Where Environmental Justice, Smart Growth, and Equitable Development Meet

By Megan McConville

It all started after Hurricane Katrina.  In a previous job as a communications specialist at an environmental nonprofit, I went to New Orleans’ Ninth Ward to train residents to talk to the media about their vision for rebuilding.  The neighborhood was devastated, but nevertheless, the residents had come together around an inspiring goal.  They wanted to rebuild in a way that addressed longstanding environmental and health challenges and improved their quality of life, with better access to the services and opportunities they needed to thrive. My role was to help neighborhood leaders create a communications strategy, work with reporters, and generally build support for their vision.

I also provided assistance to disadvantaged communities in Washington, DC; El Paso, Texas; and other cities across the country where residents had similar objectives—to reduce exposure to pollution, clean up and reinvest in existing neighborhoods, provide affordable housing and transportation options, and improve access to jobs and amenities.

Walking audit of neighborhood to examine barriers to walkability such as high vehicle speeds and a lack pedestrian and bicycle routes.

Those experiences showed me that environmental justice, equitable development, and smart growth must go hand in hand.  The way neighborhoods, cities, and regions are planned and built has an important influence on public health and the environment, and many of the challenges low-income, minority, and tribal communities face are related to land use decisions.  Combining approaches from environmental justice, smart growth, and equitable development can help avoid future health, environmental, and economic disparities, ensure that development processes are inclusive, and result in projects, policies, and regulations that enhance quality of life for everyone.

EPA’s new publication, Creating Equitable, Healthy, and Sustainable Communities: Strategies for Advancing Smart Growth, Environmental Justice, and Equitable Development, brings together these related, but too often separate, concepts.  It provides a menu of land use and community design strategies that community-based organizations, local and regional decision-makers, developers, and other stakeholders can use to revitalize their communities.  These strategies include:

The redevelopment of Egleston Crossing in Boston.

  • Conducting community assessments
  • Reducing exposure to facilities with potential environmental concerns
  • Fixing existing infrastructure first
  • Designing safe streets for all users
  • Preserving affordable housing
  • Creating new development that strengthens local culture, and others.

The publication also contains in-depth case studies of seven low-income, minority, tribal, and overburdened communities that have used these strategies: Edmonston, MD; Chicago, IL; Spartanburg, SC; New Orleans, LA; Ohkay Owingeh, NM; Boston, MA; and Seattle, WA.

Creating Equitable, Healthy, and Sustainable Communities
was developed jointly by EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice and Office of Sustainable Communities, and was informed by comments from 40 reviewers received through a public comment process.

I hope this document is useful to you, whether you’re a community resident advocating for neighborhood revitalization, a local planner working to integrate equity and sustainability into your policies and codes, or a developer seeking to create an authentic and enduring project.

Megan McConville is a Policy & Planning Fellow in EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities. She explores how overburdened communities can combine smart growth and environmental justice strategies to improve their neighborhoods, health, and quality of life.