Faculty Journal Posted on Monday, March 19, 2018

How to Plan Environmentally Just Neighborhoods: Include Communities!

Laxmi Ramasubramanian Associate Professor of Urban Policy and Planning, Hunter College; Ph.D., Architecture and Planning, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1998

This post appeared as part of a Roosevelt House Faculty Journal series on the New and Renewed Visions of Environmental Justice.


When Jen Chantrtanapichate moved into her north Brooklyn neighborhood a few years ago, she quickly noticed the harmful environmental impacts of the local waste transfer station. Neighbors complained about noisy trucks trundling down narrow streets at odd hours creating a risky public environment for pedestrians. Idling trucks emanated fumes that compromised local air quality.  Vermin were attracted to the garbage stored in the transfer station. The waste transfer station triggered a series of environmental and public health challenges, affecting the physical and psychological health of the poor and working-class residents living there. The situation prompted Jen, a Hunter College graduate student, to become an activist. Jen began organizing her neighbors to mitigate the harm created by this noxious land use in her neighborhood. Jen’s situation is regrettably all too common; this narrative plays out in resource-poor neighborhoods across New York City’s five boroughs and the nation. The placement of undesirable land uses, while arguably essential to the economic well-being of the region, often causes severe physical and psychological stress to the immediate locality that bears the brunt of the environmental burdens associated with hosting that specific land use. The residents in these neighborhoods tend to be economically and politically vulnerable, unable to push back against top-down land use decisions made by City Hall.

The phrase ‘environmental justice’ (or EJ in planning jargon) challenges planners and policymakers to take a normative stance in addressing environmental harms that continue to disproportionately impact marginalized communities. Thus, EJ is not a value-neutral concept; the movement is linked inherently to the protest movements and citizen activism that began in the 1960s. Environmental justice activists challenge decision makers across the policymaking spectrum to integrate explicitly considerations of equity and fairness in location-allocation decisions, especially those decisions that have the potential to unfairly burden poor neighborhoods and communities. While the EJ movement supports harm reduction, eliminating or minimizing the deleterious effects of hazardous sites/activities, it also emphasizes the need for all planning actions to proactively address the health and environmental consequences of policies and actions as they impact low-income communities, communities of color, and people living on tribal lands.

Executive Order (EO) 12898, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, is often credited as jump starting the EJ movement in the United States because it required federal agencies to use research, data, and other evidence to demonstrate non-discrimination, and also to actively support health promotion efforts for low-income, and minority populations. The federal government’s role over the last 25 years has been invaluable in creating policies, programs, and actions that have redressed past harms and have served to protect vulnerable populations. However, it is time that we revisit the gains and limits of national environmental justice policies so that we may better serve disempowered communities in the future. The gains are relatively easy to catalogacademics and activist organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund have provided science-based evidence to identify overburdened communities, sometimes referred to as “EJ communities.” Scientific research also helped to establish thresholds designed to protect all neighborhoods and communities, such as setting air quality and water quality standards. The impacts of different types of industries can also be quantified. The preponderance of publicly available data and evidence energized activism at federal, state, and local levels. However, policymaking related to environmental justice concerns has become the domain of professional specialists who are sometimes far removed from the day-to-day experiences of neighborhood residents like Jen.

Consider the changes that the Bronx has experienced over the last 30 to 50 years. Hunts Point and the South Bronx used to be a dumping ground for unwanted land uses like incinerators and waste transfer stations. Neighborhood activism helped challenge and ultimately shut down the most egregious offenders. Subsequently, the city made some strategic land use policy decisions to relocate and consolidate wholesale markets in Hunts Point. The city’s decisions benefited the region by providing multiple markets for fresh food and produce; though the decision also created additional burdens on the community in the form of an increased flow of trucks, garbage, and noise.  Add to this the challenge that the market’s location is in the storm surge zone; the flooding that occurred after Superstorm Sandy exposed the vulnerabilities of this particular location.

As the demands for new affordable housing increase throughout New York, Hunts Point and neighborhoods like it begin to look desirable because of the availability of relatively cheap commercial/industrial land that can be rezoned for housing and public transportation. However, noxious land uses including waste transfer stations remain, increasing the propensity for conflicts in coming years. We should question the wisdom of those who want to increase housing supply by situating it in areas where environmental conflicts that are inevitable. Planning to improve the quality of life in urban neighborhoods requires a concerted and coordinated strategy that considers jobs, housing, transportation, and the environment; a piecemeal approach simply will not work in the long run.

Comprehensive planning is essential to manage the need to situate locally unwanted land uses. Participatory planning, supported with data and evidence, is indispensable to securing and locking in the benefits of comprehensive, community-focused land use planning. NYC has avoided comprehensive planning for the last several decades, opting instead for a growth strategy aimed largely at attracting global capital that focus on developing of some parts of the City at the expense of others.

Land use decisions are inherently political; conflicts over how land should be used reflects the steep power imbalances between elected city/state governments and the general public. Inspired by Jen and her activism in north Brooklyn, and the history of the EJ movement, I advocate for a critical and reflective planning education that prepares all stakeholders to take a more sophisticated approach to solving complex environmental problems; one that explicitly integrates the use of scientific information with the political tools of community organizing. Geographic Information Science (GIS) is particularly powerful in this context because it allows us to spatially analyze and visualize the impacts of land use decisions. Jen began as all activists do by having conversations with neighbors to understand the multifaceted nature of the problems she observed. She leafletted her neighborhood and convened a meeting to encourage her neighbors to share their stories. She organized friends to record short videos of the noisy garbage trucks. She tried to speak with workers and the owners of the waste transfer station. She engaged local politicians to take her concerns seriously. More significantly, Jen used publicly available data and GIS tools to create analyses and visual representations of the problem to highlight the fact that some neighborhoods were disproportionately affected by the City’s land use decisions. Community-based organizations would do well to follow Jen’s lead, by working in partnership with neighborhood residents, supporting them with data, knowledge, and evidence to create a continuous dialogue with elected officials and professional planners, choosing co-production of knowledge over oppositional politics.

While it was never appropriate to undertake land use planning by looking at maps and data alone, it is now more important than ever to consider the long-term socio-spatial consequences of land use decisions– something that is impossible to do without understanding the lived experiences of everyday people. Some land use decisions related to public infrastructure and transportation are irreversible or can only be reversed at great expense.  Other decisions create unintended follow-on consequences when infrastructure ages or the neighborhood composition changes. Therefore, we need a 30-50 year plan, developed collaboratively between various levels of government and community stakeholders, designed to tackle the difficult dilemmas posed by climate change and guided by the principles of environmental justice.

As I argue in my latest book, co-authored with Jochen Albrecht, planners should not think about their work as methodological or as a technical function, but rather as an important socio-political function that integrates specialized knowledge to support changes towards a more progressive vision of society. The dramatic recent shifts in the national political climate, including the decimation of the science-based policy making apparatus within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should be cause concern. By abandoning its original normative stance, the federal government is regressing from its commitment to protect vulnerable populations. At this juncture, we are faced with a two-fold imperative: firstly, it is more important than ever to provide accidental activists, like Jen, with the tools, skills, and knowledge to become more effective advocates for their communities; secondly, critical and reflective planning education has become essential in giving a new generation of land use planners and elected officials more democratic decision-making mechanisms to avoid making poor land use decisions.


About the author:

Laxmi is an Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Policy at Hunter College and Deputy Director at the Institute for Sustainable Cities at Hunter College. She holds undergraduate and master’s degrees in Architecture from the University of Madras, India, a master’s degree in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in Architecture from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is also a certified planner holding the AICP credential.

Dr. Ramasubramanian seeks to inform and transform planning practice to create a just and equitable society. Specifically, her research examines how the use of digital technologies such as GIS can alter social and political processes, particularly the power of individuals and institutions to create and sustain social change. Her research is synthesized in her first book Geographic Information Science and Public Participation (Springer, 2010). Dr. Ramasubramanian’s second book, Essential Methods for Planning Practitioners: Skills and Techniques for Data Analysis, Visualization, and Communication, co-authored with Professor Jochen Albrecht (Springer, 2018) bridges theory and practice by framing 21st century planning practices within their socio-political and ethical context.

Dr. Ramasubramanian has been recognized as a leader in the geospatial community. She served as the elected president of the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (2012-2014). In February 2016, she was appointed to a three-year term on the National Geospatial Advisory Committee, a federal advisory committee that provides guidance to the federal government on matters of national geospatial policy.

Dr. Ramasubramanian maintains an active research program with funding from a range of public and nonprofit sources. Currently, she serves as Co-Principal Investigator on a grant funded by the National Science Foundation to develop mentoring workshops and other supportive strategies to empower women in the geospatial sciences.