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Relieving South LA’s Burden through Environmental Justice and Land Use

By Marlenia Myers and Monika Shankar

Communities across the nation are seeking justice. But justice is increasingly hard to find – especially in the poorest neighborhoods. The intersection of Florence and Normandie in South Los Angeles is widely remembered as the flash point for the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, sparked by the unjust acquittal of officers for the merciless beating of Rodney King. By nightfall, South Central’s skies were filled with caustic smoke and ash, as gas stations, dry cleaners and auto repair shops were torched and reduced to rubble. For weeks, the air reeked of destruction and despair. Twenty five years has since passed. The gas stations, dry cleaners and auto repair shops have returned but the air has yet to clear.

Just as the scales of criminal justice rarely tilt in favor of South LA residents, environmental justice has been similarly elusive. Florence and Normandie is located in a zip code with a significantly higher pollution burden especially when compared to the wealthier and less diverse Santa Monica. Data from the California Communities Environmental Health Hazard Assessment indicated that the South LA zip code 90044 has a pollution burden score of 58.5. Santa Monica’s burden weighed in at 20 points less. The 90044 zip code is also primarily a community of color – almost 75% according to the US Census Bureau. The reasons for this environmental inequity are varied but one major driver is the large number of toxic land uses in South LA that range from industrial production and manufacturing, to auto body shops and gas stations. These environmental hazards are disproportionately impacting children and families in poverty who are hit hardest by asthma, heart disease, and low-birth weight.

The research findings in the Liberty Hill Foundation’s report Hidden Hazards note that in order to improve the health and environmental protections in overburdened communities, there must be a policy framework that addresses prevention, mitigation and revitalization. Furthermore, the City of Los Angeles’ General Plan has recently incorporated support for environmental justice goals by assuring “fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, incomes and education levels with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies…”

The time has come to help tilt the scales of environmental justice in South LA’s favor. The South Los Angeles Building Healthy Communities (SLABHC) – a community grounded movement of South LA residents, activists and advocates (including PSR-LA) dedicated to transforming South LA from the soil to the soul – has identified environmental racism – or the disproportionate burden of environmental hazards on people of color – as a major driver of health disparity. As such, it affirmatively declares that all residents of South LA have the right to clean land, clean air, clean water, as well as safe spaces where they can play, grow, and thrive.

On April 29th, residents of South LA and organizational allies will celebrate the 1992 uprising at Future Fest – a community festival that will combine arts, advocacy, and community to celebrate South LA’s resilience, lift-up the community’s collective vision, and discuss community priorities for change to move forward.

In South LA’s future, advocates, allies and residents are determined to see an end to environmental racism, which includes the siting of polluting industries in proximity to where we live, work and play. For example, in the Southeast LA Community Plan area, roughly one fifth of residents live adjacent to noxious land uses. Part of the solution is ensuring that our land planning policies and practices create a more productive, equitable, and environmentally nurturing use of land. Furthermore, we want to promote safer industrial alternatives and processes that bring us closer to a green and just economy.

Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles (PSR-LA) is working to leverage the City’s recent passage of the “Clean Up Green Up” ordinance to better understand the potential policy interventions specific to the needs of South LA, through the 500 Feet Project. The 500 Feet Project combines data collection/visualization, community engagement and policy research to mobilize residents, community stakeholders and advocates around a range of policy solutions that will transform South Central L.A. into a healthier and more equitable community. This integrative three-pronged approach includes:

  • Gathering, assessing and visualizing data using a mapping tool that highlights polluting industries within 500 feet of a sensitive land use
  • Incorporating local community knowledge in order to validate the data and elevate the stories of local residents to build a supporting narrative around the issue
  • The formation of a policy and research working group to identify policy interventions based on the information gathered through community ground-truthing and public data sources

As a member of the SLABHC, PSR-LA is leading the conversation around environmental racism as a driver of health disparities by advancing the 500 Feet Project as one critical element of the BHC’s long-term vision for South LA. This vision is also a guide to closing the environmental health gap in South LA, by working collectively to ensure improved health outcomes and better environmental decision-making. For more information about the 500 Feet Project, contact Monika Shankar at mshankar@psr-la.org.

For more information on Future Fest, click here.