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Putting Sustainability within Reach of Environmental Justice Communities

2013 December 18

By Carlton Eley

Untitled-1I am an urban planner who works on environmental justice at the EPA. I believe certain things to be true: professional ethics require speaking up for citizens who may not have a voice in local decision-making; public service is a public trust; and expansive strategies are required for encouraging sustainable communities.  Also, I believe equitable development is one of the key solutions for making a visible difference in communities.

No task is more important to the future of sustainability in the U.S. than equitable development.  Equitable development expands choice and opportunity, encourages sustainable outcomes, and improves quality of life while mitigating impacts from activities that society considers beneficial.  As a result, the approach advances environmental justice.


In recent years, the term “place-based” has become a popular watchword among planners, urban designers, and other stewards of the built environment.  In many ways, equitable development is a place-based approach for encouraging environmental justice.  Although the public is accustomed to discussions about environmental justice framed in the context of the law, public health, and waste management, the planning and design professions are equally important means for correcting problems which beset communities overburdened by pollution and remain underserved.

When the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) published its 1996 report Environmental Justice, Urban Revitalization, and Brownfields:  The Search for Authentic Signs of Hope, it clearly outlined the nexus between environmental justice, land use, and sustainability.  Not only did this report identify the environmental benefits of urban redevelopment, but the report also emphasized that the best outcomes from urban redevelopment would come about through an inclusive process.

Obviously, the NEJAC was ahead of itself.  Since 1996, researchers, advocates, allied professionals, and community builders have demonstrated that equitable development does not shift attention from making communities better.  Instead, it results in better community outcomes, especially for underserved populations and vulnerable groups.

Susana Almanza of PODER, Diane Takvorian of the Environmental Health Coalition, State Representative Harold Mitchell, Jr. of Spartanburg, South Carolina, and many more are ‘citizen planners for equitable development’.  The outcomes from their successful projects are evidence of what happens when citizens are audacious in their attempts to do well while doing good.  Because of their examples as well as through the leadership of organizations like PolicyLink, supporters of environmental justice are learning about a broad range of community activity for fixing challenges rooted in a failure to plan, a failure to enforce proper zoning, or the persistent legacy of unequal development.

We have come a long way in understanding, implementing, replicating, and scaling-up equitable development.  Still, more work will need to occur in order to realize full appreciation of the role equitable development plays in the framework of sustainability.

Untitled-3In the interim, public demand for a balanced discussion on sustainability is not being overlooked.  The U.S. EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice is organizing the workshop, “Equitable Development:  Smarter Growth through Environmental Justice.” The workshop will be held at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in Denver, Colorado, on February 13, 2014.  Equally important, the NEJAC will revisit the themes of equitable development, environmental justice, and sustainability when it meets in Denver on February 11-12, 2014.

Finally, the Environmental Justice in Action Blog will explore the topic of equitable development through a series of posts in advance of the conference in Denver.  The dialogue about environmental justice for the next twenty years starts here.

Carlton Eley works for EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice.  He is an urban planner, sociologist, and lecturer.  Carlton is credited for elevating equitable development to the level of formal recognition within U.S. EPA as an approach for encouraging sustainable communities.  He interned with EPA’s Environmental Justice Program in Region 10 as an associate of the Environmental Careers Organization in 1994.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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10 Responses leave one →
  1. Liam permalink
    December 23, 2013

    Thank you for sharing the nexus of environmental justice and sustainability. I think this article sets a great foundation for having a better understanding of what true revitalization should look like.


  2. Maggie permalink
    December 23, 2013

    What a great article/blog. The information has given me a much better understanding of what equitable development is and some of the history behind it. I had a class in college that focused on Environmental Justice and I had know idea about the NEJAC 1996 report “Environmental Justice, Urban Revitalization, and Brownfields: The Search for Authentic Signs of Hope”. After looking over the report it seems like many of todays missteps were covered almost 20 years ago and could have been avoided as it relates to development. Mr. Eley are there other places that have this type of information that would be helpful in learning more?

  3. Jason permalink
    December 23, 2013

    I think your blog sums it up well when you said, and I paraphrase “this is what happens when citizens are audacious in their attempts to do well while doing good.” So many times it seems sustainability forgets about the people it should be serving and benefitting. If we are going to have a discussion on revitalization and sustainability, then we should make sure that those who have been living in the challenged areas that are being revitalized are benefitting from the changes to come [i.e., equitable development]. I look forward to the future blogs on equitable development and how environmental justice plays a role in supporting healthier communities.

  4. Margaret Gordon permalink
    December 27, 2013

    The blog has great contents and details, we who are impacted residents living under, near or on top of various disproportional harmful pollutions, land use, or public health problems have no guaranties from local government to put forward anything as equitable development and healthier communities.

    Here in Oakland, California, one of the most so-call diversity cities, the tread is to overpower Environmental Justices communities with new people with money, resources and bring in developers to dismiss anything protect us residents that are most vulnerable. Until all federal grants that come into EJ communities, with criteria that no harms are to be done the impacted residents, and there are very clear Equitable Development and Health Community Planning are true to Environmental Justice Principles.

    living in Environmental Justice communities have no guaranties

  5. Rhonda Rizzio permalink
    December 29, 2013

    I’m a long time reader of this blog and this is my first time comment. First thank you for creating a place where citizens actually have a voice and for sharing blogs that feature change leaders who provide real world examples of how to make our country stronger. As shared in the blog above we have come a long way and if we all continue to push for change that is equitable and just, we can create communities where everyone has the opportunity to live in places that are healthy and thriving.

    Rhonda Rizzio

  6. Cesar permalink
    January 4, 2014

    I enjoyed your article. I think its important to also highlight the fact that gentrification is always a big concern when dealing with revitalization activities. Are there processes at EPA to address those types of concerns?


    • Carlton Eley permalink
      January 10, 2014

      Thanks for the feedback Cesar.

      This is an important question. Also, I concur this is a very big concern.

      In response, I would have to say “not directly”. On the other hand, is it possible to be creative and fine tune existing processes for addressing these concerns? Yes.

      For example, collaborative problem-solving models; social impact analysis; and community design charrettes are tools that could be applied to address concerns about gentrification.

      In the end, the tool is only as good as the person using it. If the user of the tool has limited proficiency in these matters or if they are skeptical that gentrification can be addressed, then favorable outcomes are less likely to materialize.

  7. Akosua permalink
    January 19, 2014

    Carlton, Excellent blog that helped me have a better understanding of equitable development and some of the history that NEJAC has played in its development. Good luck with the Equitable Development Worksop in Denver.

    • Carlton Eley permalink
      January 21, 2014

      Thank you. We have award-winning experts participating in the Equitable Development Workshop in Denver. The public is seeking solutions, and the workshop will focus on clear results and outcomes. The Twitter hashtag for the workshop is #EquiDev.

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