Putting Sustainability within Reach of Environmental Justice Communities

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.