Planning for Environmental Justice: Implementing SB 1000July 26, 2022
A Valuable Tool for Equity
Due in part to a long history of unequal land use planning and discriminatory housing and industrial policies, communities of color and low-income communities bear a disproportionate burden of environmental harms. Large polluting industries tend to be sited in or near these communities, leading to higher rates of long-term health conditions. These communities are also less likely to have access to resources such as fresh produce, stable housing, and green spaces.
In 2016, the State Legislature passed Senate Bill 1000 (SB 1000) to help address these disparities and prioritize environmental justice in land use planning. Since SB 1000 became effective on January 1, 2018, many jurisdictions have been in the process of meeting its requirements.
SB 1000 Explained
Codified in Government Code section 63502(h), SB 1000 requires that jurisdictions with disadvantaged communities either include an environmental justice element in their general plan or incorporate environmental justice goals, policies, and objectives throughout other general plan elements. State law defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of people of all races, cultures, incomes, and national origins, with respect to the development adoption, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” At a minimum, environmental justice requires meaningful consideration of input from those most impacted by environmental harms resulting from land use decisions. Govt. Code § 65040.12(e).
SB 1000 is triggered when a jurisdiction concurrently adopts or revises two or more general plan elements if it includes one or more disadvantaged communities. A “disadvantaged community” is an area identified by the California Environmental Protection Agency as such or that is a low-income area disproportionately affected by environmental pollution and other hazards that may lead to negative health effects or environmental degradation within its planning area. Once the law is triggered, the jurisdiction must (1) identify the disadvantaged communities within its planning area, (2) identify objectives and policies to reduce unique or compounded health risks in disadvantaged communities, (3) identify objectives and policies to promote civic engagement in the public decision-making process, and (4) identify objectives and policies that prioritize improvements and programs addressing the needs of disadvantaged communities.
Identifying disadvantaged communities within the planning area
Local jurisdictions have discretion to choose which methods are most helpful in identifying disadvantaged communities, including by considering factors specific to particular communities within the jurisdiction’s planning area. The Office of Planning and Research, in its Guidelines on SB 1000 implementation, specifically recommends jurisdictions examine local factors for evidence of additional burdens and health risks. The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) has likewise emphasized that methodologies for identifying disadvantaged communities must be transparent, and that jurisdictions should not rely solely on generic models, which may overlook local conditions.
Jurisdictions should also consider whether coordination with other local agencies will provide useful local data. For example, the City of Placentia’s “Health, Wellness, & Environmental Justice” element, often cited as an SB 1000 success story, used data collected for a local “Get Healthy” initiative that revealed the city’s percentage of obese adults was 10% worse than the county average.
Many jurisdictions have used the California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool (CalEnviroScreen) to identify communities disproportionately impacted by environmental harms. This tool, updated in May 2021, scores each census tract based on how disproportionately its communities are burdened by various pollution sources.
Reducing unique or compounded health risks in disadvantaged communities
To reduce the health risks faced by disadvantaged communities, jurisdictions must, at a minimum, establish general plan policies or objectives to (1) reduce pollution exposure, (2) improve air quality, (3) promote public facilities, (4) promote food access, (5) promote safe and sanitary homes, and (6) promote physical activity in the identified areas.
Many disadvantaged communities, for example, are exposed to higher levels of diesel pollution from nearby highways and warehouses. Jurisdictions can improve air quality through policies or objectives that prioritize zero-emissions technology or site “dirty” land uses farther away from residential lots. Similarly, to promote food access, jurisdictions may encourage the creation of community gardens or coordination with other jurisdictions to create regional food collaboratives.
The City of Placentia’s environmental justice element includes a policy to provide subsidized access to exercise equipment in underused public areas. To increase access to green spaces, the element also includes policies incentivizing the revitalization of vacant lots and underutilized public rights-of-way. Furthermore, the element prohibits new air pollution sources in disadvantaged communities. Likewise, it considers the long-term impacts of climate change and establishes clear policies supported by evidence (e.g. planting street trees in disadvantaged communities based on the linkage between low tree coverage and the risk of heat-island effect).
Promoting civic engagement in the public decision-making process
Jurisdictions must also find concrete ways to promote civic engagement in the decision-making process. In doing so, jurisdictions should consider their communities’ demographics. Engagement policies should guarantee that all community members have some way to participate in the public planning process. The general plan should also ensure that community engagement and inclusion persists for the long term, beyond just the next general plan update.
Once again, the City of Placentia’s element serves as a useful example. The element includes community engagement policies that are accessible to non-English speakers. One policy provides that the city will establish City Hall open houses and tours and invite individuals from disadvantaged communities to facilitate familiarity with local government. Other policies center around promoting social cohesion within the community such as through block parties.
Prioritizing improvements and programs to address disadvantaged communities’ needs
SB 1000 requires jurisdictions to prioritize actions that address the needs of disadvantaged communities. Such policies should ensure that land use decisions assign importance to both the specific environmental justice policies and the needs of disadvantaged communities more broadly.
The City of Placentia’s environmental justice element, for example, includes a conflict provision that prioritizes environmental justice policies and objectives in the event of an internal conflict between general plan provisions. Other policies prioritize allocating general funds and grants towards improvements and programming in disadvantage communities.
As more jurisdictions begin to incorporate environmental justice elements into their general plans, the response from impacted communities and state agencies provides valuable insight into best practices for SB 1000 compliance.
The OAG routinely comments on jurisdictions’ efforts to comply with SB 1000, sometimes highlighting procedural and substantive deficiencies. A common theme in these comments is the importance of community engagement, starting with the earliest stages of SB 1000 implementation. To maximize engagement, jurisdictions should make planning documents easily accessible by publishing them online and in languages commonly spoken in affected communities. The Attorney General’s Office also regularly urges jurisdictions to hold public workshops throughout the SB 1000 process, and to ensure that these workshops happen at convenient times and locations. Partnering with individuals or groups that are connected with, and trusted by, local communities to encourage attendance is also likely to increase engagement. Finally, jurisdictions should post responses to comments and questions in a public place and/or online, thereby making the entire process as collaborative as possible.
An effective environmental justice component requires intentional and extensive cooperation with community members, particularly those from disadvantaged communities. Inviting active, ongoing communication is the best way to develop trust and support around general plan updates that address longstanding patterns of environmental injustice or systemic racism.
Available Resources to Support Effective SB 1000 Implementation
Although developing and implementing an environmental justice component can be daunting, there are a number of resources to facilitate the process. The OPR Guidelines provide a comprehensive discussion of SB 1000’s requirements as well as informative examples. The OAG has also compiled mapping tools to help jurisdictions identify disadvantaged communities and has posted its comments on a number of proposed environmental justice elements. California Environmental Justice Alliance has worked with PlaceWorks, Inc. to create an SB 1000 Implementation Toolkit that provides further guidance. Most importantly, jurisdictions should turn to their communities for insight about relevant environmental harms and possible long-term solutions.