New Map Shows Chicago Needs Environmental Justice Reforms

Chicago Cumulative Impacts Map

Yukyan Lam, NRDC

A new mapping analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, conducted in close partnership with Chicago community organizations, reinforces what advocates and residents have been calling out for years: the high cumulative vulnerabilities to environmental pollution borne by environmental justice communities in the city.

The analysis, conducted by NRDC Science Fellow Yukyan Lam, uses data compiled by U.S. EPA and a methodology developed by academic researchers in conjunction with community groups and state agencies, as explained in more detail below. Mapped against the city’s industrial corridors, the analysis supports the need for land use and public health reforms to address these zones filled with diesel trucks, dusty materials, noxious odors and other environmental hazards, located immediately adjacent to parks and dense residential neighborhoods.

Chicago Southwest communities

Google Maps

Chicago Southeast communities

Google Maps

In particular, the map calls attention to the cumulative vulnerabilities in Little Village, Pilsen, McKinley/Brighton Park and other nearby Southwest Chicago communities, as well as on the Southeast Side near the Calumet River and Lake Calumet. Communities adjacent to rail yards also show up as highly vulnerable. Unsurprisingly, these communities are largely low-income and communities of color, which research shows compounds their vulnerability to environmental threats.

The Map

Our “cumulative impacts” map of Chicago takes a combined look at environmental conditions along with sociodemographic characteristics that are associated with increased vulnerability to such environmental pollution, comparing the resulting cumulative burden across census block groups. It is a screening tool that brings out disparities and highlights areas in the city that should be targeted for increased environmental monitoring, enhanced enforcement, and land use and public health reform.

Cumulative impacts analysis seeks to look at both environmental and sociodemographic factors because research has shown that the same environmental exposure is more likely to harm health or result in greater harm when it occurs in populations with certain sociodemographic indicators of vulnerability. For instance, young children experience greater personal exposure than adults despite the same level of ambient pollution, as they take in more air relative to their body volume. Seniors are more likely to have pre-existing heart, lung, and other health conditions, making their systems particularly vulnerable to pollution. Low-income communities and communities of color also may be more likely to have been burdened by other environmental exposures in the past and/or to experience higher rates of psychosocial stress than other communities. Looking at environmental and socio-demographic factors together provides a more complete picture than assessing environmental information alone.  

For this analysis, we relied on data from the 2017 version of EJSCREEN, the U.S. EPA’s environmental justice screening tool. EJSCREEN 2017 collects information from government sources on 11 environmental conditions and 6 population characteristics:

Environmental FactorsPopulation Characteristics
  • Particulate Matter 2.5 (PM2.5)
  • Ozone
  • Diesel Particulate Matter
  • Air Toxics Respiratory Hazard Index
  • Air Toxics Cancer Risk
  • Lead Paint Indicator
  • Traffic Proximity
  • Proximity to Superfund (National Priority List) Sites
  • Proximity to Risk Management Plan Facilities
  • Proximity to Treatment Storage Disposal Facilities
  • Wastewater Discharge Indicator
  • Low income
  • Minority percentage
  • Less than high school education
  • Linguistic isolation
  • Children under age 5
  • Adults over age 64

While EJSCREEN compiles the data we used for our analysis, EJSCREEN itself is limited in its power to look at cumulative impacts. EJSCREEN provides mapping of individual environmental and sociodemographic factors, accompanied by “indices” for each individual environmental factor mapped with only two of the sociodemographic factors, poverty and minority status. In terms of spatial comparisons, EJSCREEN only allows for comparing individual block groups against the state and national levels, not other block groups.

NRDC’s cumulative impacts analysis, in contrast, is an adapted version of the Environmental Justice Screening Method (EJSM). EJSM was developed by a group of California-based academic researchers in conjunction with community groups and with input from environmental agency officials in that state. Our analysis is based on EJSM, and generates a composite score of 2 to 10 taking into account all 17 EJSCREEN factors for each census block group within Chicago. Higher numbers indicate a higher cumulative burden, as shown by orange-red colors on the map, while lower numbers indicate lower cumulative burdens are shown in blues. More details on the methodology are available here.

NRDC’s analysis does NOT include health data, as most health data are not available at a fine enough spatial scale to look at block group differences within Chicago. Nor does it purport to assess the relative health risk of living in a given block group, or identify which sources of pollution are the most harmful or which sociodemopgraphic factors render a community the most vulnerable. Even if such health data and risk assessments were available, no scenario of health outcomes would justify the disparate burdens on vulnerable communities indicated by our map.

Environmental Justice Reforms Needed

No map is a definitive accounting of real conditions on the ground. The map we have created is intended as a screening tool for further investigation, including going to communities directly to speak with them about their experience of environmental pollution and vulnerabilities, as well as their ideas for making their communities safer and healthier.

In other places like Los Angeles, such screening analyses have helped move forward community-based reforms aimed at addressing environmental injustices.

In contrast, last summer the Mayor’s office and Chicago City Council re-zoned an industrial area in a wealthier part of the city to encourage high-end commercial and tech development, at the same time incentivizing industrial businesses to relocate to “receiving” industrial corridors like those in Little Village and the Southeast Side.

Now armed with the cumulative impacts map for the city and examples of reforms from cities like Los Angeles, NRDC stands with our partners at the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, Southeast Environmental Task Force, Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke and other members of the Chicago Environmental Justice Network to ask City Council, outgoing Mayor Emanuel, and the city’s soon-to-be-new mayor—what will you do to address these injustices?

About the Authors

Meleah Geertsma

Senior Attorney and Midwest Director, Health Equity and Water

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