Advancing Environmental Justice in the Commonwealth

In Brief: Environmental Justice (EJ) is based on the principle that all people have a right to be protected from environmental pollution and to live in and enjoy a clean and healthful environment. EJ is the equal protection and meaningful involvement of all people with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies and the equitable distribution of environmental benefits. The objective of this section of the Toolkit is to provide guidance to municipalities and developers on how to better engage EJ populations in the planning and development process.
The Problem
Barren lot.
EJ populations dwell in neighborhoods lacking environmental assets
Studies conducted throughout the U.S. have documented patterns of environmental injustice. These studies have determined that lower-income and minority communities suffer from a disproportionately high share of environmental burdens and at the same time lack environmental assets in their neighborhoods. This pattern holds true in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) defines EJ populations as neighborhoods (U.S. Census Bureau census block groups) that meet one of more of the following criteria:

  • Median annual household income is at or below 65% of the statewide median income;
  • 25% or more of the residents are a minority;
  • 25% or more of the residents are foreign born; or
  • 25% or more of the residents are lacking English language proficiency.

Environmental justice is not just a procedural problem, but also one of substantive social and economic inequalities. There are many obstacles that make it very difficult for EJ populations to participate in planning and development decisions in their communities. These residents are more likely to be unaware of environmental issues due to a myriad of social factors including language barriers and limited access to educational resources. In addition, EJ populations are often unable to participate in environmental decision-making processes because they often must work longer hours to compensate for lower hourly wages.


Historically, advancing environmental justice has been through grassroots community activism focusing on the rights and liberties of people of color and low-income communities relative to the environment and particularly, in response to the disproportionate burden of industrial pollution and lack of regulatory enforcement in these communities. In 1994, President William Clinton issued Executive Order 12898 entitled, "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations" mandating federal agencies to address environmental injustices in their operations and in communities across the country. Since, and in accordance with Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, states and municipalities have developed policies and programs to pro-actively address environmental concerns to ensure that minority and low-income communities are not disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards.

In Massachusetts, according to statewide research conducted at Northeastern University, high minority communities (in the context of this study, where 15 percent or more of the population are people of color) face a cumulative exposure rate to environmentally hazardous sites and facilities that is more than 20 times greater than low minority communities (Faber & Krieg, 2005). The same study found that low-income communities face a cumulative exposure rate to environmentally hazardous facilities and sites that is four times greater than more affluent communities. These high-minority/low-income communities in the Commonwealth have been identified by EEA as areas in need of environmental justice, particularly those in dense urban neighborhoods where past industrial development has caused pollution and environmental degradation, leaving a legacy of abandoned, contaminated sites, known as brownfields.

Article 97 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts states, "The people shall have the right to clean air and water, freedom from excessive and unnecessary noise, and the natural, scenic, historic, and aesthetic qualities of their environment; and the protection of the people in their right to the conservation, development and utilization of the agricultural, mineral, forest, water, air and other natural resources is hereby declared to be a public purpose." To realize the goals of our state Constitution and to advance environmental justice in the Commonwealth, EEA established an Environmental Justice Policy to help ensure the protection of low-income residents and communities of color from environmental pollution as well as promote public participation by EJ populations in planning and development decision-making.

The EEA policy is a good resource for municipalities committed to environmental justice. Through its programs and agencies, EEA conducts and facilitates planning in broad and inclusive ways, seeks to engage environmental justice populations in environmental decision-making, and targets resources to improve environmental quality in EJ communities.

Municipalities can play an important role in advancing environmental justice by employing similar strategies. For example, municipalities can utilize their land use planning efforts to encourage public participation and their regulatory powers to obtain development results that balance the benefits and burdens of growth. Below are links to MassGIS maps as well as a list of Massachusetts municipalities where environmental justice populations reside. This information can be important to public officials and developers in site selection and public outreach and communication efforts.

Click here for the link to EJ maps, GIS data, and summary tables.

Environmental Justice map
Click map to enlarge.

Environmental justice populations reside in 137 of the Commonwealth's 351 municipalities.

EEA and its agencies target resources to residents of these neighborhoods, as they are more likely to be unaware of or unable to participate in environmental decision-making or to gain access to state environmental resources. Goals in regard to EJ populations include minimizing pollution and health risks, encouraging investment in economic growth, brownfield cleanup and community greening including park development and urban forestry, and enhancing public participation and outreach.

Environmental Justice and Smart Growth / Smart Energy
Smart growth/smart energy seeks to protect natural resources, enhance quality of life, offer housing and transportation choices, and improve municipal finances by taking into consideration location, design, and long-term costs when making development decisions. As an environmentally and affordability-conscious approach to development, smart growth/smart energy encompasses strategies and concepts that have distinct opportunities for promoting environmental justice. This is demonstrated throughout the Patrick Administration's Sustainable Development Principles, which provide basic guidance to local officials, developers, and citizens about smart growth/smart energy. Particularly, Principle 2: Advance Equity calls for specific attention to environmental justice:

Promote equitable sharing of the benefits and burdens of development. Provide technical and strategic support for inclusive community planning and decision making to ensure social, economic, and environmental justice. Ensure that the interests of future generations are not compromised by today's decisions.

In order for smart growth/smart energy to advance environmental justice, it is essential that EJ populations be considered and included in the planning process. If not, there is a greater risk that new growth could inadvertently exacerbate environmental injustice by creating more pollution in EJ communities, or that the improving environmental conditions could cause gentrification and displacement of families. Meaningful involvement in environmental decision-making is central toward advancing environmental justice. Municipalities play a key role in ensuring fair and genuine outreach and public participation by local residents.

Public Participation in Environmental Justice Communities

Public participation is a primary component of land use planning and sustainable development. Engaging EJ populations in planning and development processes in their community creates unique challenges when conducting outreach. Neighborhoods where people lack English language proficiency or where many of the residents work multiple jobs may be harder to involve than more affluent demographic groups. Some strategies supporting public participation in environmental justice communities include:

Community design charrette - Lawrence, MA
Community design charrette - Lawrence, MA
Groundwork Lawrence

Outreach and public notification. Often enhanced outreach is required to engage EJ populations in environmental decision-making. Although traditional outreach and notification efforts (e.g., meeting notices in the local paper or internet-based notification) are important, many EJ constituencies may not have access to these resources due to language barriers, income level, or limited access to computers and other technology. Alternative media resources should be utilized when conducting outreach including foreign language newspapers, radio broadcasts, and community newsletters. The local public library and churches are also key places for project/meeting notification and outreach.

Identifying local leaders and gathering places. Many EJ neighborhoods may have local leaders already in place in the form of a civic or neighborhood association. In a less official capacity, practitioners may look to schools, community centers, churches, medical facilities or any other institutional facilities that serve the community on a regular basis. Local pastors or school teachers may have access to the neighborhood in a manner that is reliable and in an environment that has already created a foundation of trust. Holding or advertising meetings in local venues may also be an effective strategy for reaching a significant portion of the neighborhood population.

Holding public meetings that are sensitive to demanding work schedules. As many EJ communities may have residents working for hourly wages, odd hours or longer shifts, it may be necessary to schedule outreach events in a manner that provides multiple opportunities to discuss the same issues. It may be difficult to predict the optimal schedule within which to reach out to different EJ communities, so practitioners should be prepared to hold meetings during both day and evening hours, and on weekends to best engage a particular community. Practitioners should also get input from community members to determine meeting times that would most likely maximize attendance by local residents.

Providing support services during public meetings. In communities where residents may be working more than one job or where the incidence of single-parenting is higher than average, many residents may have basic personal responsibilities that make it difficult to attend public meetings. Where necessary, community outreach efforts should include basic support to help families handle issues of child care. Providing "play rooms" with volunteer monitors may make it easier for parents to attend meetings. Holding meetings as part of or directly after regularly scheduled events, such as school or church service may also make these outreach efforts more convenient to attend.

Ensuring effective communication across language barriers. One very basic outreach strategy that must be considered with many EJ communities is the use of translators where residents do not speak or understand English. In order for many EJ communities to effectively communicate their concerns about complex land use issues, it may be necessary to have translators on hand during private interviews and in public meetings. Additionally, written project materials and handouts should be translated into the foreign language(s) spoken and understood by local residents and distributed at meetings and hearings.