By Jazmine Johnson

Shelter-in-place orders across the globe have resulted in widespread dramatic decreases in toxic pollutant and greenhouse gas emissions, with Los Angeles experiencing its longest streak of “good” air quality days in decades. Yet, many communities–namely environmental justice (EJ) communities–are occluded from reaping these benefits and are in many cases having rather contrasting experiences. What’s more, these frontline communities are bearing the burden of societal inequities of not just the present, but of our country’s racially discriminatory past as well. 

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to being economically burdened and therefore more vulnerable to the impacts of this global emergency, EJ communities are more vulnerable to not only the virus itself, but further physical and psychological harm. Environmentally overburdened communities have higher rates of health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and cancer, making them more susceptible to contracting the virus and experiencing severe and life-threatening symptoms. Furthermore, with widespread stay-at-home orders in place, many of these residents are spending substantially more time in close proximity to the toxic facilities and operations adjacent to their homes, some of which have increased operation since the lockdown began. This includes an increase in heavy truck traffic in certain neighborhoods due to the surge in e-commerce, much of which is driven by their more affluent neighbors in other communities. With all of these conditions in place, it is grimly unsurprising that these communities are experiencing higher rates of morbidity from the disease.

What’s more, soil and water contamination lend themselves to further hindering EJ residents from being “safer at home.” EJ communities often lack access to clean, safe, and affordable water, with many residents resorting to bottled water for consumption and gyms and other facilities for bathing. But with the scarcity of drinking water available in local markets, and the closure of non-essential businesses including gyms, these residents are left with few or no alternatives. Moreover, to compound the impacts of existing disparities in access to healthcare services and affordable healthy foods, neighborhoods plagued with poor infrastructure, contaminated land, and a dearth of green and open space force residents to make trade-offs for their health, safety, and mental well-being.

“Local Control” Comes at a High Cost for EJ Communities

The concept of “local control” ultimately leaves local land use and planning decisions in the hands of local governing bodies and strongly discourages any sort of monitoring, regulation, or intervention by the state. Yet, the notion of local control–despite its intentions of ensuring such decisions are made by those most familiar with their community, and thus, most suited to do so–belies who is actually involved in these matters.

In particular, low-income communities and communities of color have historically borne the burden of poor and malign planning practices, and what’s more, are often excluded from critical land use decision-making processes. These communities, including those such as South Central Los Angeles, have experienced a combination of poor planning decisions, discriminatory practices, and underinvestment that has resulted in an overconcentration of hazardous land uses and, consequently, polluted soil, water, and air. These conditions have had major negative impacts on overall health, well-being, and quality of life in these communities, and as is the case in the current pandemic, leaves them more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and public health crises.

Community-led decision-making (a process in which local governments actively and meaningfully engage community residents in policymaking processes) is critical in ensuring that these inequities do not persist. Residents have an intimate understanding of not only the impacts these historically discriminatory practices have had on their communities, but what the community needs and wants in order to mitigate and eliminate them.

Our work at PSR-LA, along with partners both locally and across the state, uplifts and advocates for the self-determination and meaningful involvement of low-income communities and communities of color who are often disproportionately burdened by pollution and other social inequities. Community control leads to more just and equitable policies, programs, and practices, as well as land use decisions that will not only improve inequitable conditions in EJ communities, but ensure that everyone can live in a thriving and healthy neighborhood. 

PSR-LA is a part of  the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA), who recently released their report Rethinking Local Control: Placing Environmental Justice and Civil Rights at the Heart of Land Use Decision-Making,” in which cases studies from the state and best practices for carrying out community-led decision-making are discussed in detail. In addition to contributing to this report, we will soon be releasing our own report which will provide more background as well as findings and recommendations from the 500 Feet Project, our flagship land use project which seeks to uplift community control in local decision-making, particularly here in South Central. Through this project and our collaborative work both locally and statewide, we hope to advance policies and programs that uplift the needs, goals, and visions of South Central residents and communities alike state- and nationwide.

If you have any questions or would like to learn more, you can contact Jazmine Johnson at jjohnson@psr-la.org.