Thursday, October 8, 2009

Environmental Justice & Land Use

Tomorrow in the Land Use Clinic seminar we'll be talking about environmental justice.  The Clinic got involved in environmental justice issues about two years ago, at the request of our colleagues at the Atlanta public interest law firm GreenLaw.  GreenLaw has been involved in environmental justice issues for many years now - environmental justice being defined by the EPA as "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, culture, education, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies."  GreenLaw asked for the Clinic's help in working for environmental justice in the drafting and application of local land use law in Georgia communities.

According to Clifford Rechtschaffen and Eileen Gauna, authors of Environmental Justice: Law, Policy & Regulation, the disproportionate siting of environmental hazards in minority neighborhoods has its origin in land use and zoning practices over the last century.  Some of the decisions were based on deliberate racism - e.g., restrictive racial covenants and racially discriminatory zoning.  Urban Renewal played a role in displacing thousands of black residents from residential neighborhoods.

Also, according to Yale Rabin, in the early part of the last century many jurisdictions engaged in what he calls "expulsive zoning," by zoning areas predominantly occupied mainly by blacks for industrial or commercial uses, thus displacing the residential uses in these zones.  Robert Bullard refers to this strategy as "PIBBY" or "place-in-blacks'-backyards."

Other scholars, including Robin Saha and Paul Mohai, have pointed to economic factors in disproportionate siting and zoning of industrial uses in minority neighorhoods, including low property values in these areas and the reduced likelihood of community opposition (since better educated, more affluent communities are better able to wage opposition campaigns).

Rechtschaffen and Gauna also implicate "structural racism," which encompasses more than explicit racism, classism or political factors:

A broader view of discrimination encompasses actions that are not intentionally racist, but because of the structure or workings of social and political institutions, have discriminatory effects.  For example, an all white zoning board may render decisions with discriminatory effects because of unconscious racial prejudices, or because minority citizens, who do not live in the same neighborhoods and are not part of the same social networks as the board members, have less access to them...seemingly technical criteria - such as that a facility should not be sited in proximity to schools, hospitals, or other sensitive institutions - can discriminate against minority residents who because of past and present housing discrimination disproportionately live in areas without such facilities.

Whatever the varied causes, research by John A. Hird and Michael Reese and others demonstrates that, regardless of class or income, pollution is distributed in a way that disproportionately affects people of color (although some subsequent research refutes these findings).

It's a complicated issue. I'll talk about solutions to these problems that we are trying to implement with our clients in subsequent posts.

Jamie Baker Roskie

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