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A Plan That Tackles Climate Change <i>and</i> Racial Discrimination

Portland, Ore., is one of the nation's first cities to fully consider how environmental policies impact minority communities.

Environmental justice is a big issue in government. Studies have repeatedly shown that communities of color are exposed to more air pollution than their white, non-Hispanic counterparts; that landfills, hazardous waste sites and other industrial facilities are most often located in minority communities; and that climate change and water contamination disproportionately affect such neighborhoods.

What’s less known is how best to fix these injustices. If you’re Portland, Ore., though, you start by simply writing equity into your climate action plan. The progressive city, which was the first to develop a local climate action plan in 1993, is now one of the first to make sure environmental justice is a key component of that plan. And the idea to include it came from Portland’s own minority communities. 

After releasing its 2009 climate action plan, the city actively sought community feedback from residents. Among the roughly 1,500 comments received, there was one consistent and common thread that stood out: the need for equity. “We realized we needed to address institutional racism,” says Desiree Williams-Rajee, equity specialist with the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. “We update our climate action plan every four years and knew that was our opportunity to address it.”

So the bureau got straight to work writing economic and racial equity into the plan. It formed a working group and spent the next five years systemically incorporating equity into every aspect of it. In 2015, Portland released its updated climate action plan, which also includes new policies designed to move the city toward a 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. “To walk the talk, we went through the 2009 plan action by action to see how it impacted communities,” says Williams-Rajee. “We asked ourselves, ‘Where do you put equity so that it has the most impact?’ And the answer was, ‘It has to be everywhere.’ We really added it throughout the whole plan.”

For example, here’s a snippet from Portland’s 2009 plan and one from its 2015 plan:

  • 2009 Objective 3: Collaborate to reduce the role of carbon -- including from coal and natural gas sources -- in Portland’s electricity mix.
  • 2015 Objective 3: Collaborate with Portland General Electric, Pacific Power, customers and stakeholders to reduce the carbon content in Portland’s electricity mix by 3 percent per year. ... Mitigate potential cost burdens to low-income households principally through efficiency measures that reduce energy use and cost.
Portland’s updated plan has gotten a lot of attention from other cities looking to confront environmental injustice. The Urban Sustainability Directors Network, a peer-to-peer group of local government officials, recently sent 20 members to Portland. The city “has really been at the forefront of trying to embrace a focus on equity in their climate action planning,” says Ann Wallace, program director of Partners for Places, which is funding an environmental justice initiative in Portland.

While it’s still too early to gauge what effect the new climate plan will have on equity, Portland has launched several initiatives. In November, for instance, the city received a grant from Partners for Places that will enable the low-income Cully neighborhood to develop and begin implementing its own community energy plan -- one it hopes will not only make the area cleaner and healthier, but will also create economic opportunity for residents and businesses. 

Regardless of specific projects, Williams-Rajee says incorporating equity into a planning document is an important step. “The best outcome of this process was the relationships made within these lower-income, minority populations,” she says. “Deeper relationships increase the power of these communities and really forces a focus on environmental justice and equity.”

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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