Why Saving This Stop on the Underground Railroad Is an Act of Climate Justice

On murky nights, when dullness stole the sky and blanketed the North Star, Harriet Tubman used her vast forestry skills to propel forward those escaping slavery.  As a child, she learned moss only grew on the northward side of trees and used that knowledge to help direct dozens of people on the Underground Railroad. To […]

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In Tulare County, officials test new approach to environmental justice

This story was published as a partnership between the Center for Public Integrity and Fresnoland.

When Arlin Benavides Jr. set out to hear residents’ environmental concerns in one of the most marginalized parts of a region facing water scarcity, groundwater contamination, extreme heat and other woes, he wasn’t sure if people would open their doors, much less talk.

He was aiming to engage with people in Tulare County in California’s Central Valley, a region known as the food basket of the world and a place with extreme poverty. Many of the residents live in remote, isolated farming hamlets.

In these far-flung communities, Benavides, an AmeriCorps CivicSpark Fellow working for Tulare County’s Resource Management Agency, discovered that residents felt forgotten by their local government officials. When he explained that he was part of the agency’s effort to develop an environmental justice element for the county’s general plan, he was met with suspicion and skepticism.

“You could see anger rise within them. They would tell me stories of just not having good experiences — most commonly it was the story that they had told previous government agencies what they needed, what were the challenges, and they felt like those changes were not done soon enough,” said Benavides, whose fellowship was part of a CivicSpark program that aims to help local public agencies address community issues such as climate change, water resource management and housing.

What had changed between those experiences and Benavides showing up on their doorsteps: California started requiring local governments to integrate environmental justice principles into their planning processes.

The first such law in the nation, Senate Bill 1000 calls for municipal leaders to engage communities in a meaningful way while doing land use work, such as updating general plans, which set priorities for development. Ultimately, the 2016 law aims to address environmental inequities caused by land use policies, such as poor air quality in communities of color hemmed in by industrial facilities. But on the ground, addressing entrenched inequities baked into urban planning policies can be tough.

In a newly released study, two researchers examined those challenges as municipalities across California implemented SB 1000. It’s an analysis they hope can illuminate efforts across the nation as civic leaders seek solutions for communities burdened by pollution — often Black, Latino, Indigenous and low income.

The study’s authors, Michelle E. Zuñiga and Michael Méndez, said the research was inspired by feedback they heard from community and environmental justice organizations who shared their struggles about how SB 1000 was being implemented and what they described as spotty compliance, particularly in communities facing environmental hazards.

For example: city or county planners who don’t understand institutional and socio-economic barriers facing residents, or planning managers who aren’t supportive of or in some cases are hostile to incorporating environmental justice into their work.

Some municipalities argue that existing land use regulations and policies benefit everyone equally, and that explicit environmental justice ordinances or provisions in a general plan are unnecessary, said Méndez, an assistant professor of environmental planning and policy at the University of California, Irvine.

“Time and time again we see how that is not the case, that urban planning has been used as a racist tool kit to enforce existing disparities within and among communities,” he said.

To determine how the law was being implemented in communities with high levels of cumulative environmental health impacts, Zuñiga and Méndez focused their study on cities and counties with census tracts identified by the state’s environmental health screening tool as the most disadvantaged by pollution, such as toxic releases, groundwater threats, traffic fumes and hazardous waste.

In California, 238 cities and 29 counties have census tracts heavily burdened by environmental health impacts, in the top 25% of cumulative impact as measured by the state’s CalEnviroScreen tool. Thirty-three cities and four counties in the state, meanwhile, have adopted or drafted environmental-justice considerations in their general plans. (Data source: CalEnviroScreen 3.0. Maps generated by Zuñiga and Méndez 2023.)

Results, they found, have been mixed. There are positive outcomes, such as the creation of environmental justice advisory committees in Tulare and other counties. But many obstacles remain. The researchers found that some communities experience ineffective community engagement, little support from elected officials, limited discussions of environmental racism and a lack of resources to implement and monitor the measures needed to comply with the law.

These challenges mean progress toward environmental justice will be slow and uneven, the authors wrote: “Environmental justice will not be fully realized without strong oversight and political leadership, and racial diversification of urban planning institutions.”

Their research also affirmed the need for the type of guidance that the California Attorney General’s bureau of environmental justice has issued to local governments about the law. The bureau has done this via comment letters that point out shortcomings in local approaches, but it also provides feedback on how to comply with the law. One of those letters to Tulare County, for example, urged officials not to rush through their general plan amendments before fully engaging with disadvantaged communities.

Attorney General Rob Bonta has also intervened in Fresno, saying in 2022 that Fresno County’s draft general plan raised “civil rights and environmental justice concerns” and pressing Fresno city leaders not to approve a rezoning proposal that would add pollution in “some of the most over-burdened and under-invested environmental justice communities in all of California.”

In some cases,  Zuñiga and Méndez discovered a lack of understanding among planners on how to define environmental justice, so they outlined in the paper how environmental justice is measured, observed and defined.

Last fall when they presented their preliminary findings at the American Planning Association conference, some planners shared that they’ve faced pushback from leaders in politically conservative municipalities, while others described challenges with implementation in areas with historic under-investment, said  Zuñiga, an assistant professor of urban and community planning at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Increasingly, she’s seen more planners across the country take on the task of addressing environmental injustices through local government plans, even without laws such as SB 1000.

“This work is very important, not only for California, where there is a policy mandate, but for other planners in other areas of the country that are taking on this charge as well,” she said. “Because of the push of the community organizations prioritizing environmental justice, they also are pushing for environmental justice plans.”

When Benavides first began his fellowship in Tulare County in late 2019, he decided to reach out to Sacramento County, which had already approved an environmental justice element in their general plan. He wanted to know how they involved community organizations in the process. He learned that Sacramento opted to create an environmental justice advisory committee, a process that he knew would also reinforce the requirements of SB 1000.

But first Benavides set out to conduct outreach to understand the issues — from housing and food justice to public utilities and transportation — that residents faced. Benavides, a resident of the more affluent Marin County near San Francisco, was shocked by what he found.

“I didn’t really realize that there were people that didn’t have potable water; that the conditions which [farmworker advocate] Cesar Chavez was trying to improve or ameliorate are still existing in Tulare County,” said Benavides, who was particularly struck by the stark disparities in wealth between farm owners and the working class residents living in unincorporated areas of the county.

The geographical distances between the county seat of Visalia and these small communities were further deepened by a lack of regular visits from county officials. One woman Benavides spoke to was initially angry as she described how, despite repeated efforts to share the problems facing her community, living conditions either don’t improve at all or don’t improve fast enough. “I think that this is also an ongoing cycle where planners go out into a community to really try to understand people, and then, the moment a plan is developed those relationships are not maintained, those stories are not valued,” said Benavides.

He knows that often this happens because planning agencies may lack the bandwidth or resources to maintain these relationships. But that day, as he spoke to this resident, he decided that no explanation could excuse what she had gone through.

So rather than offer an excuse, he apologized. The woman was so overcome with emotion that she started crying. “I felt like as a representative of local government, it was my due diligence to say, ‘I’m sorry for everything that you’ve experienced,’” he said.

But he also explained that there was something he could do to help in that instance, and that was to invite her to participate in the environmental justice advisory committee that was being formed as part of the general plan process to develop an environmental element.

“There is something that I can do for you, and that is to guarantee that you have a seat at the table,” Benavides told her.

Ultimately, Tulare County did create an Environmental Justice Advisory Committee in 2020 to advise its Resource Management Agency. Key to that is providing feedback on the county’s draft environmental justice element and ensuring that it improves the quality of life for disadvantaged communities throughout the county.

When Benavides ended his fellowship in 2020 and passed the baton to the next AmeriCorps CivicSpark fellow, he was glad to know the committee would continue the relationship-building work.

It’s that level of engagement, he said, where residents’ experiences are not only valued but are imprinted in the land-use planning documents, that can transform lives for the better.

Inviting residents to collaborate on land use and development was a first step, he said. Equally as important for real change, he told residents, is that “we continue building a relationship after that is done.”

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