How racism pollutes our communities: Grappling with environmental injustice as an older, industrial city - Metropolitan Planning Council

Skip to main content

How racism pollutes our communities: Grappling with environmental injustice as an older, industrial city

Flickr user Laura Ouimette (CC)

Communities of color are more deeply impacted by pollution and environmental issues than other communities in the U.S. The majority black population in Flint, Michigan, poisoned by lead in drinking water. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which they fear will contaminate their water supply.

In Chicago, neighborhoods of color are impacted by our legacy as an old industrial city—a legacy which includes pollution from coal power plants, Superfund sites, contaminated soil and more. Many people of color migrated or immigrated to Chicago specifically because of its industrial prowess, with waves of African Americans coming north during the Great Migration, American Indians moving to urban areas from reservations after the Indian Relocation Act, and Mexican immigrants attracted to industrial jobs in South Lawndale and other corridors.

Intentional and racist housing policies have segregated African Americans and other communities of color from their more affluent white neighbors, contributing to wealth gaps, concentrated pockets of violence and educational attainment disparities as documented in the Metropolitan Planning Council’s Cost of Segregation Study. Neighborhoods with majority people of color also see higher rates of diesel emissions, contaminated water, and industrial pollutants as well as less green space and fewer health clinics.

A 2016 study by joint researchers at State University of New York, Syracuse and the University of Maryland found that noxious pollutants are disproportionately located in communities of color and lower-income communities. The study suggested that environmental policies would have deeper impacts if they selectively targeted the most polluted communities, as opposed to broad, across-the-board initiatives. Pollutants have major impacts on community health, and communities of color across the nation with high exposure to toxic air pollution have higher rates of asthma and cardiovascular issues. 

Pollutants are disproportionately located in communities of color and lower-income communities

The Sinai Community Health Survey released in March 2017 examines these health disparities in Chicago. Researchers measured the proportion of individuals by race and gender with certain ailments, as well as overall health status by neighborhood. The public health benefits of environmental assets—air quality, water quality, green space availability—are recognized as important contributing factors.

For example, people of color in Chicago are more deeply impacted by lung and breathing ailments than white people. The study found that Puerto Rican women (30%) and black women (24%) had the highest rates of asthma. Black people suffer the highest rates of screened or diagnosed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)—35% of men and 29% of women. In West Englewood, a predominately black neighborhood, about 34% of individuals have screened or diagnosed COPD, the highest prevalence of surveyed neighborhoods.

Addressing health disparities takes a multi-pronged approach, including access to affordable, healthy food; affordable housing with quality ambient air; safe drinking water supply and plumbing infrastructure; access to affordable health care and more. The elimination of brownfields and industrial pollution in favor of green spaces is certainly high on the list.

Addressing health disparities takes a multi-pronged approach, including access to affordable, healthy food; affordable housing with quality ambient air; safe drinking water supply and plumbing infrastructure; access to affordable health care and more.

The 2012 NAACP report “Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People,” which measured the disproportionate impact of coal power plant pollution on people of color, found that 53% of individuals living within three miles of the 75 most toxic coal plants in the nation were people of color, and that their average per capita income was $17,500. Illinois topped the list with nine coal plants disproportionately impacting people of color, two of which were located in Little Village. Both closed in August 2012. A campaign led by the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization not only led to the closing of both coal plants, but also to more stringent pollution controls in Chicago with the passage of the Clean Power Ordinance in 2011.

Only time will tell how the closing and redevelopment of these sites impacts community health, as even years after polluting plants or factories close, communities continue to feel the impacts. The Little Village neighborhood was once home to the a former factory that made and sold asphalt roofing products. Though Celotex removed all visible polluted materials and soils in late 1993, the Illinois of PAHs (polynuclear aromic hydrocarbons) remained on the surface soil of the main site and surrounding residences. PAHs may cause cancer in humans, and an EPA study in the late 1990s found that the risk of these pollutants—both to workers and nearby residents—was too great, leading to a massive cleanup.

In 2014, La Villita park was opened on the former industrial site and was the first park to have been built in Little Village in 75 years.The construction of green space is important to foster community connectedness, improve public health, promote outdoor recreation, and counteract carbon emissions. La Villita park advisory council is one of the most active in the city, organizing community leaders and neighbors to support youth environmental programming, restorative justice and advocating for the construction of a park fieldhouse that now bustles with activity from, soccer to skateboarders.

Because of the strong organizers in Little Village, including youth leaders at the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization  who helped survey the Celotex Superfund site in the 1990s, locals now enjoy more green space than ever before, something the community has desired for decades. A toxic site was transformed into a community site, beginning to reverse decades of environmental racism.

This inspiring turnaround is too rare. In the last 20 years, roughly 75% of civil rights cases brought to the U.S. EPA were rejected or received no review (notably, the complaints of Flint residents of toxic water were ignored for two years). The EPA’s Office of Civil Rights works to ensure that agencies or cities that receive EPA funding do not act in a discriminatory way.

As my colleague MPC Associate Sarah Cardona noted in a June blog, the City must consciously implement climate resiliency policies, planning, and incentive programs in areas of the region where they are most needed: low-income communities and communities of color. As Chicago commits to the Paris Climate Agreement and moves forward to foster renewable energy, improve bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, manage stormwater to mitigate urban flooding, and increase green space, we must be intentional about ensuring equity.

Community input and community-guided design is one way forward.

Community input and community-guided design is one way forward. For example, MPC’s Great Rivers Chicago project involves extensive community engagement and workshops to ensure that residents have a voice in how their neighborhood riverfronts are reshaped. This is particularly significant in South, Southeast, and Southwest Side neighborhoods and other areas with historically abused riverfronts, which now lack public access to the river because their banks remain polluted and isolated.

Developments like parks or riverfront trails must focus on preserving affordability and empowering the existing neighborhood. Communities of color are already those most impacted by environmental injustice. As global warming impacts build, Chicagoans must be strategic in our environmental and climate resiliency policies to ensure inclusive development so that as we become a more sustainable city, we don’t push out communities of color.

Check out MPC’s other stories on climate change and environmental justice: 

Chicago is on the staying course on climate action—are you? by Sarah Cardona

Yes, the weather has been weird. Yes, there's something we can do about it. by Sarah Cardona and Joyce Coffee

Carving out community space on Chicago’s Rivers by Kara Riggio


No comments

More posts by Abaki

MPC on Twitter

Follow us on Twitter »

Stay in the loop!

MPC's Regionalist newsletter keeps you up to date with our work and our upcoming events.

Subscribe to Regionalist

Most popular news

Browse by date »

This page can be found online at

Metropolitan Planning Council 140 S. Dearborn St.
Suite 1400
Chicago, Ill. 60603
312 922 5616

Sign up for newsletter and alerts »

Shaping a more equitable, sustainable and prosperous greater Chicago region

For more than 80 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has made the Chicago region a better place to live and work by partnering with businesses, communities and governments to address the area's toughest planning and development challenges. MPC works to solve today's urgent problems while consistently thinking ahead to prepare the region for the needs of tomorrow. Read more about our work »

Donate »