Carlton Eley — Equitable Development & Environmental Justice

Carlton Eley

I am the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s leading expert on the topic of equitable development. I work in the Office of Environmental Justice. My portfolio focuses on normalizing the practice of environmental justice during the community planning process.

At EPA, I advance equitable development through outreach and education; partnership development; research; technical support; and national recognition programs. What I like most about my job is having the opportunity to critically focus on the "social responsibility of planners." I’m frequently asked to lecture, write, and organize workshops which focus on: expanding choice and opportunity for all persons; planning for the needs of disadvantaged groups and persons; and altering policies, institutions, and decisions that hinder the needs of underserved populations.

I am the first urban planner to work in EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice.

Although the law; public health; waste management; and public involvement have been central to the conversation about environmental justice, my job is to remind EPA staff and the public that some communities are dealing with environmental concerns that were prompted by a failure to plan or a failure to enforce proper zoning.

A Path Toward Equitable Development

Carlton Eley is chair of APA's Social Equity Task Force. He was the first urban planner hired by the Office of Environmental Justice at EPA, and he managed a portfolio on equitable development.

Career Path

Is your career based on considered choices you planned or has it unfolded as part of a process you didn’t necessarily foresee?

I did not foresee my career taking this path. I studied urban planning in graduate school from 1996 to 1998. At that time, there was no literature on "equitable development," and PolicyLink did not exist.

Within the span of two years, I only had two weeks of course work on equity issues. As students, we were assigned readings on advocacy planning, equity planning, and equity development. Still, I never imagined I would commit 12 years to specializing in an area that I was only exposed to for a couple of weeks in an academic setting.

Also, I never imagined that becoming a subject matter expert on equitable development would result in me being a finalist for a program officer position at the Ford Foundation or a finalist for the Loeb Fellowship at Harvard University.

Skills Needed

What skills and personality traits lend themselves to success in your field?

You have to be willing to listen, and you have to exercise empathy. Patience is important as well.

I value these skills because my undergraduate degree is in Sociology/Social Work. Because our profession has its origins partially in social work, I am perplexed that practitioners have distanced themselves from their social work roots.

I think these skills are important because many built environment professionals, including planners, have a tendency to treat "community symptoms" while failing to understand "community problems."

It has been my experience that residents know what their problems are, and they are willing to work with planners. However, planners do themselves a disservice when they attempt to get ahead of a community by recommending strategies without fully understanding or appreciating the perspectives of citizens whom they are supposed to assist.

Also, it is important to be intellectually curious. From Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to modern community recovery efforts in National City, California, there is a narrative of community building and achievement, led by minority populations, that has been left in the shadows. My interests target who is guiding community change rather than reacting to community change.

Career Surprises & Lessons Learned

What has been the best surprise in your career?

The best surprise in my career has been learning about New Zealand models to environmental justice and equitable development. In 2003, I was selected for the Ian Axford (New Zealand) Fellowship in Public Policy. I traveled to New Zealand to research how the nation’s policies encourage sustainable urban settlements, and I left the country enriched with broader knowledge about programs that are complementary to encouraging "environmental justice."

The term environmental justice isn’t referenced verbatim in New Zealand’s environmental policies. However, when I interviewed citizens, public officials, and Iwi (tribal) authorities, I was awestruck by the strides the country made in the areas of public involvement; social impact analysis; cultural preservation; and Māori approaches to community development.

If sustainability is about balance and productive harmony, I felt New Zealand had a grasp on addressing issues which target the "social pillar of sustainability" in a manner that wasn’t superficial.

Living and working in New Zealand left quite an impression on me, and the experience helped me to find my "true North" as a planner who felt sustainability efforts in the U.S. needed a push in the right direction.

Looking back, what might you do differently?

Looking back, I could have studied "urban design." I went to graduate school in Iowa. The planning program at the University of Iowa distinguished itself by focusing on policy. The planning program at Iowa State University placed a greater emphasis on architecture. I followed the policy path.

During my career, I’ve learned that I am visually oriented. I learn quicker based on sight and interaction rather than reading about the subject, and my best tool is a digital camera. When I worked on livability and place-making, much of the work was about translating good design into policy reforms.

What do you enjoy most (and, if you’re willing, what are the least enjoyable or hardest parts) about your current role?

My current role gives me the opportunity to be a sleuth.

Sometimes I carefully analyze what is missing from common, planning narratives. Sometimes I research what progress has been made to correct long-standing gaps. Sometimes I research promising projects and best practices.

While I enjoy the research, it is equally satisfying to actually meet and work with the trailblazers or community builders whose work I have admired. Randall Arendt said “planners should observe, record, communicate and self-educate.” As a subject matter expert on equitable development, I do all of this, and I get to be a "myth-buster," which is a lot of fun.

What I enjoy least about my role is working with parties who don’t understand the difference between "critique" versus "dissent." Planning and development in the U.S. has often left underserved populations, especially minority populations, holding the short-end of the stick. This is an objective fact. In the public sector, there are some who feel creating a well-meaning public policy is good enough. However, my job as an urban planner and civil servant is to insist that such policies are implemented in a manner that is responsible and in a manner that doesn’t amplify existing vulnerabilities.

For example, gentrification is a highly contested issue in our field. However, I don’t have the choice or the privilege to ignore it. As an urban planner, I subscribe to a code of ethics that requires speaking up.

How has your perception of planning changed since you first entered the field?

I don’t think my perception of planning has changed since I first entered the field, but my perception about my own abilities has matured. Early in my career, it was apparent not many practitioners were filling the shoes of Paul Davidoff, Norman Krumholz, or Robert Mier. As my career matured, I made a deliberate decision to fill the gap. Unlike Davidoff, Krumholz, or Mier, I was in the unique position to draw attention to these issues while working at the federal level.

This experience has taught me that public policy is as much about priorities and values as it is about rules. Also, I learned sometimes the best way to encourage an institution to be pliable is by first changing how projects are managed which fall under our portfolio.

Career Advice

What advice do you have for someone who hopes to find a job similar to yours?

That’s an interesting question. My job didn’t exist within the U.S. EPA. I had to create it. Formally, I am an environmental protection specialist. Informally, I am the first "chief equity officer" at the EPA.

The good news is shifts are occurring within the public sector; nonprofit sector; and philanthropic sector. Within the span of the past seven years, more local governments, foundations, and non-profit organizations are creating portfolios which target social equity. Necessity has become the mother of invention.

The best advice I can offer is build your track record. It is easy to romanticize the idea of working on social equity and planning. However, equitable development is an area of specialization that requires nurturing if you are to be any good at it.

What advice do you have for someone who hopes to start their own practice?

Consider taking care of the basics even if you don’t foresee yourself leaving your current job.

  • Do you have an Employer Identification Number (EIN)?
  • Do you have a registered web address?
  • Have you attended a free workshop on developing a business plan?
  • Do you have a network, and how well are you managing it?
  • Do you have an inventory of your skills, accomplishments, and products?

What is the biggest planning-related hurdle you’ve faced in recent years and how was it dealt with?

Although it is common to hear messaging about how issues are connected, professionals still compartmentalize and assign their work to silos.

A hurdle for me has been helping environmentalists and planners to "rise above their semantics" and "work across silos."

In 2015, one of EPA’s projects received a National Planning Excellence Award. Although award programs are popular, especially when you’re receiving one, getting EPA to the National Planning Conference in Seattle wasn’t feasible. As a result, I shifted the focus to bringing part of the National Planning Excellence Awards to EPA. 

In the end, I organized a public program at EPA Headquarters to celebrate the victories of environmental justice and planning, and representatives from the American Planning Association came to EPA to present the National Planning Excellence Award to the recipient. The program proved to be an effective bridge for acknowledging how planners and environmental justice proponents are both in the business of helping underserved and vulnerable populations.

Education, Influences, and Tools

I have a MS in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Iowa. My BA is in Sociology/Social Work Curriculum from Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina.

First planning job
My first planning job was with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Smart Growth Program.

My career has been filled with tipping points, major moments, special people, and mentors. If I had to call out one that affected my career path, it would be "unanswered questions from graduate school."

In 1998, I left graduate school with a degree in one hand and an unanswered question in the other. The question was: “What does environmental justice look like when it is addressed through planning?”

It took 10 years, but working on equitable development was the pathway that led to clear answers.

As the answers became clearer, I started writing. Eventually, I published an article on equitable development in Sustain Magazine. The article was an attempt to synthesize lessons and frame my values concerning sustainability, communities, and social equity.

Since 2003, my best tool has been a digital camera. I lecture frequently on equitable development. Each audience wants to see good projects and outcomes, and I prefer using my visuals. I use my camera a lot, and I have photo credits in several publications, articles, and blogs.

What do you do outside of work that helps you be successful?

Outside of work I focus on independent study. I lecture, write, and build relations with allied professionals. For two years, I was the editor for a monthly e-newsletter on equitable development, Urban Leader 2.0. Also, I offer assistance to a couple of non-profits. I served on the advisory board for the Washington, D.C., chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects, and I was a board member for the Initiative for Equality.

Any influential people?

My hero is Dr. Albert Thompson. He was the Executive Director of the Bertie County Rural Health Association in North Carolina. He was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, and he was a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. As a public health professional, he was outspoken and results-oriented. He was very effective in leveraging the support of foundations and elected officials. Importantly, Dr. Thompson never let anyone render him invisible, and he understood access to affordable, quality healthcare and quality education is essential for rural communities.

When I was in high school and college, he was a great role model. Personally, I considered him to be an accessible example of what it means to be an advocate who effectively gives voice to the unspoken.


PAS Memo: "Planning for Equitable Development: Social Equity by Design"

Blog post: Heritage and Sustainability: The Role of Equitable Development in Preservation

Blog post: Environmental Justice Through Planning

Article: "Equitable Development: Untangling the Web of Urban Development through Collaborative Problem Solving"

Technical assistance report: Vision for Broadway