Who Gets To Live Where, and Why?
Environmental Justice (EJ) operates at the intersection of economic, racial and social justice. EJ is a movement led by communities of color and low income experiencing environmental injustices: polluted air, soil and water; unsafe housing, roadways, sidewalks, and bus stops; inequitable investments in housing, green spaces, active transit and mass transit; and disproportionate impacts due to climate change. Many of these problems arise because our communities are not invited to participate in the decision-making process that produces these results. EJ challenges the mainstream environmental movement to address systemic and historical causes of these environmental problems, and is a community-driven, multiracial movement to restore justice to our communities.
Environmental Justice in the Portland Metropolitan Area, Oregon
Low-income and communities of color in the metro area continue to feel the prevalence of polluted waterways (water contamination issues in Clark County), toxic hazards (4 Superfund sites, including the Portland Harbor) and other environmental issues (pesticide exposure in rural communities of Clackamas and Washington County, North and Northeast Portland gentrification and subsequent displacement of families to Clark County (WA) and East Multnomah County) The region experienced across the board increases in ethnic and immigrant groups from 1990-2000 (2003 US Census—21% increase in Multicultural Tracts in Metro Region) including African-American, East Indian, and Eastern European, with significant increases in the Hispanic, Native American and Asian American (particularly Southeast Asian including Hmong and Vietnamese) populations. OPAL sites these trends of the state and region to draw further attention to the injustices and impact on disparate low-income and communities of color in the Metro governance region. Of significant importance is the issue around land-use; the built environment and the impacts of these issues on public health and community morale. Abandoned buildings dot the landscape of low-income communities throughout the metro area. Major highways bifurcate town centers, alienating neighborhoods and confounding the difficulties that these communities face as they strive toward the standard of livability that our region is nationally celebrated for.
Outer SE Portland and Lents Communities
Lying in the fringes, Lents, Brentwood-Darlington and outer SE Portland neighborhoods are ethnically and racially diverse. Known historically as “Felony Flats” due to the high number of convicted felons living there and felony crimes committed per capita, the community runs from Johnson Creek Blvd. north above Powell Blvd., stretching out eastward. In the 2000 Census, roughly 37% of the population considered themselves non-white. In addition, 10% of the white population is of Eastern European descent, numbers which make the community one of the most culturally eclectic in the entire Portland Metro region. Over the past century, the Lents area has undergone significant transformative changes. The Foster/Woodstock couplet was created to provide access to the new Interstate 205 highway, which directed traffic past the Lents commercial center at SE 92nd Ave. and SE Foster Rd, making Lents but a pass-through. In order to construct the highway, which now divides the community, approximately 500 homes were removed to clear the right of way. While the area has a unique legacy within the region, there are few visual clues that would provide visitors with the indication of the community’s place. The area lacks formal gateways at critical entry points and is inconsistently developed.
Relevant statistics include:
· Median Household Income (MHI) in Lents was $34,321 (compared to $40,061 in Portland) (1999)
· 25% lower average household income level
· 63% more people living on public assistance
· 66% more high-school dropouts
· 52% overall graduation rate (i.e. Anchor, Marshall), lowest in County
· 4 times the number of trailer homes
· Lowest % of total population in labor force in County
· Lowest voter registration and turnout in Southeast District and County
North and NE Portland “Albina” Communities
The communities of North and NE Portland, have experienced significant changes in the past decade as a result of economic development and gentrification, but continue to have the highest concentration of people of color and of the lowest income levels in both Portland the and state of Oregon. Community residents are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards: air pollutants from high traffic volume and industrial sites, toxic materials in the workplace and lead poisoning. Major highways, such as I-5, and numerous high traffic thoroughfares, such as MLK Jr. Blvd., transverse the neighborhood, forming the most polluted traffic corridor in the state. The municipal landfill and sewage treatment plants for the City are located in North Portland, further compounding the toxic exposures. These environmental injustices are the result of long-standing power inequities. According to a Portland Neighborhood Survey conducted in 2001 by Dr. Bruce Podobnik, Environmental Sociology professor at Lewis and Clark College, the asthma rates in N/NE Portland communities were as high as 14%, which was double the national average of 7%, and triple the 5% asthma rates in less-impacted Portland communities. The largest ethnic group in N/NE Portland is African American, followed by Latino/a and Asian American. In recent years, the communities have grown to include immigrant populations from East Africa, Russia and Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.
Other Census demographics include:
· 35% average poverty rate (with 3 tracts over 50% and 6 more between 40-50%), in 11 of 15 census tracts
· 36% average poverty rate of children under the age of six
· 53.5% average poverty rate for Native Americans
· 44% average poverty rate for Latinos
· 32.4% average poverty rate for African Americans
· 20.7% average poverty rate for Whites
· 40% of households lived on less than $15,000 per year
· 12.4% unemployment rate (compared to 6.1% for Portland as a whole)
For more information, check out the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark University