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Sustainability Plan / Environmental Justice / Introduction

Can there truly be a healthy, sustainable environment without justice?
[ref. 1] Across the United States, poor communities and communities of color bear a disproportionate burden of environmental pollution. A national, multi-cultural environmental justice movement has emerged over the last decade to tackle the problem. Environmental problems are woven into the fabric of people’s lives and communities are recognizing the need for broader social solutions beyond the mitigation of a particular risk or environmental hazard. Individual environmental hazards are seen as part of a larger context of problems that a single community faces, including inadequate access to quality health care and education, poor job opportunities, lack of affordable housing, and being left out of the process of identifying problems, communicating risks, developing responses to problems, and developing mitigation strategies. Rarely are the needs of low-income communities and communities of color taken into account in the identification of environmental health problems, studies of health outcomes, and/or designing appropriate interventions. Using a “holistic” approach and bringing together civil rights and environmental activists, the environmental justice movement integrates a broad range of issues, including environmental pollution, public health, worker safety, land use, transportation, housing, economic development and community empowerment. [ref. 2]

“Sustainability” means different things to different people. The term is most common among policy- and decision-makers who are far removed from the day-to-day struggles of poor and working-class communities. A “sustainable community” seems to refer to an idealized, utopian place or condition. However, many people and cultures do not use “sustainability” in their language, and this term is not universally shared. From the perspective of environmental justice activists, sustainability must include a process of collective decision-making and address issues of social inequality and racism as well as ecological degradation. A sustainable community provides:

  • A means of livelihood for all people,

  • Resources to participate in civic life, and

  • Respect for all members of the community. [ref. 3]

Although most environmental justice activists do not use the term “sustainability” to describe their efforts, for many the survival and environmental health of communities has been a central theme. The Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, a network of numerous environmental grassroots community organizations throughout California and the Southwest, describes sustainability as encompassing the political and personal, the tangible and intangible, the past and the future, and includes such ideas as “accountability, self-determination, justice, youth, nature, creation, collectivity, knowledge, culture, spirituality, livelihood.” To build a multi-cultural, socially just, sustainable community, it is necessary to work together to develop a shared language and vision for San Francisco.

Several local examples illustrate the need to look at environmental issues from an environmental justice standpoint.

  • Despite being collectively charged more than $5,000 per month to support the City’s curbside recycling program, until 1994 Chinatown residents did not receive the same level of recycling services provided to most other neighborhoods in San Francisco. Community advocacy from a base in Chinatown changed this situation.

  • Bayview-Hunters Point is an area of San Francisco documented to have a disproportionate amount of ambient pollution compared with the rest of the city. It is also a low-income community, with a large proportion of residents of color. Community advocates are fighting a power plant proposed for the area and working with the City’s Department of Public Health on a community-wide environmental and health assessment project, in an effort to address the effects of toxic pollution and other environmental illnesses suffered by community residents.

  • In the Mission, where 80% of the population lives in rental units, the low-income and primarily Latino residents have a serious problem with exposure to lead paint, which can lead to childhood lead poisoning. Local activists have supported a lead-paint poisoning prevention ordinance and help educate residents about the issue.

San Francisco is also the home of several cutting-edge community-based programs that embody the goals and implementation actions of environmental justice, including an innovative greening and gardening job-training program for correctional inmates through the Sheriff’s Department, and a series of community gardens and greening projects that are designed from a community perspective and that provide local jobs and job training.

One of the most important aspects of environmental justice is the question of participation. In this context, it is appropriate to examine whether the sustainability plan drafting process itself has been inclusive of people from the entire community. Generally, volunteer drafters have been recruited from three sectors: environmental activists, City departments, and the business community. While the sustainability draft is regarded as a “starting point” for public participation and was not intended to be a final document, the drafting process has been insufficiently inclusive with respect to public participation. It did not ensure the contribution of community residents, particularly those living in the City’s lower-income communities of color who are bearing the brunt of the City’s environmental industrial pollution. Any plan for the City’s sustainability should reflect the views and perspectives of San Francisco’s multi-racial, multi-ethnic communities and not only just those of people with the time to attend drafting meetings. For the Sustainable San Francisco project to serve as an effective planning tool, community outreach efforts must be undertaken and public hearings and planning sessions conducted beyond those conducted during the summer of 1996.