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Creating a Sustainable World Though Increased Involvement of People of Color and the Economically Disadvantaged

sustainable communityNow that sustainability terms like geo-fuel, carbon footprint, climate change, biodiversity, etc., have comfortably found their home in the public administration lexicon, many public entities are getting serious about the “greening” of their cities and towns. Sustainable government initiatives and legislation are on the rise as citizens demand more eco-friendly living space. As a general rule, the term “sustainable community” often evokes visions of affluent, pristine, manicured neighborhoods replete with walking and biking trails, environmentally friendly public transportation, and plenty of green space to go around. Unfortunately, however, while many government entities are investing time and money in sustainability programs, many, whether purposefully or negligently, are contemporaneously engaging in a form of environmental racism.

Environmental racism, according to Bullard (2002) refers to those environmental policies, practices, or directives that disproportionately affect (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color. Consequently, low-income and/or racially homogeneous communities are put at infinitely higher environmental risk than affluent communities. Studies show that, more often than not, the citizens populating areas within 2 miles of our nation’s hazardous waste facilities are people of color. In one study, evidence suggested that residents of poor communities and in communities of color in the United States bear a disproportionate burden of toxic contamination, both through the generation and release of hazardous chemicals in their neighborhoods, and via the location of waste management facilities (Heiman,1996).

If governments are serious about investing time and human capital in sustainability initiatives, then they must make concerted efforts to reach out to and include the disenfranchised and the unheard. Because sustainability can’t be confined to a single field, project or endeavor, the next generation of solutions requires unprecedented collaboration across racial and economic lines. Such collaborations can emerge if government takes the time to assist those living in lower income neighborhoods to develop and grow as civic and community leaders. A diversity of leadership enhances opportunities for low-income citizens and people of color to participate in the development of policies that lead to sustainable communities. Increased participation by citizens who traditionally have not felt welcome at the sustainability table can help insure that sustainability initiatives are applied uniformly across the board and in a nondiscriminatory manner. It only stands to reason that the economically disadvantaged should be significant players in the sustainability mix as they too are end users and often have the most to gain by cleaner, safer and more environmentally sound neighborhoods.

In order to increase participation by those peoples who have heretofore been marginalized, openness and transparency on the part of government is one of several prerequisites for successful citizen involvement. Many citizens, whether they are people of color or economically challenged, face the extra hurdles of education, and a lack of professional or political contacts and knowledge of the complex decision making and legislative processes. It has been suggested by Ghai (2003), that a crucial form of participation is one in which the disenfranchised have open access to decision-makers, be they legislative or executive, at the planning stage. By involving these valuable citizens before decisions are made and policies implemented, we experience the essence of participative and inclusive government.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in its efforts to promote sustainable regions recommends that communities that seek to grow and develop more sustainably can begin by asking themselves the following questions:

  • Is affordable housing in my community well located, near transportation choices, and away from sensitive natural areas?
  • Are new housing developments designed to encourage walking, connect to nearby uses and amenities, and incorporate parks and open space?
  • Are affordable homes being constructed with materials and techniques that reduce energy and water use and improve resident health and well-being?

If the answer to one or more of the above questions is “no,” then a community, asserts the EPA, is unlikely to be growing in a manner that is economically or environmentally sustainable (EPA 2012). One way to minimize the possibility of such questions being answered in the negative is to insure that the citizens who will ultimately take advantage of new housing developments and affordable homes are part of the sustainability paradigm. Further, we cannot overlook the importance of infill development that expands the supply of affordable housing in inner city and older suburban neighborhoods that provide working families with good access to traditional job centers. An effective sustainability plan would not merely call for the development of more eco-friendly affordable housing, but it would insure that such housing is constructed in close proximity to transportation hubs. As noted by Lipman (2006), we have a duty to provide good quality and reliable transit for suburb-to-suburb commuting, as well as for helping families in the outer suburbs get into the central city. Not all families can easily get to work via the bio-friendly public transportation systems in which many communities are investing.

Sustainability programs are worthwhile goals for any community. In order for such programs to be effective, however, all citizens in the affected area must be offered a seat at the decision-making table.


Author: Joseph G. Jarret is a public administrator, attorney and mediator who lectures on behalf of the Master of Public Policy and Administration program in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is the 2013 president of the E. Tennessee Chapter of ASPA.


Image courtesy of http://brainz.org/what-are-sustainable-communities/.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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