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What is Environmental Justice?

We acknowledge that the land that L.A. Works operates on is also known as Tovaangar. This is the ancestral and unceded home of the Tongva people.

We recognize the Tongva and the Chumash and Tataviam peoples as custodians of these lands and waters and pay respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.

According to Communities for a Better Environment, access to clean air, water and soil and to a healthy, safe, livable community are intrinsic human rights and principles of environmental justice.
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“Climatic change” was coined in the 1950s when scientists noticed a natural shift in the Earth’s temperature. This term has become widespread to describe the human-created climate catastrophe. In the mid-60s, as governments and companies started researching these changes, the term was altered to what we know today: climate change.


Climate change is a threat in many ways, impacting air, water, food, housing, and the health (both physical and mental) of the community. Yet communities of color and low-income communities are often the most impacted, facing the greatest risks due to lack of resources. Understanding climate change means understanding how the climate collapse disproportionately affects Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, and recognizing that many environmental policies are rooted in systemic racism.

History of Environmental Justice

While the exact origins of the environmental justice movement in the United States are unknown, the EPA dates the earliest start of the movement to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. During the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968, Memphis garbage workers - primarily Black - went on strike in protest of wages and working conditions. The EPA acknowledges this strike as the first time Black Americans mobilized a large group in protest of environmental conditions. 


The main catalyst for the movement was in 1982, when more than 500 civil and environmental rights activists protested against the development of a hazardous waste landfill in a Black community in Warren County, North Carolina. While this protest was ultimately unsuccessful, it inspired low-income communities and communities of color across the country to organize against toxic waste management in their communities.

In 1991, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit was held in Washington, D.C., convening hundreds of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian American Pacific Islander delegates. One of the outcomes of this event was the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice, a set of principles designed to guide, inform, and support environmental justice efforts on a national level.

A local lens: LA City Planning


The relationship between environmental justice and urban planning was highlighted during the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. The EPA notes that takeaways from the Summit include:​

  • Environmental justice strives to address environmental challenges in an upstream manner by being proactive;

  • Environmental justice has a long history of targeting untenable practices in housing, land use, transportation, industrial siting, health care, and sanitation; and

  • Environmental justice is a cross-cutting issue as evidenced by the fact that the disparate impacts of redlining, infrastructure decline, deteriorating housing, lead poisoning, industrial pollution, concentrated poverty and unemployment are related problems. 

There are a number of steps that led to the systemic racism behind urban planning in Los Angeles. Some steps are highlighted below.

White Flight 

White flight is the phenomenon of white people moving out of urban areas as monitories moved in. Most suburbs in the United States formed as a result of white flight. This trend continues to this day; as neighborhoods become more diversified, white neighbors tend to leave and this leaves an impact. The inner city becomes diversified but loses economic status and political grounds as more affluent neighbors move away. 


Redlining is the discriminatory practice of assigning grades to city zones for the purpose of informing mortgage lenders and realtors in making loans and guiding buyers. The grading scale was influenced by racial characteristics in given neighborhoods. Neighborhoods that had low grades were deemed hazardous, which in turn lowered property value, decreased loan and mortgage assistance and restricted buyers’ choice.  

The Highway System

The highway system connects the suburbs to the city while simultaneously displacing inner-city neighborhoods and creating isolated enclaves. Often, highways displace neighborhoods of color.  ​

  • Construction of the 5, 10, 60 and 101 freeways in Boyle Heights displaced thousands of Hispanic families.

  • The freeway construction in Pasadena, California displaced over 4,000 black and Mexican-American residents.

Urban Greenery

Urban greenery is an important city planning service that promotes physical activity, physiological well-being, and overall increased health benefits. Urban green spaces range from community gardens, street trees, parks, rooftop green spaces, backyards, rivers and streams, sporting fields, nature conservation areas and green walls.  

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Green spaces provide a plethora of public benefits: trees act as a natural air filter, reduce air and noise pollution, cool street and building temperatures, provide habitats for birds, insects, and other creatures, reduce stormwater runoff, and minimize road erosion, increase groundwater distribution and can provide food. Green spaces have been associated with lower crime rates, higher property values and lower rates of stress and aggression within the community. 

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Air Temperature 

  • In Los Angeles, city blocks with 30% or more of tree coverage are 5 degrees cooler than blocks without tree coverage. Increases in green canopies decrease building heat and therefore decrease energy demand.  

Air Quality  

Energy Consumption  

  • Areas with increased tree shade correlate to decreased energy consumption.  

  • Tree shade in Los Angeles reduces energy consumption by $10.2 million annually. 

Health and Social Benefits  

  • Adequate tree coverage can reduce UV exposure upwards of 50%.

  • Higher green spaces in a city are also associated with lower crime rates. 

Green Space in Los Angeles

Unfortunately, green space is not evenly distributed; the inner cities of Los Angeles have far fewer green spaces than their suburban equivalents. Per the National Health Foundation’s BUILD Health LA initiative in 2018:

The national guideline on sufficient distribution of parkland ranges from 6 acres to 19 acres per 1,000 of the population; however, in Los Angeles, areas that had a population of 75% or more Latinos, including Historic South Central Los Angeles, there was 0.6 acres of parkland available per 1,000 residents. Areas that had the same percentage or more African Americans had 1.7 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, and areas that had 75% or more non-Hispanic whites had 31.8 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, illustrating that the acreage of parkland available to Latinos and African Americans falls significantly below the national average.

Wealth also plays a role in access to green spaces. The average tree coverage in Los Angeles is about 19%. The Gramercy Park area has about 10% tree cover, while Pacific Palisades, one of the richest neighborhoods of Los Angeles, has tree coverage of about 55%. Because of the lack of access to green spaces, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are most vulnerable to extreme heat conditions, with these communities reaching five to ten degrees hotter than neighboring communities.

Air Temperature in Los Angeles

As climate change worsens and global temperatures increase, urban areas are at risk of warming at levels far faster than suburban areas due to the Urban Heat-Island effect. This in turn disproportionally affects people of color. 

  • Black Americans are 52% more likely than the general population to live in areas where a high risk for heat-related health problems exists

  • Latinx communities are 21% more likely to live in high heat risk areas 

  • During extended heat waves in Los Angeles (5 days or more), mortality risk increases 46% in Latino communities and 48% in elderly Black communities (Kalkstein et al., 2017) 

  • People who live in mobile homes are six to eight times more likely to die from heat-associated causes than people who live in other types of housing

Interestingly, while central heat is required in buildings, central air conditioning is not. This is important when examining the connection between low-income communities and housing inequalities.

Health Consequences

Los Angeles has the worst ozone pollution in the nation and uncoincidentally, neighborhoods of color and low-income neighborhoods have some of the worst air quality issues in Los Angeles. Port cities, such as Wilmington, Carson, and Long Beach, have some of the highest exposure to air toxins in the city. 


The repercussions of environmental racism have had an adverse effect on Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities: 

  • Industries in Wilmington and Carson reported emitting almost 1.7 million pounds of toxic air contaminants in 2020 (CalMatters)

  • Hispanic communities have a 63.2% greater risk of inhaling nitrogen dioxide than those in non-Hispanic neighborhoods. 

  • Children (10-18) exposed to elevated levels of pollutants are more likely to develop early onset asthma than those not exposed (McConnell et al., 2002).   

  • Higher pollutants in the air are associated with respiratory, cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and neurological disorders. 

Learn More

  • The Aqueduct Between Us: A documentary about water in LA county as told by the Indigenous people of Tovaangar (LA) and Payahuunadü (the Owens Valley) 

  • KCET, White Flight

  • Dolores: A documentary about Dolores Huerta, who fought for racial and labor justice alongside Cesar Chavez


Take Action


We must do everything we can to reduce our emissions and, on top of that, actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

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Advocate and support organizations that are focused on ensuring California meets its greenhouse gas reduction targets, shifting state transportation spending, advancing sustainable and equitable solutions for the housing crisis, and implementing regional Sustainable Communities Strategies.


When it comes to planning for disasters, it is important to consider environmental justice issues. In times of disaster, communities of color and low-income communities are often hit the hardest. When preparing for a disaster, understanding the barriers these communities face can help to ensure that they have access to preparedness resources and are able to recover quickly.


Take action by helping vulnerable communities prepare for a disaster!

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