Communities play major role in solving environmental issues


Levko Karmazyn | Staff Photographer

Former EPA employee Mustafa Santiago Ali sat in the audience at the Twentieth Century Club as he spoke about climate injustice Wednesday.

By Brian Gentry, Contributing Editor

The audience filled rows of chairs at the Twentieth Century Club, intently watching Mustafa Santiago Ali speak as he moved through the aisles and gestured toward a slideshow of pictures. At the end of his talk, Ali stopped and told the audience to hold hands with the people to their left and right, stand up and say “Power!”

“Power!” the audience resoundingly responded, letting go of each other’s hands and raising their right fists into the air on his command.

Ali, who was the EPA’s assistant associate administrator for environmental justice and senior advisor for environmental justice and community revitalization, was there to discuss the difference that community response to environmental issues can make. The purpose of his demonstration was to show how even a small community of complete strangers could make their voices heard.

And he’s right about that. Local organizations have great power when responding to environmental issues and the threats they pose. But demands for sustainable infrastructure and meaningful environmental change don’t just have the obvious health benefit — they provide more economic opportunities to residents and can breathe much-needed life into a community.

In his talk, Ali discussed the revitalization of the Northside neighborhood in Spartanburg, S.C., which offers an excellent example of how a community can band together and demand greener infrastructural change. Local residents formed the Northside Development Corp in 2010, a nonprofit that focuses on reviving the Northside neighborhood of the city.

The NDC fundraised millions of dollars to fund projects that tackled stormwater issues. A lack of sustainable infrastructure in Northside prevented severe storm precipitation from penetrating the ground, increasing flood risk and decreasing overall water quality.

After receiving a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the NDC focused its plan on five site-specific initiatives, intended to expand upon existing infrastructure in a sustainable way. These initiatives ranged from the beautification of the neighborhood entrance to the renovation of a local creek so that it could handle increased water flow.

This change in green infrastructure simultaneously had an economic impact on the neighborhood. Prior to the formation of the NDC, Northside suffered a severe economic downturn. Nineteen percent of the population left the neighborhood from 2000 to 2010, and the unemployment rate and high school graduation rate hovered around 25 percent and 65 percent, respectively.

These statistics are indicators of sparse opportunities for mobility, and this economic despair gave Spartanburg one of the highest violent crime rates in the state in 2010 — with the Northside neighborhood having the highest crime rate in the city.

The organization’s efforts to develop more sustainable infrastructure were not fruitless. Now, the neighborhood has more green space and urban farms, which provide much-needed food access in a region that previously suffered from food insecurity. And crime rates have improved as well — across the city, violent crime rates fell from 1,500 per 100,000 residents in 2010 to a projected 641 per 100,000 residents this year, right around the state average of 502 per 100,000 residents.

Water infrastructure isn’t the only area where communities can make changes in the environmental sphere. In Houston, a city where oil refineries and chemical plants abound, the concentration of known carcinogens in the air commonly exceeds standards. And it’s not wealthy white neighborhoods that suffer from this issue — Houston’s Fifth Ward, a historically black and Hispanic neighborhood with a median household income of just $25,000, houses many of these facilities.

This has had a drastic impact on public health in the area. Cancer rates in eastern Harris County, the county that contains Houston, are much higher than other areas. Other health conditions such as asthma and cardiovascular disorders are also more prevalent.

But it’s also had a noticeable impact on economic opportunity. The presence of industrial facilities lowers home values, preventing residents from leaving the community they grew up in. This lack of geographic mobility inhibits the development of the area, perpetuating a cycle where residents cannot escape their economic situations.

Politics won’t change this situation. When an industry is so deeply rooted in an area, no changes in legislation can unseat large corporations — and this is why community members must step up to make the change themselves. Through community engagement, residents can implement infrastructural changes that improve air quality and offer better access to food, health care and economic opportunities in the future.

There’s still more work to be done, particularly with air quality. And local environmental groups, such as PennEnvironment, are stepping up and advocating for cleaner air. Just this summer, the organization teamed up with other groups to organize a clean air rally, encouraging County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to support environmental causes over profits.

As state and national governments fail to adequately protect residents from industrial emissions and a changing climate, local communities must step up to effect change on their own behalf. Ali is confident that communities can take on the task.

“Those who have the vision are the ones who are going to benefit,” Ali said.