What Does Environmental Justice Look Like?

In American cities where many communities of color have historically been neglected and outright disenfranchised, equitable environmental policies and programs, community engagement, and data-driven solutions can help deliver justice for generations to come.

A gif of three sunflower heads waving in the wind. Video footage by Emily Ashenfelter/RAND Corporation

For decades, poor, racially segregated, and historically disinvested neighborhoods have borne the brunt of environmental injustices—disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards, like pollution and climate-related disasters, as well as lack of investments in wellness-promoting amenities, like green spaces and tree cover.

These injustices are often a product of structural racism, which encompasses racially discriminatory policies and practices like redlining, and norms that privilege white majorities at the expense of people of color.

In this study, RAND researchers spoke to policymakers and organizers across the United States to understand how communities experience and understand environmental injustices, and the lessons learned from efforts to address them.

This work has shown that a shared vision of environmental justice can help residents, organizers, and policymakers understand the root causes of injustices, identify actionable policy responses, and build trust in the belief that progress can be achieved.

Learn more about the legacy of redlining

Equitable Policies and Programs

Because environmental concerns are seldom isolated from other socioeconomic burdens, a holistic approach to policy could help communities experience real beneficial change.

For instance, policymakers could pair environmental policies with other programs intended to address longstanding community priorities related to health, economic well-being, public safety, and quality of life improvements.

Here are just a few examples of these types of policies and programs in action, via our partners at environmental nonprofit Groundwork USA.

Climate and Parks Planning in San Diego, California

A polluted and historically neglected watershed is revitalized thanks to decades of community organizing and recent policy action for more equitable access to public parks in the Chollas Creek neighborhood.

Clean Air in Elizabeth, New Jersey

Community leaders are implementing holistic, grassroots solutions to improve air quality and access to urban agriculture in a neighborhood outside the largest port on the East Coast.

Other Community Policies and Programs

Clean Transportation in Denver, Colorado

The Denver Climate Protection Fund, a multifaceted project that aims to adapt to climate impacts, build community resiliency, and prioritize vulnerable neighborhoods through investments in cleaner mobility and transit options and expanded electric vehicle infrastructure.

A green and yellow bicycle. Photo by Unsplash.

Pollution Remediation in Yonkers, New York

A green and yellow white bass. Image adapted from <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:White_Bass,_Caught_and_Released.JPG">photo</a> by BenitoJuarez98 / <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/">CC BY-SA 4.0</a>

After nearly a century buried beneath the streets of downtown Yonkers, the Saw Mill River now flows in broad daylight with the addition of a natural habitat for migratory fish passage and native vegetation thanks to a public works remediation project.

Climate Action in Richmond, Virginia

An equity-focused climate action initiative aims to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and help the community adapt to the city’s climate impacts of extreme heat, precipitation, and flooding.

A green and yellow tree. Image adapted from <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tree_in_Mississippi.jpg">photo</a> by <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Freekhou5">Freekhou5</a> / <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en">CC BY-SA 4.0</a>

"Green Workforce" Training in Cincinnati, Ohio

A green and yellow cloud. Photo by Unsplash.

New funding will train more than 100 youth employees and 10 neighborhood residents on air quality and monitoring techniques to gather data about air pollution in overburdened neighborhoods and reduce exposure.

Meaningful Community Engagement

Centering resident voices throughout each step in the policymaking process can help create neighborhood changes that are most meaningful to those who live there while avoiding unintended consequences like green gentrification.

A still image of Julie Corrales standing in front of a harbour with a bridge and a pier with cranes for unloading ships in the background.

Photo by Emily Ashenfelter/RAND Corporation

I have this vision of my grandchildren playing in a green Logan, getting to see those danzantes and getting the culture and breathing clean air. We deserve all of that.

Julie Corrales

San Diego, California

In communities affected by environmental injustices, building trust through long-term planning, boundary setting, grant-making, and neighborhood-level improvements is a necessary element of community engagement and an ongoing outcome to strive for.

A still image of Darian Griffin, a black man wearing glasses, standing in front of a wall covered with posters.

Photo by Evan Banks/RAND Corporation

It’s important for our youth to know that this is their home, too; that they are able to mold it in any way, shape, or form that they feel like is right.

Darian Griffin

Elizabeth, New Jersey

Data-Driven Solutions

Data can play an important role in developing policy that addresses issues of persistent poverty, racial and ethnic residential segregation, disproportionate environmental stressor burden, and impacts from climate change.

Ready-to-use data visualization tools can help nonprofits, community organizers, and policymakers validate on-the-ground realities about environmental inequalities that can support awareness-building, grant applications, and equity-driven prioritization of resources.

RAND developed a tool that allows users to explore environmental disparities within municipal boundaries as defined by redlining, a racist practice developed by the federal government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) that graded neighborhoods based on their perceived risk for home loan lending.

Here are some other tools that provide information on racial and economic equity:

About This Project

RAND researchers developed this resource in partnership with environmental justice nonprofit Groundwork USA, drawing from RAND research on environmental racism and interviews with community members and organizers. Through this partnership, RAND has contributed to a body of work that includes Groundwork USA's foundational data-driven, community-led engagement efforts to make research findings and key takeaways even more accessible.

This project was made possible by a gift from the late Charles J. Zwick and his wife, Barbara. In 2011, Zwick, a RAND alumnus and former trustee, established a $1 million charitable fund to help meet RAND's most pressing research needs. Zwick Impact Awards extend the reach of findings and recommendations from completed RAND research to new and diverse stakeholders or underserved audiences.

About RAND

RAND is a nonprofit organization that conducts research to help policymakers and leaders make informed decisions. Part of our mission is to help individuals, families, and communities throughout the world be safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.

About Groundwork USA

Groundwork USA is a national support organization for a network of place-based, people-centered environmental justice organizations—Groundwork Trusts—working hand-in-hand with residents in their community to transform underutilized land into community assets that address environmental harms and advance health, equity, and resilience.

Using a three-pronged research, organizing, and advocacy approach, Groundwork USA builds the capacity of residents in these communities to use data and maps to understand why their communities look the way that they do, to implement small-scale solutions that address climate-related extreme heat and flooding challenges, and to self-advocate for changes in how resources are distributed in their city.