Why smart growth is different from equitable growth: CEQA and SB 731

photo by flickr user JulieAndSteve
photo by flickr user JulieAndSteve

By Monika Shankar and Martha Dina Argüello

cross-posted from the CA Planning and Conservation League newsletter

Many of us living and working in Los Angeles have faced the realities of infill and Transit Oriented Development (TOD) policies for decades. Touted as an environmental and economic solution, infill and TOD, if implemented hastily and without public input can lead to negative impacts on communities. With the release of Senator Steinberg’s SB 731, a bill intended to provide for greater certainty around infill development, we must acknowledge the downsides to infill and TOD that are rarely discussed yet are central issues to social justice and public health advocates. That is, not all TOD and infill development results in equitable development.

The lived experiences of residents and multiple studies have shown that smart growth often means housing built near heavy traffic roadways and freeways and increased exposure to unhealthy air pollution and increased vehicular traffic. It can also raise rental and housing costs, change community aesthetics, and lead to gentrification and displacement. And while smart growth can transform neighborhoods, it fails to help the long term underemployed and unemployed who cannot access newly created jobs or afford the new amenities or even basic goods and services.

Research done by the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy found that transit investment frequently changes the surrounding neighborhood. According to the 2010 study, ‘the most predominant pattern is one in which housing becomes more expensive, neighborhood residents become wealthier and vehicle ownership becomes more common.” The study also reveals that transit development can have unintended consequences for core transit users—usually renters and low-income residents — who are priced out in favor of higher-income, car-owning residents who are less likely to use public transit for commuting. Consequently, the most vulnerable in our communities (renters, low-income and people of color) are pushed to the urban fringes away from jobs, schools and amenities, contributing to what has been dubbed the suburbanization of poverty, and increased air pollution.

A case study exemplifying this phenomenon is downtown Los Angeles, and the surrounding communities of Pico Union and South Park. As major housing and entertainment development made downtown a hip place to live, work and play, low-income residents experienced increasing police harassment, rising costs of living, more traffic and a deep sense that they were no longer welcome in their own neighborhoods. These trends were documented in a health impact assessment conducted by Health Impact Partners in 2012, which showed significant demographic shifts, with African American and Latino populations moving out and a substantial growth of college age individuals and some baby boomers. Displacement and gentrification have health impacts related to mental stress and anxiety. Even small fluctuations in rental rates can mean less money to spend on food, health care, education, all of which are determinants of health.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is one of the few tools communities have to address developments with these negative impacts. In addition to requiring a cumulative health impact assessment, CEQA leverages a community’s ability to assess how a project will impact their health and environment, and mitigate harm through active participation in the process. We must prioritize and protect communities by ensuring equitable growth and we accomplish this by strengthening community participation, conducting more robust health impact assessments, and protecting communities through planning and policy.

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