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Social and environmental justice

Deprived groups may experience differential access to greenspaces and associated services, which may be detrimental to their well-being. In some cases, these deprived groups are exposed to environmental risks while they are also disproportionately more vulnerable to its effects.

Background

Social justice aims to give individuals and groups fair treatment and an impartial share of social, environmental and economic benefits. The concept promotes the fair distribution of advantages and disadvantages within a society, regardless of background and status.

Environmental justice deals explicitly with the distribution of environmental benefits and the burdens people experience, at home, at work, or where they learn, play and spend leisure time. Environmental benefits include attractive and extensive greenspace, clean air and water, and investment in pollution abatement and landscape improvements. Environmental burdens include risks and hazards from industrial, transport-generated and municipal pollution.

Both social and environmental justice work are sensitive to power issues (who causes pollution; who suffers from pollution); focus on communities or groups rather than individuals; and tend to adopt a holistic approach to analysing and addressing problems and reforms. ‘Environmental justice’ is used here to include aspects of social justice - although sometimes social and environmental goals may be in conflict.

Environmental justice emerged as a movement in the USA in the 1970s and 1980s, when many environmental pressure groups formed to fight environmental injustice - the disproportionate bearing of environmental burdens by some of society (e.g. the Love Canal disaster in New York State). Nowadays environmental justice, or environmental equality, is more widely accepted as a fundamental concept and goal of many environmental policies, including improving public access to environmental data and information, improving quality of life through access to environmental goods, and preserving resources for future generations. This perspective incorporates the emphasis on well-being expressed in the UK Government’s Sustainable Development Strategy.

Environmental justice has been particularly relevant for urban greenspace in four areas:

  • The siting of industrial facilities and their impacts on local residents
  • Access to environmental benefits and services in socially and/or economically disadvantaged areas
  • Restoration of contaminated and industrial land
  • Inclusion of local residents’ and stakeholders’ views in planning and development issues.

Current situation

Environmental justice is a significant issue in the UK, particularly in highly active, declining or derelict industrial areas, and housing developments on environmentally threatened or polluted land (e.g. from flooding, past industrial activity or poor housing materials and standards). Environmental inequalities are more commonly found in deprived communities and socially excluded groups.

‘Environmental equality’ is a UK Framework Indicator and part of the UK Government’s Sustainable Development Strategy, Securing the Future (2005). Indicators at international, regional and local levels have also been established.

Practical considerations

Environmental justice is an accepted and useful perspective for studying environmental conditions and how they affect people’s lives. Adopting an environmental justice framework suggests looking beyond the health effects of environmental problems to consider the wide range of impacts environmental burdens exert on the daily lives of those exposed to them. Many government departments, quasi-governmental organisations and NGOs are increasingly taking a more positive and proactive stance on improving availability and access to environmental benefits and increasing people’s well-being across all sectors of society. With issues of direct and indirect discrimination being a considerable policy concern, and addressed in various discrimination laws, environmental equality forms a significant part of a range of social and environmental policies and research on links between ecosystems and human well-being.

Environmental justice work usually requires attention to the historical context of an emerging problem, and to local experiences or concerns about environmental issues. It requires constructing the historical context of a problem and obtaining first-hand accounts in addition to scientific and technical studies to elicit and quantify specific aspects. It is important to consider whether the affected parties have the resources to engage in planning/review processes and to make their voices heard. Conducting social research may be the only, or the most effective, way to bring people’s concerns into view.

The right of access to relevant information, and participation in decision-making by interested and affected parties, are considered key components of environmental justice at all levels (local, national and international) and are enshrined in the Aarhus Convention as well as various national laws and international agreements.

There is no clear-cut solution to environmental injustice problems. This perspective requires careful examination of the context of existing environmental problems or planned project developments, and estimation of their impacts on the affected (and wider) communities. In terms of future development proposals, project managers need to assess carefully which areas are to be developed, and whether disadvantaged areas can benefit from the improvement or development of greenspaces.

Case study

Environmental concerns of disadvantaged groups

Research on the environmental concerns of disadvantaged groups was carried out by Burningham and Thrush (2001) for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, pioneers in recognising the fact that disadvantaged groups are often the most affected by environmental problems. The methodology included a literature review and qualitative research among deprived groups (including minority ethnic groups, people on low incomes, low-income single parents, the unemployed, pensioners and disabled people) in four different locations:

  • Possilpark in North Glasgow - an urban neighbourhood affected by land contamination and high unemployment after the decline of local industries
  • Cefn Mawr in North Wales - an area where residents live next to a chemical factory
  • Bromley-by-Bow in East London - where people live next to a busy road
  • The Peak District - an idyllic rural setting, but with pockets of deprived social groups.

Focus group discussions in each location were analysed, suggesting that environmental concerns voiced often focus on what appear to be relatively minor issues (so-called front-door issues) such as littering, dog-fouling, graffiti and vandalism. However, these are often regarded as indicators of wider social problems.

The authors put forward several implications for policy-making regarding disadvantaged groups, including:

  • Local interest is likely to be associated to environmental policies with a strong local focus, rather than those that rely on a global consciousness
  • The well-being of disadvantaged groups can benefit from solving small environmental problems, but sustainable long-term solutions require measures tackling the underlying social problems
  • The main tenet of environmental justice – that disadvantaged people tend to live in degraded environments – may be perceived locally as patronising and unhelpful.

The research showed differences between the data from the Peak District and the three urban/industrial case-study areas. Overall, the research highlighted the links between environmental, social and economic issues, demonstrating the need to focus on sustainability. The report highlights the need for careful evaluation of the social equity implications of planning, transport and environmental policy.

Services

The Social and Economic Research Group at Forest Research carries out research on a spectrum of social, economic and environmental issues across the urban–rural continuum.

The Land Regeneration and Urban Greening group provides advice to the Forestry Commission and other national and international agencies on environmental, social and economic issues related to woodlands and greenspaces. Guidelines and tools have been developed for decision-making on brownfield remediation and restoration, participatory approaches to planning and management, and setting up schemes that increase environmental justice and social inclusion. The group has also developed several methods to assess social concerns for the management and restoration of contaminated land.

Further information

Lucas, K., Walker, G., Eames, M., Fay, H. and Poustie, M. (2004). Environment and Social Justice: rapid research and evidence review (PDF-870K). Sustainable Development Research Network, London.

ESRC Global Environmental Change Programme (2001). Environmental Justice: Rights and means to a healthy environment for all (PDF-973K). Special Briefing No. 7. University of Sussex, Brighton.

Burningham, K. and Thrush, D. (2001) ‘Rainforests are a long way from here’: The environmental concerns of disadvantaged groups (PDF-234K). Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York.