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Creating Equitable, Healthy, And Sustainable Communities: Strategies for Advancing Smart Growth, Environmental Justice, and Equitable Development

“A clean, green, healthy community is a better place to buy a home and raise a family; it’s more competitive in the race to attract new businesses; and it has the foundations it needs for prosperity.”
—Lisa P. Jackson, EPA Administrator

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Executive Summary

Communities across the country are integrating smart growth, environmental justice, and equitable development approaches to design and build healthy, sustainable, and inclusive neighborhoods. Overburdened communities are using smart growth strategies to address longstanding environmental and health challenges and create new opportunities where they live. Regional and local planners are engaging low-income, minority, and tribal residents in decision-making and producing more enduring development that is better for people and the environment. Community groups, government agencies, and private and nonprofit partners are cleaning up and investing in existing neighborhoods, providing affordable housing and transportation options, and improving access to critical services and amenities.

This informational publication aims to build on past successes and offer other low-income, minority, tribal, and overburdened communities approaches to shape development that responds to their needs and reflects their values. It identifies strategies that bring together smart growth, environmental justice, and equitable development principles and that community-based organizations, local and regional decision-makers, developers, and others can use to build healthy, sustainable, and inclusive communities. These are places that provide clean air, water, and land; affordable and healthy homes; safe, reliable, and economical transportation options; and convenient access to jobs, schools, parks, shopping, and other daily necessities.

The strategies are grouped under seven common elements, or shared goals and principles that connect environmental justice, smart growth, and equitable development. The fundamental overlap between these concepts is around how to plan and build neighborhoods to address environmental, health, and economic disparities and provide opportunities for low-income, minority, tribal, and overburdened residents; therefore, all the approaches described relate to land use and community design. This document provides a brief introduction to each strategy, with a description of what it is, how it supports equitable and environmentally sustainable development, and examples of how it has been used. Local governments and community-based organizations can choose the approaches that best suit their needs and goals. Each of the seven common elements is illustrated by an in-depth case study highlighting a community’s experiences with these strategies.

The seven common elements, along with the strategies that fit under each one, are summarized on the following pages.

Strategies Linking Smart Growth, Environmental Justice, and Equitable Development

Common Element #1: Facilitate Meaningful Community Engagement in Planning and Land Use Decisions

Meaningful community participation in land use planning and decision-making can produce development that meets the needs of a diverse group of residents, build broad support for projects, and lead to more effective public processes. Planners and community-based organizations can use interactive, customizable strategies to engage low-income, minority, tribal, and overburdened residents who face barriers to participation, are not traditionally involved in public processes, or are particularly affected by development proposals.

  • Conducting multilingual outreach as part of planning and development decision-making is increasingly important with the growing number of U.S. residents whose primary language is not English. This approach results in policies and projects that better meet the needs of community members and have stronger public support.
  • Conducting community assessments helps residents gather, analyze, and report information about current conditions and needs related to priority issues in their neighborhoods, such as street safety for pedestrians. These hands-on exercises can be facilitated by community-based organizations or local and regional planners.
  • Holding community planning and visioning workshops helps groups of residents and organizations define a shared vision and goals for a site, neighborhood, city, town, or region, laying a foundation for subsequent land use policy and regulatory changes and investments.

Common Element #2: Promote Public Health and a Clean and Safe Environment

Designing and developing neighborhoods and buildings to protect air, water, land, and public health—particularly the health of overburdened populations—can reduce exposure to harmful contamination; prevent future pollution; and promote physical activity, reduced incidence of chronic disease, and other positive health outcomes among residents. This section provides land use planning and zoning-related approaches to address the potential environmental and health concerns from chemical plants, refineries, landfills, power plants, industrial livestock operations, and other facilities that are disproportionately located near low-income, minority, and tribal communities. It also discusses ways of cleaning up and reusing the contaminated sites left behind by those facilities, and methods for integrating healthy and sustainable elements into buildings and streets.

  • Collaborative planning and zoning strategies can help reduce exposure to facilities with potential environmental concerns, mitigating the impacts of existing facilities on surrounding communities and siting and designing proposed facilities to avoid risks.
  • Likewise, local and regional planning agencies, community-based organizations, and industry representatives can work together to design freight facilities and surrounding neighborhoods in ways that reduce exposure to goods movement activities and support health, environmental, and economic goals.
  • Clean and reuse contaminated properties—specifically, brownfields and Superfund sites—in ways that support the community’s vision for its future. This can be critical to revitalize neighborhoods and increase access to needed amenities in established communities.
  • Strategies that promote green building can reduce exposure to toxics and pollutants that have been linked to cancer, asthma, and other health problems. These strategies can also reduce energy and water costs, which are often a significant burden for low-income families.
  • Local governments and community-based organizations can build green streets by carrying out relatively simple and low-cost projects, such as installing rain gardens; or by enacting comprehensive policy changes, such as updating street design standards.

Common Element #3: Strengthen Existing Communities

Many established communities—city downtowns, older suburban neighborhoods, and rural villages—are rich in culture, heritage, and social capital but lack economic opportunities for residents. Investing in these existing communities rather than in new developments on the outer fringes of metropolitan areas can improve quality of life for low-income and overburdened populations by bringing the new jobs, services, and amenities they need. This approach can also help address the health and safety risks presented by contaminated properties, abandoned buildings, and poorly designed streets, and can increase the tax base to support other local needs.

  • Approaches that encourage fixing existing infrastructure first prioritize the repair and maintenance of existing roads, bridges, buildings, and water and wastewater facilities over the building of new infrastructure in undeveloped places.
  • Reusing vacant and abandoned properties as community amenities such as housing, commercial space, gardens, or temporary green spaces can remove blight and safety concerns, increase residents’ access to needed services and opportunities, and spur additional investment in neighborhoods.
  • Redeveloping commercial corridors by creating compact, mixed-use land use patterns and making streets safer for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users can improve opportunities for businesses and access for residents along these important thoroughfares.

Common Element #4: Provide Housing Choices

Offering an array of housing options by preserving and building affordable housing allows residents at all income levels to live near jobs, services, and public transit; helps to minimize displacement; and reduces transportation costs and air pollution from long commutes.

  • Preserving affordable housing using tools like deed restrictions, housing trust funds, rehabilitation assistance, and Low-Income Housing Tax Credits can maintain housing choices and access to opportunities for low- and moderate-income families in revitalizing areas and catalyze investment in struggling neighborhoods.
  • Creating new affordable housing through approaches such as inclusionary zoning, updated land use regulations, and Low-Income Housing Tax Credits is another way to expand housing choices for low- and moderate-income households, including in affluent communities that lack housing options for low-income earners, young people, and seniors.

Common Element #5: Provide Transportation Options

For many low-income, minority, tribal, and overburdened communities, public transit and safe routes for walking and bicycling are critical links to regional employment and educational opportunities that help residents improve their lives. Providing equitable and affordable transportation options improves mobility and access to jobs, services, and other daily necessities for all residents, including those who do not own cars.

  • Providing access to public transportation through inclusive schedule and route planning and thoughtful transit stop and street design connects people to regional jobs and services.
  • Implementing equitable transit-oriented development provides affordable housing near transit, which can significantly lower the housing and transportation costs that claim a large share of the incomes of many low-income households.
  • Local and regional agencies and community-based organizations can work together to design safe streets for all users by incorporating sidewalks, bike lanes, median islands, pedestrian signals, bus lanes, and other facilities for pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and public transit users of all ages and abilities into new and existing streets.

Common Element #6: Improve Access to Opportunities and Daily Necessities

All residents, regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic status, should have access to the basic ingredients for healthy, productive lives, including employment and educational opportunities; services such as health clinics and child care; and amenities such as grocery stores, safe streets, and parks and recreational facilities.

  • Approaches to promote diverse, community-centered schools preserve or build schools that are near the families they serve. Community-centered schools allow students to walk or bicycle to school, which promotes physical activity; and provide important community anchors and gathering places.
  • Programs that create safe routes to school improve children’s health by providing education, enforcement, and infrastructure upgrades that make it possible for them to walk or bicycle to school.
  • Planners and community-based organizations can provide access to healthy food by removing barriers in land use regulations, offering incentives and financing to retailers, connecting retailers with financing, and assisting with challenging issues such as assembling land for development.
  • Providing access to parks and green space at all scales provides critical health, social, and environmental benefits for low-income and overburdened communities.

Common Element #7: Preserve and Build on the Features That Make a Community Distinctive

Authentic community planning and revitalization are anchored in the physical and cultural assets that make a place unique. As decision-makers and community stakeholders implement the policies and strategies described in this report, they should build on the distinctive characteristics of their neighborhoods. Preserving and strengthening the features that make a place special maintains what existing residents value about their homes, attracts new residents and visitors, and spurs economic development that is grounded in community identity.

  • Community planning and historic preservation strategies can help to preserve existing cultural features.
  • Tools such as design guidelines and neighborhood conservation districts can create new development that strengthens local culture by capturing the specific physical characteristics of development that determine the overall character of a neighborhood and applying them to new projects.

This publication demonstrates that smart growth, environmental justice, and equitable development approaches can be an effective combination for responding to the challenges overburdened communities face, promoting development that is authentic and enduring, and laying the foundation for economic resilience. Taken together or in part, the strategies outlined here can help low-income, minority, tribal, and overburdened communities shape development to respond to their needs and reflect their values. These strategies can also help local and regional planners and policy-makers make land use decisions that are equitable, healthy, and sustainable for all residents.