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Smart Growth: The Environment & Equity

This February the EPA released a new report that integrates environmental justice, equitable development, and smart growth.[1]  The goal, as the title signifies, is to foster "Equitable, Healthy, and Sustainable Communities."   The report is a welcome addition to the subject of equitable development as a way to bring low-income communities to the table to determine the direction of planning projects and to ensure concerns of environmental justice and equity are front and center within the increasing thrust of the smart growth movement.  This first article provides an overview of the report and the argument that equity and the environment are mutually reinforcing.  A follow up article expands upon the section of the report focused on economic development to explore a growing number of strategies within the so-called "movement to build a new economy."  A third article builds off of the engagement strategies identified in the report to explore an alternative approach much more common in developing countries called participatory planning.  Both the growing new economy movement and participatory planning practices offer up a diversified set of economic development and engagement strategies can further strengthen the EPA's goals of building "Equitable, Healthy, and Sustainable Communities."

Credit: New Economics Institute

The EPA has begun to incorporate equitable development strategies into its work on smart growth.  We see other efforts like New Partners in Smart Growth Conference hosted by the Local Government Commission and organizations like PolicyLink championing equitable development and the inclusion of marginalized communities.   Smart growth is a growing movement within the urban planning and development industries focused on revitalizing cities and creating more compact, walkable, bike-friendly places as a response to decades of sprawl and suburbanization.  The EPA utilizes a set of 10 unifying principles of smart growth defined by the Smart Growth Network: "mix land uses, take advantage of compact building design, create a range of housing opportunities and choices, create walkable neighborhoods, foster distinctive [and] attractive communities with a strong sense of place, preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas; strengthen and direct development; towards existing communities; provide a variety of transportation choices; make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost effective; and encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions."[2]

Smart growth is growing in communities around the country because it's a viable option for addressing environmental concerns, while creating more affordable and livable communities in the urban cores of cities suffering under the weight of decades of costly suburbanization.  A problem that emerges is that even though smart growth helps overcome decades of costly, inconvenient, and environmentally degrading sprawl and suburbanization, that doesn't mean it's always beneficial for low-income communities and communities of color.  These communities have, in many cases, been forced to deal with environmental problems in urban areas, aging infrastructure, and the numerous other negative consequences of of the dwindling tax base that has resulted from the expansion of suburbs.  One concern of smart growth in general is that as a result of the redevelopment of areas within urban centers, without intentionally ensuring a process that engages affected communities to promote equitable development overall, those same people that have been dealing with blight in its many forms will be forced out of their communities.

What's most promising about this report is that it stresses the "fundamental areas of overlap" between the goals of smart growth and that of environmental justice and equitable development.  By explaining and showing examples of these common themes among what otherwise might be seen as divergent trends, the EPA is able to promote a smart growth strategy that simultaneously engages low-income communities and communities of color rather than potentially threatening them with gentrification and dislocation.[3]  Redeveloping the urban cores of our cities and towns across the country can be done in a way that ensures the goal of environmental justice, "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies."[4]  For communities in our nation's urban centers who are more likely to be poor, people of color, and exposed to the environmental problems our society creates, integrating environmental justice with smart growth can create opportunities that might not otherwise arise.[5]

Credit: United Church of Christ

The integration of environmental justice concerns into smart growth practices means the redevelopment of urban centers where contamination is remediated in the case of brownfields, Superfund sites, and other contaminated areas.  It means that factories emitting toxic fumes aren't close to residential areas and affordable housing in the urban core.  And it means our urban centers aren't high traffic areas with large trucks or coal-fired power plants emitting fumes that cause higher rates of asthma and other health issues.   All of this is, of course, a welcome direction for the redevelopment of areas around the country where communities have been forced to deal with many of the societal problems others have the ability to escape.  But with the integration of environmental justice and smart growth alone, we still run the risk of further ignoring and displacing those for whom these things can benefit the most.  This is the purpose behind incorporating not just environmental justice and smart growth together, but to include the notion of equitable development as well.  Were it not for a commitment to equitable development, smart growth and environmental justice might succeed in that vast environmental problems facing our urban cores are ameliorated, but it sill has the potential to redevelop these areas into places low-income people cannot afford.  Those same people might be fortunate enough to find a home outside of the urban centers, away from its legacy of environmental hazards, but this has an entirely different set of issues.

The EPA's report defines equitable development as "strategies [that] help low-income, minority, tribal, and overburdened communities participate in and benefit from decisions that shape their neighborhoods and regions."[6]  By incorporating equitable development practices into the mix of smart growth and environmental justice, the redevelopment of our urban centers can ensure the inclusive of a diverse array of communities that might otherwise be further marginalized.  On top of the remediation of environmental contamination and addressing the other problems mentioned above, equitable development within smart growth could entail improving the conditions of affordable housing, building new affordable housing around public transit stops, ensuring mixed-income developments rather than just high-end condos, and just generally ensure that marginalized communities have a say in the direction of the redevelopment such that they themselves benefit as well.

In two follow-up articles we'll explore ways that development strateiges within the so-called "new economy movement" can further strenthen the ability to achieve "Equitable, Healthy, and Sustainable Communities."  The third article in this review of the EPA's report will delve into additional inclusive planning strategies to expand the set of options planners can use to foster equitable development and environmental justice in their smart growth efforts.  



[1] Megan McConville et all, "Creating Equitable, Healthy, and Sustainable Communities: Strategies for Advancing Smart Growth, Environmental Justice, and Equitable Development," Environmental Protection Agency, Feb 2013, P. 1.

[2] Ibid, 4-5.

[3] Ibid, 2.

[4] Ibid, 3.

[5] Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty: 1987-2007. United Church of Christ. P. 4.

[6] McConville, EPA, 5.