Uncovering JAPA

Prioritizing Environmental Justice in Comprehensive Planning

Environmental Justice (EJ) is the idea that everyone should have the same environmental protections. In other words, low-income and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities should not be disproportionately burdened by environmental hazards, health inequities, and discriminatory policies. Disinvestment has resulted in the concentration of pollution, environmental disamenities, and chronic disease rates in disadvantaged areas. In response, new federal and state policies are increasingly rooted in EJ principles.

In "Who Is Planning for Environmental Justice — and How?," (Journal of American Planning Association), Catherine Brinkley and Jenny Wagner evaluate how 461 California city general plans, or comprehensive plans, address EJ.

California Plans Analyze Environmental Justice Inclusion

Comprehensive plans represent years of public input and help guide a city's policies on land use, housing, and conservation, among other areas. In California, a 2016 Senate bill required that all general plans introduced beyond 2018 address EJ. While this is an encouraging effort, most local plans in California predate this mandate. To assess the presence of EJ terms in existing local plans, the research team collected 461 city plans covering 95 percent of jurisdictions in California.

After identifying frequently occurring words related to the topic of environmental justice within the documents, they investigated the probability that EJ exists in each plan. The findings revealed that only 31 city plans explicitly refer to EJ, although more than half include related concepts or terms. The cities that have made the most progress in planning for EJ are majority BIPOC.

For a more in-depth analysis of how EJ has been implemented across the state, the research team conducted a review of seven city plans with considerable EJ content from a majority of non-white cities. Across the plans, they identified 628 distinct policies that support EJ through a focus on improving environmental exposures and prioritizing vulnerable populations. Some cities, such as Richmond, Virginia, include unique yet critical goals, like supporting the re-entry and transition of formerly incarcerated individuals.

EJ principles and content address required plan elements like housing, land use, and circulation (transportation), as well as noise, open space, safety, and conservation. This breadth demonstrates the broad applicability of EJ in urban and regional planning. The researchers found that housing policies cover not only affordable housing, but also the enforcement of fair housing practices, renters' rights, and the promotion of mixed-income neighborhoods.

Transportation policies support people through an emphasis on supporting access and service for everyone (universal design). While land use policies focus on place through the use of tools like buffer zones and infill development. However, even though most of the plans are from BIPOC communities, the researchers found few explicit acknowledgments of race, racism, or segregationist policies. Instead, they focus more broadly on health equity and poverty. As California advances EJ policy, a key consideration is whether cities will directly address racial equity or continue to generalize EJ in health and economic terms.

Table 2.  The prioritization of 628 environmental justice policies across California

Table 2. The prioritization of 628 environmental justice policies across California.

Key Areas in Environmental Justice Policies

In Table 2, the researchers summarize the focus areas prioritized across the 628 EJ policies. Implementation actions are more often included for policies that address youth, low-income residents, and people with disabilities. Homeless individuals and farmworkers are also recognized. Meanwhile, communities of color, English-language learners, and other marginalized groups like the formerly incarcerated are seldom discussed. Notably, even the majority of non-white cities largely fail to address race and the legacies of discrimination.

The researchers' analysis provides important lessons for expanding EJ efforts and addressing gaps in policy attention. If equity is a core value, urban planners in California and further afield must incorporate EJ in comprehensive plans and meaningfully engage marginalized communities.

This examination of existing policies provides a benchmark for future progress and demonstrates the applicability of EJ in planning as a whole. Planners and scholars have long advocated for more thorough plan evaluation, and future work should assess if policies reduce environmental burdens, reflect community priorities, and impact disadvantaged individuals.

While progress toward the implementation of policies grounded in EJ has accelerated, there is significant room to better address race, historic segregation, and overlooked voices. Urban planners should continue to re-evaluate plans and policies with community partners to ensure the creation and establishment of environments that prioritize well-being for all. Ultimately, comprehensive plans must evolve alongside cities.

Top image: iStock / Getty Images Plus - wildpixel

Adin Becker is a master's student in the urban planning program at Harvard University.

December 21, 2023

By Adin Becker