Can Planners Advance Environmental Justice When Rebuilding Existing Locally Unwanted Land Uses?

Miriam Solis, of the University of Texas at Austin, writes about a recent article she authored in the Journal of Planning Education and Research.

August 11, 2020, 9:00 AM PDT


San Francisco, California

A view of Bayview-Hunter's Point in San Francisco. The Southeast Treatment Plant is just out of frame, to the left. | DTM Media / Shutterstock

Urban water infrastructure is falling into disrepair across the United States, as pipes and treatment plants near the end of their life cycles. Many cities are stepping up to this problem by developing expansive water infrastructure rebuilding plans. Among them is San Francisco, California, where water officials have begun to redevelop the city’s Southeast Treatment Plant (SEP). The SEP, which treats 80% of the city’s wastewater, is located in Bayview-Hunters Point, a historically Black neighborhood.

Wastewater treatment plants are among other locally unwanted land uses (LULUs)—including power plants and landfills—that are disproportionately sited in low-income communities of color. These features of the built environment create health and safety hazards for nearby residents, and they discourage local investment. As LULUs fall into disrepair, can planners redevelop them in ways that advance environmental justice and, if so, how?

My article in the Journal of Planning Education and Research (JPER) answers this question by examining the pursuit of environmental justice through a case study of SEP redevelopment. The article draws on LULU and environmental justice scholarship as lenses for understanding the conditions and consequences of the planning process. It builds on the idea that studies on LULU conflict often focus on siting processes, yet changing an existing LULU—an ELULU—implicates a different set of challenges.

I argue that planners can advance certain environmental justice outcomes through ELULU redevelopment. Examples include apprenticeship programs, contracts for minority-owned businesses, and grants for local community organizations. ELULUs can also be redesigned in ways that make the facility less of a burden and more of an amenity, through technological improvements and new public design features. In the case of the SEP, local residents’ organizing efforts were central to advancing these environmental justice pursuits. What followed was policy change and water officials’ reconceptualization of their role in the community.

However, the consequences of urban infrastructure rebuilding are at once fickle and stubborn. Gentrification—an occurrence in many U.S. cities, including San Francisco—means that residents who experienced an ELULU’s burdens may no longer live next to it by the time the environmental justice outcomes are pursued. At the same time, ELULU redevelopment represents the decision to not decentralize or relocate the unwanted land use, reinstating a familiar pattern of disparate siting.

Planners can strengthen their environmental justice efforts in two ways. First, they ought to consider ELULU relocation and decentralization options, resisting the tendency to presume that a facility must be redeveloped. Second, planners need to couple redevelopment, relocation, or decentralization with anti-displacement efforts. Both recommendations require that planners think more expansively about how to reshape the built environment in ways that redress historic injustices.


In this new series, Journal of Planning Education and Research (JPER) articles will be made available to Planetizen readers subscription free for 30 days. This is possible through collaboration between SAGE Publications and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning.

Chicago Commute

Planning for Congestion Relief

The third and final installment of Planetizen's examination of the role of the planning profession in both perpetuating and solving traffic congestion.

May 12, 2022 - James Brasuell

Twin Cities

Minneapolis Housing Plan a Success—Not for the Reason You Think

Housing advocates praise the city’s move to eliminate single-family zoning by legalizing triplexes on single-family lots, but that isn’t why housing construction is growing.

May 13, 2022 - Reason

Single-Family Housing Construction

New White House Housing Initiative Includes Zoning Reform Incentives

The Biden administration this morning released a new program of actions intended to spur housing construction around the United States.

May 16, 2022 - The White House

Complete Street Vancouver

Study: Most of Vancouver Is a ‘15-Minute City’

A large majority of Vancouver residents can access a grocery store in 15 minutes or less by bicycle or on foot.

May 20 - Vancouver Sun

Montreal, Quebec

Urban Design, Transport, and Health

The Lancet medical journal published a series of articles that explore how to evaluate and guide urban planning decisions to create healthy and sustainable cities. Live long and prosper!

May 20 - The Lancet - Urban Design, Transport, and Health

MoGo Bikeshare Bikes

Detroit Bike Share Celebrates Five Years

In its five years of operation, Detroit’s MoGo bikeshare has added electric and adaptive bikes to its fleet of more than 600 bikes.

May 20 - MoGo

HUD’s 2022 Innovative Housing Showcase

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Expanding HUD’s Eviction Protection Grant Program

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

New Updates on The Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Hand Drawing Master Plans

This course aims to provide an introduction into Urban Design Sketching focused on how to hand draw master plans using a mix of colored markers.