Justice and Healthy Communities in the 21st Century
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
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 childrens 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 communitys 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, www.weact.org.
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