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January 2000
Environmental Justice and Healthy Communities in the 21st Century

By Peggy M. Shepard


Communities of color in the urban environment have special characteristics: (1) oversaturation of communities with multiple sources of environmental toxicants in highly congested spaces and disparate exposure to environmental hazards; (2) lower socioeconomic status, which is a significant health risk factor; (3) more vulnerable populations of residents like children, the elderly, the infirm, and the immune-compromised; (4) co-existence of residential and industrial sites as a result of imprudent land use decisions; (5) lack of documentation of most environmental health risks in urban communities; (6) the existence of the yet not understood effects of multiple and cumulative exposures, and synergistic effects; (7) virtual non-existence of environmental enforcement and compliant activity; (8) severe infrastructure decay; (9) a high degree of social alienation and decay exacerbated by living in densely populated, degraded environments; and (10) a number of vacant, former industrial sites that are contaminated brownfields.

To bequeath healthy and sustainable communities and to achieve environmental justice, communities must begin to develop local leadership and strategies that address their environmental and health concerns as development projects are planned to revitalize local economies and housing stock. We must begin to educate residents, other stakeholders, and decision-makers to provide leadership and support for short and long-term reform to achieve environmental and public health protection, prosperous communities, and community well-being. Protecting children’s environmental health is critical, as they are the future stewards of sustainable communities.

Land use and development policies must begin to take an integrated approach to resolving the problems in the paradigm, i.e., public health, environmental protection, economic development and community well-being. Without strong targeted environmental literacy initiatives, community residents and other stakeholders will not be able to participate in decision-making in an informed way. Residents must be educated to understand and consider the impacts of land use activities on their health and quality of life. Broad-based community involvement in land use/development considerations can define a community’s environmental and economic future and quality of life for generations to come. Yet without public and private sector investment in the reform and integration of land use, economic development, environmental protection and public health policies, what we have is diminished quality of life and health for impacted communities, or as sociologist Robert Bullard says, “human sacrifice zones.”

Peggy M. Shepard is Executive Director and Co-Founder of West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc. Contact: 212-961-1133,


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