Environmental Justice: Creative Solutions for Historical Harms

last updated April 16, 2024

Two students walking down the sidewalk of North Portland. Photo by Parkrose + Argay Opportunity Coalition website

Students walking along a sidewalk in North Portland. Photo from Parkrose-Argay Opportunity Coalition.

What makes working in the environmental justice field so rewarding is also what makes it so difficult: developing creative solutions for community harms created by historical acts and legacy systems. Today, a person’s race and income are the biggest determining factors to their proximity and exposure to high polluting facilities. But where you live is heavily influenced by zoning policies of the past. At Crag, we have been working hard with our clients to advocate for the inclusion of environmental justice (EJ) in our land use laws. This means both improving laws and holding local governments accountable for their fair implementation.

In February we were invited to the Parkrose High School held an Environmental Justice in Action Fair
Eric and I had a great time at the Parkrose EJ in Action Fair talking to students about the warehouse, careers in Environmental Justice, and what it's like being an environmental lawyer.

Photo captions: In February Crag attorney Eric and I were invited to the Parkrose High School held an Environmental Justice in Action Fair. We had a great time at the Parkrose EJ in Action Fair talking to students about the warehouse, careers in Environmental Justice, and what it’s like being an environmental lawyer.

Understanding the historical context of our laws can help ensure we make meaningful changes moving forward. Our land use laws, while ostensibly “neutral” on paper, have origins in racist and exclusionary practices in the early to mid 1900’s that have determined where many communities of color and low income communities live today. Here are a few examples.

 

Photo caption: In Portland, our most ethnically diverse communities also have the highest concentration of major emitting facilities. Data from Oregon DEQ Cleaner Air Oregon 2020.

Racially Restrictive Covenants: In the 1920’s up to the 50’s, property deeds often contained restrictions on who could own or live in a property based on race. They also restricted uses of property, allowing developers to exclude entire groups of people from living in certain areas and preventing desireable developments or resources from reaching communities of color. The resulting food deserts, lack of community infrastructure and resources, lack of greenspaces, and excessive industrial siting in BIPOC and low income communities remain today. Additionally, despite being officially outlawed and unenforceable by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, racial covenants can still be found in many Oregonian’s deeds.

Redlining: In the 1930’s up until the 60’s, the federal government practice of redlining determined which neighborhoods could receive federal loan assistance for buying and maintaining a home. Redlined areas were seen as a “bad investment” and often housed primarily Black residents. As a result, Black residents and communities of color still live in neighborhoods that are most often the site of major industrial developments, near major interstates, and have little to no access to green spaces. As a result, many BIPOC communities are also disproportionately experiencing the effects of climate change, including extreme heat.

Photo caption: Portland’s heat map. The hottest areas in Portland are also the most ethnically diverse. Map courtesy of Portland State University, Vivek Shandas.

Exclusionary Zoning: Dating back to the early 1900’s, exclusionary zoning has taken many forms as our country’s laws changed. Until 1917, exclusionary zoning was used to forbid people of color from living in areas where the majority of residents were white and upper/middle class. Since then, many cities have found methods of effectively maintaining these restrictions through class and income based restrictions, which inherently become racially exclusionary zoning. For example, cities limit or prohibit multi-family residential developments or set minimum lot size requirements. This in combination with high costs for permits increases the cost of development, which further excludes lower-income folks from accessing more “desirable” areas of their communities.

 

In Portland, 65% of diesel emissions come from places like construction sites, distribution centers, marine terminals, and rail yards. Stat from Neighbors for Clean Air. (1)
No Prologis in Parkrose-Argay lawn sign from Parkrose-Argay Opportunity Coalition website

Photo captions: Left: In Portland, 65% of diesel emissions come from places like construction sites, distribution centers, marine terminals, and rail yards. Stat from Neighbors for Clean Air. Right: Neighbors in the Parkrose-Argay neighborhood are challenging the construction of a dirty freight warehouse. Lawn sign from Parkrose-Argay Opportunity Coalition website.

Changes to our zoning and land use laws could help remedy these systemic and historic injustices through governance with an equity lens. For example, the State of Oregon was the first to eliminate single-family residential zoning statewide. The City of Portland adopted a planning policy to “promote equity and EJ by reducing disparities, minimizing burdens, extending community benefits…” and “specifically recognize, address, and prevent repetition of the injustices suffered by communities of color throughout Portland’s history.” Policies like these are a necessary step to advance equity in land use planning. However, we must also hold local governments to their word and ensure these policies are put into practice.

aeriel view of Parkrose and Argay Terrace neighborhood of Northeast Portland showing site of proposed freight warehouse that is next to apartment buildings and across the street from Parkrose High School.

Photo caption: The site of the proposed dirty freight warehouse, next to Parkrose High School, Parkrose Middle School, Sandy Terrace Apartments and Hidden Oak Apartments. Crag is working with neighbors to challenge the warehouse. 

 

Looking Ahead

We spent almost two years asking Portland city officials to consider the EJ impacts of a proposed development in Northeast Portland. Community members raised concerns of diesel emissions and pollution, noise, exacerbation of urban heat islands, and traffic safety for students walking in the area. Despite those efforts, the City approved the project. In December 2023, we filed a suit on behalf of Neighbors for Clean Air, 1000 Friends of Oregon, and Northwest Environmental Defense Center to push back against a 244,000 square foot freight warehouse permitted to be developed in one of Portland’s most diverse and environmentally overburdened neighborhoods. The case is in its early stages, but I am excited to be advocating for the inclusion of EJ in our land use decision making processes and holding the city accountable to its word. To know our history is to move forward, and to meaningfully move forward is to make sure everyone is included in the progress.

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