Environmental Justice

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 participants 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 to draw further attention to the injustices and impact on disparate low-income and communities of color in the Metro region. Of particular importance are 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.

Check out these quick statistics on two of the most impacted neighborhoods in Portland:

East portlandv3

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. 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.

North and NE Portland (1)

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. The environmental injustices shown above 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.

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