmental justice can address health disparities within communities.
One resident, Harold Mitchell Jr., got the ball rolling and continues to push it forward. After his father died of an undiagnosed illness, Mitchell, now a South Carolina state representative, formed the ReGenesis Project in 1997 to rally support for cleaning up contaminated and abandoned property and breathing new life into the Arkwright and Forest Park neighborhoods.
After securing an initial $20,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ReGenesis has attracted more than $270 million worth of funding to revitalize the two overburdened neighborhoods while remediating the dump and fertilizer plant — both Superfund sites — and four other brownfield sites.
Besides improving air, soil and water quality, ReGenesis has helped establish six health centers, construct 500 affordable/workforce housing units, provide job training, create senior housing and build a park and community center.
“Rep. Mitchell’s efforts demonstrate how urban planning and environmental justice can address health disparities while making a visible difference within communities,” said W. Shedrick Coleman, an architect who chaired the APA awards jury. “ReGenesis now serves as a model for other communities in South Carolina, across the country and even around the world.”
Environmental injustice is difficult to root out in places like Arkwright and Forest Park where a past web of inequitable laws, policies and practices — everything from redlining to lack of protective zoning — has maintained a lingering grip on communities of color.
“We’ve never completely undone some of those entrenched segregations,” said Vien Truong, director of Green for All, an Oakland nonprofit that assists communities on the frontline of pollution. “We [continue to] see an unfair allocation and siting of processing plants, landfills, dump sites, freeways and highways ... in communities of color and low-income communities.”
The siting of hazardous facilities and infrastructure historically follow the path of least resistance. “There have been documented studies that have shown ... a lot of these sites are placed in these communities because they anticipate less opposition or protests at city hall when these decisions are being made,” Truong said.
A study led by the University of Michigan, “Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty,” found that more than half of the people who live within 1.86 miles of toxic waste facilities in the United States are people of color.
A University of Minnesota study, “National Patterns in Environmental Injustice and Social Equity,” found that minorities are on average exposed to 38 percent higher levels of nitrogen dioxide — a pollutant produced by cars, construction equipment and other sources — than whites in the cities where they live.
The EPA recognizes the relationship between smart growth, environmental justice and equitable development. A recent report, “Creating Equitable, Healthy and Sustainable Communities,” describes how communities can meld the three to address longstanding burdens such as diesel emissions from freight trucks and contaminated soil at former industrial sites.
An online tool published by the EPA called EJSCREEN quantifies environmental justice at a community level. Users click on a map that overlays environmental indicators such as proximity to hazardous waste facilities with demographic indicators such as income and racial makeup to paint a color-coded picture of places pollution might impose an unfair burden.
The EPA developed the tool to help the agency identify areas with disproportionate hazards, enforce regulations and show the progress of active cleanup projects, but also to help people understand and confront environmental injustice in the communities where they live.
Several things need to happen to reduce the disproportionate burden of environmental hazards on disadvantaged populations, Truong said. Decision makers need to more actively engage disadvantaged communities in the planning of projects that affect their health and well-being. That includes going the extra mile to provide adequate notice to residents who may not speak English and who may feel intimidated by the process, she said.
Another step involves using the ecological leg of sustainability to support the equity leg by moving away from pollution generating facilities and activities altogether, she said. “If we can begin reducing the need for landfills or the need for power plants that crank out dirty energy [we can] reduce the burdens that are potentially harming families who live near the facilities.”
Promoting alternative energy sources like electricity and fuel cells to power cars, buses and trucks rather than relying on fossil fuels — especially diesel — is a sustainability win-win-win that uses a renewable energy source, reduces operating costs and curbs air pollution in neighborhoods near busy roads and freeways, Truong said.
Heightened environmental awareness and closer regulation have made inroads against environmental injustice.
Environmental equity isn’t just about addressing the bad stuff. “You need to put in as much equal access to the good stuff as possible,” Truong said. “It’s about making sure that no matter what their income, [people] are living near a park or a pool, making sure the community is walking- and biking-friendly.”
While heightened environmental awareness and closer regulation have made inroads against environmental injustice, “We’re still living through history,” said Gordon Yin, a professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University. “We’re talking about communities that have been persistently disadvantaged and have a lot of remaining problems with infrastructure and toxic environments.”
The good news is that many processing plants, landfills and other toxic facilities have shut down over the years because of changing economics and stricter oversight. The bad news is that these brownfields — which can be as large as a factory or as small as a gas station — remain a blight unless they are cleaned up and made suitable for redevelopment.
People with the least economic status often wind up in the most vulnerable places.
Converting brownfields to productive use is the epitome of sustainability — especially in places where an undue burden of pollution has held back growth and development. “You’re taking something that was a liability and turning it into an asset,” Yin said.
In Tacoma, Wash., a regional health center was built on the site of a former gas station in a low-income neighborhood. In Omaha, Neb., the Salvation Army built a community center on the former site of an auto auction/ salvage yard and meat packing plant in a traditionally underserved part of the city. In Lawrence, Mass., the city is working to transform 14 acres of rail yards and industrial sites into a commercial corridor and connect it to a greenway that winds through some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.
Pollution isn’t the only undue environmental burden that threatens disadvantaged communities. Many also suffer disproportionately when natural disasters strike because the least safe places to live are also the least expensive.
“People with the least economic status often wind up in the most vulnerable places ... because they don’t have a lot of choices,” Yin said. “The big wakeup call for this was New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, where there was a very close correspondence between the least sustainable area of the city, the most ecologically at risk area of the city and the most socioeconomically at risk area of the city.”
Hurricane Katrina opened a window on the inherent burdens of disaster-prone areas, not just the physical destruction. “People are beginning to look beneath the surface at health, at education, and saying these places don’t confer a relatively equitable quality of life,” Yin said.
New sets of inequities are constantly emerging as cities and regions grow and change, Yin said. The disappearance of supermarkets in many disadvantaged neighborhoods has created “food deserts” where it’s difficult to maintain a healthy diet. “Research shows that this costs people years of life expectancy,” Yin said.
As inner cities gentrify, low-income residents are pushed to the suburbs, where barriers to walking — sprawl, lack of sidewalks — can make it difficult for people to get the routine physical activity they need to be healthy, he said.
An unhealthy community is ultimately an unsustainable community, but smart growth strategies such as walkability, mixed land-use and infill development can help overburdened communities overcome environmentally driven disparities in health and prosperity.
“The question is how can we show people where the overlaps are and help them take advantage of them,” Yin said.
Brad Broberg is a Seattle-based freelance writer specializing in business and development issues. His work appears regularly in the Puget Sound Business Journal and the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce.