A call for justice: Southern California groups call on SCAG to improve its Environmental Justice Analysis

Guest post by:
Beth Steckler, Deputy Director, Move LA
Michele Hasson, Regional Director, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability

Southern California has big plans. That is, the six counties in the region making up the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) do. They’re planning to shift transportation investments and encourage more urban-style development, to help reduce driving and greenhouse gas emissions throughout the state’s largest region.

This is promising. But it must be done thoughtfully.

Examine the impacts, both bad and good

That’s why 33 non-profits are urging SCAG to look carefully at the impact these decisions will have on low-income communities of color, including those in rural areas.

We’ve all signed a letter asking SCAG to strengthen its required Environmental Justice Analysis.

The groups range from organizations working in Los Angeles County (Move LA, SAJE, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, Climate Resolve, Community Health Councils, LA Walks and the LA County Bicycle Coalition, etc.), and the Inland Empire (Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability) to local affiliates of national organizations (NRDC, Safe Routes to School National Partnership, AIA, AARP, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Enterprise Community Partners) and statewide organizations (California Walks, Communities for a Better Environment, Prevention Institute).

All these groups believe that low-income people and communities of color should not shoulder a disproportionate burden of big development decisions. These decisions can have negative impacts on communities, such as air pollution, noise pollution, displacement, and gentrification.

The federal government believes this too: that’s why the Environmental Justice Analysis is required by law.

We also believe low-income communities should get their fair share of the good things about public investments in transportation: benefits like expanded bus and rail service.

How to do it: Strengthen the analysis and support communities

Recommendations in our letter include:

Look at “Communities of Concern” – as the Bay Area’s MTC has done – to identify, through robust public participation, disparities between disadvantaged communities (CalEnviroScreen), and the rest of the region.

Analyze subregions, not counties, focusing on particular environmental justice issues to illustrate the various challenges the region faces.

Set specific goals on metrics, rather than calling for “improvement over baseline.”

Strengthen the EJ Toolbox to give local governments an easy reference to policies and programs available to mitigate disparate impacts.

The letter also gives detailed recommendations on rural and sub-regional analyses, active transportation, jobs-housing mismatch, accessibility to places people need to go, displacement, performance targets, air quality health impacts along freeways, and climate adaptation and resilience.

Seeing the big picture

The SCAG region is enormous, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Arizona boarder and from Ventura to the Mexico border. (It’s almost the entire southern half of the state, except Santa Barbara and San Diego.) It’s not surprising that such a large region is diverse, with small rural communities, large urban centers, and everything in between.

Instead of county comparisons, which can obscure the reality of life for low-income communities of color, there are regional trends to uncover and stories to tell. Are rising prices in coastal communities pushing low-income people inland? Are warehouses creating more pollution burdens and low-wage jobs than economic stimulus?

A history of environmental injustice

From Long Beach to the Inland Empire, urban, suburban, and rural communities of color share disproportionate health burdens, such as diabetes, asthma, heart disease—in part because residents of low-income communities of color have been left out of critical decisions. All too often, freeways, warehouses, dumps, and other unhealthy land uses are placed close to where people live, work, play, and go to school.

SCAG can help

Most of the decisions around transportation projects, funding, and real estate development are local. But SCAG provides an official reality check on whether all these local efforts will together meet our regional air quality and greenhouse gas reduction goals. SCAG can ask the big-picture questions that go beyond city and even county borders around our watershed, commute shed, and air basin, and even immigration and international trade.

As a powerhouse of data and analysis, SCAG is also in a great position to monitor the impacts of these investments on traditionally disadvantaged communities from a regional vantage point, something that is very difficult for small, or even large, cities to do. And the EJ Analysis is about making sure those strategies don’t produce unfair impacts and pollution burdens on the most vulnerable communities.

Next steps

SCAG has held three workshops and is organizing focus groups to gather more input before settling on a design for the Environmental Justice Analysis.

SCAG will release its draft Environmental Justice Analysis in September and will be accepting comments from the public.

If you are interested in helping draft or signing on to comments, please contact Beth Steckler at Beth@MoveLA.org or Michele Hasson at mhasson@leadershipcounsel.org.

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