Building Bridges: Environmental Justice

By Andrew Geller, Ph.D.

I know I’m not alone in that I’ve found my mind wandering a bit this week eagerly anticipating my plans for Thanksgiving festivities. Whether you are like me and will be travelling to visit family elsewhere, or rushing to get a big bird in the oven in time for hosting others, the best part of Thanksgiving is seeing friends and family.

And of course, catching up always includes talking about what we’ve been up to at work over the past year or so.

As an EPA scientist immersed in the broad, and sometimes hard-to-explain arena of research designed to advance sustainable and healthy communities, I find Thanksgiving a good opportunity to hone my science communication skills. Once I remember to drop the acronyms and jargon and engage my 90-plus-year-old father in a casual conversation about EPA research, I know I’ve done a good job.

Just this week, I got an assist from my local paper. The headline in the Durham Herald-Sun immediately grabbed my attention: “Community activists tackle ‘environmental justice’ issues in Durham.”

Providing data and scientific tools to advance environmental justice—ensuring that every community enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and has equal access to the decision-making processes it takes to have a healthy environment—is a top EPA priority.

As the article points out, moving environmental justice from a process to action depends on resources such as visualization tools that communities and other stakeholders can use to pinpoint how particular neighborhoods might be disproportionately impacted by proposed actions.

EnviroAtlas showing urban tree cover of Durham, NC.

EnviroAtlas showing urban tree cover of Durham, NC.

EPA’s researchers are delivering just those kinds of resources. For example, our EnviroAtlas is a web-based mapping tool built on a robust platform of more than 300 data sets that help users explore place-based environmental conditions and impacts. It is designed to help us all to see and make decisions about the many benefits we derive from natural ecosystems themselves and in relation to our built environment and the people who live in a community.  The Eco-Health Relationship Browser, part of EnviroAtlas, illustrates scientific evidence for linkages between human health and ecosystem services.

Users can use both of these resources, and others, to see how local conditions differ from surrounding areas, and to find potential solutions to existing challenges.

One place that has already made great progress is the Proctor Creek neighborhood in Atlanta. The city and local civic groups partnered with EPA’s Regional Office and Agency researchers to conduct a Health Impact Assessment, a systematic process to guide investigations on how to maximize the health and well-being benefits (or minimize the detrimental impacts) of a proposed action.

In the case of Proctor Creek, EPA researchers and the Region produced a Health Impact Assessment to help the community reduce flooding and the contamination associated with combined sewer overflows through the use of innovative techniques that increase or mimic the natural ability of ecosystems to absorb and cleanse storm water runoff, collectively known as “green infrastructure.”  This solution has the added benefit of adding shade and green space to sun-baked streets, increasing walkability and the attractiveness of the area to local businesses to raise the local economy.

Those are just a couple of examples that I can point to where EPA research is advancing environmental justice and making a visible difference in communities. I’m eager to share more here on the blog, and even with local reporters, in the near future. But first I have to pack for a trip to see the family.

About the Author: Dr. Andrew Geller is the Deputy National Program Director for EPA’s Sustainable and Healthy Communities (SHC) research program and lead author on EPA’s Environmental Justice Research Roadmap.  Dr. Geller led SHC’s strategic planning effort to develop science and tools to help communities identify and reach sustainability goals.  Andrew can often be found riding a bike across the trails, fields, or roads of Durham NC and the surrounding area.




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