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CASP: Community Involvement in Planning Yields Great(er) Results

Lizzeth Henao

Posted February 4, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Environmental Justice, Health and the Environment

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Ethnic communities in Los Angeles have long suffered the consequences of ill-conceived land use planning. In the early 20th century, exclusionary zoning laws kept minority groups in silos far away from the white and affluent parts of the city. Throughout the years, these minority communities continued to be assaulted by industrial uses in their neighborhood, the creation of freeways through their communities, and regulations that aided the proliferation of fast food business and liquor stores over grocery stores. It would be a mistake to simply describe these incremental decisions as failed urban planning. After all, they accomplished what they set out to do. Most of the City’s minority populations currently live in concentrated pockets in the urban core, many next to industrial zones and along freeway corridors. Everyone else doesn’t.Los Angeles Ethnic Composition 2010, courtesy of the Center for Urban ResearchHowever, minority communities have begun to fight back against environmental racism by becoming more engaged in land use decisions. Throughout the City and County, advocates have successfully stopped new or expanded power plants, trash dumps, and other pollution sources. Some of the more recent battles include:

  • Residents of Wilmington and West long beach are fighting against a new proposed railyard next to several schools and daycare centers that would elevate the cancer risk for the surrounding community. Residents along the southern I-710 corridor are fighting the expansion of the freeway which could bring more toxic diesel trucks through their neighborhoods.  Both fights have been aided by scientific data on the public health effects of air pollution and localized exposure to harmful particulate matter (premature death, cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory disease, obesity, diabetes, premature birth and lower IQ in children, among others).
  • Engaging in the policy-making process, community advocates in Wilmington, Pacoima and Boyle Heights—disproportionally, overburdened communities of color in Los Angeles—worked with city officials to develop Clean Up Green Up , an effort to reduce pollution and increase public health.
  • Residents in South Los Angeles worked tirelessly to make sure that the USC Specific Plan would not detrimentally impact the community as USC seeks to expand its student housing despite intense opposition from the University.

One struggle that has received new attention has been the advocacy work on the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan. The CASP is a significant step in the City’s efforts to meet AB 32 greenhouse gas reduction goals by linking transportation and land use planning. It will ultimately transform a 650-plus acre stretch of mostly industrial land between the Chinatown and Heritage Square Metro rail station into a mixed use, high-density neighborhood while ensuring that existing transit-dependent residents are not displaced and protecting near-highway residents from further pollution. The forward-thinking Plan is a LEED for Neighborhood Development pilot project.

Community advocates in Chinatown, led by Southeast Asian Community Alliance (SEACA), have been involved in the CASP planning process from the very start. At its inception, the Plan did not do enough to reduce the exposure of residents to environmental health hazards, support the development and preservation of affordable housing (in an area where a third of the residents live below the poverty line), nor incentivize diverse economic activity, among other areas of concern. SEACA created a coalition of social justice advocates, environmentalists, and business leaders to push the Planning Department to strengthen the environmental and economic goals while protecting the vibrant, diverse, transit-using, community that already exists in the area. It also hired its own consultants to give the City much-needed data on how the Plan would negatively impact housing and economic growth in the area. The Planning Department, to its credit, hired outside consultants to do a similar analysis and they verified the SEACA findings. The report helped turn the tide towards the Plan in its final form. The end result is a plan that protects residents from near highway pollution by restricting housing and other sensitive uses within 300 feet of the freeway, increases open space and green space requirements (approximately 4 acres per 1000 people), increases connectivity to the LA River, reduces water pollution by requiring storm water treatment systems, eliminates parking requirements, promotes high density near transit coupled with anti-displacement measures and affordable housing incentives, and sufficiently incentives commercial development. Not enough can be said of the great advocacy work done by SEACA and its allies. Notably, they were able to bring all the major stakeholders together in support of the revised Plan—community advocates, environmentalists, business leaders , private housing and commercial developers, the Mayor’s office, the Planning Commission and Planning Commission staff.  How often does that happen in LA? 

The remarkable success of community advocacy in the CASP can only be grasped by understanding the complicated history of land use planning and minority populations. Although Los Angeles is still grappling with the consequences of yesteryear, community involvement in planning processes yields great results for the future of the City. The results are even greater when the participation involves the low-income, communities of color most often disparately affected by government action.

Whereas once minority communities were negatively impacted by land use decisions, they are now looking at these same planning processes to help remedy the wrongs in their communities and even to protect their interests. Finding their pockets of the city now desirable to white, affluent people, and no longer disenfranchised, minority communities are using all available tools to protect their communities from mass displacement. Housing affordability is a crucial issue for Los Angeles and the City must work with all stakeholders, especially low-income, communities of color, to protect our vibrant, diverse communities.

The involvement of minority communities is changing the way planning is done in LA; a change that is long overdue and will yield greater results.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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