Seeking answers–and action–on environmental justice

Guest post by Michele Hasson, Regional Director, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability

It was November 20th, and advocates, elected officials, and representatives of public agencies crowded the offices and teleconference lines at the Southern California Assembly of Governments (SCAG). Amid SCAG’s 2016 update of the Regional Transportation Plan and Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP/SCS), this workshop was the official kickoff for efforts to better address environmental justice and equity. (See ClimatePlan’s previous post on this here.)

If you missed the workshop, here are the agenda, fact sheet, and handout. To know how it really went, keep reading.

Why it matters
This plan is important to get right. It will shape the built environment and determine how efficiently Californians can navigate their daily lives. The original RTP/SCS, adopted in 2012, was the state’s very first Sustainable Communities Strategy. Even more importantly, the SCAG region includes half of the state’s population; that’s a lot of people this plan could help.

Our goal as advocates is to make sure that low-income residents and communities of color are at the forefront of policy-making on the 2016 plan. Failure to do this could limit implementation of SB 375, California’ landmark climate resilience law, and leave people out of the opportunities the law offers.

Tangible frustration
Unfortunately, on the 20th, SCAG’s outreach to stakeholders on this important issue fell short. The frustration in the room was so palpable you could feel it over the phone.

Workshop participants had more questions than suggestions, and after the first 10 minutes of the workshop it was apparent that 2 hours would be inadequate. Many attendees asked about SCAG’s outreach methods, and questioned SCAG’s sincerity in attempting to engage the region’s broader environmental justice (EJ) community. Some said they felt that the EJ workshops were mere lip service, with no concrete results for EJ communities throughout the region.

Real attention to environmental justice?
The chaos and frustration made one thing clear: environmental justice in the SCAG region needs to be brought to the forefront, and cannot be relegated to a handful of workshops.

Environmental justice should be addressed throughout the plan, as well. Right now, environmental justice is only addressed in the “performance measures” section of the plan. This is a good start, but right now, the targets for these measures are so vague they are meaningless.

The measures include, for example:
•    Annual household transportation cost;
•    Percent of households with walk access to neighborhood services;
•    Percent income spent on housing and transportation;
•    Percent of residents with half-mile walk to parks and open space;
•    Asthma incidents.

These are all excellent things to measure. In addition, the plan should address the safety of the walking access it mentions. It should especially address displacement and gentrification, making sure that as new growth occurs in downtowns and near transit, lower-income people are not pushed out.

But unless SCAG sets strong, clear targets on each of these measures – instead of just saying “improvement over baseline” – we are unlikely to see real change. And that would be a profound disservice to the people of California.

Holding leaders accountable
The frustration at the meeting was shared by all. It left us asking ourselves: how can we make sure EJ matters at the local level? How can we make sure that it is not only SCAG, but local elected officials, that are held accountable?

We will push for meaningful engagement and integration of environmental justice measures and equity policies in SB 375’s implementation. We will use our frustration to motivate us, to get the answers to the questions we started asking on November 20th.

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