New Report: Land Use Reforms Can Break Cycle of American Environmental Racism

CHICAGO -- Municipal zoning laws across the country have fueled segregation and deepened environmental injustices, but grassroots organizations are now reforming zoning laws to provide protections from industrial pollution, as detailed in a new analysis released today by the Tishman Environment and Design Center at The New School, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and partner environmental organizations. Forty land use and zoning policies from 23 cities, three counties, and two utilities around the country -- including policies in the county’s most populated cities -- were examined to provide a national resource for communities that are tackling environmental injustices in land use policies.

“The dirtiest and most dangerous industries in Chicago have used zoning laws to continue accumulating near communities of color in Chicago,” said Olga Bautista, Chair of the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke. “That’s certainly true here in Chicago. This report is another confirmation that Chicago must take the lead now to address the structures that enable this burden on our health and change zoning laws to protect our health and not polluters’ profits.”

The report examines how low-income communities of color suffer from a legacy of racially-biased zoning and land use planning that has entrenched patterns of inequality for generations. Cities are often the epicenter of fierce conflicts that pit these communities against polluting industries and the agencies that permit them. In the past decade, many of these localities have taken steps to use their authority over local land use, planning, zoning, and public health and welfare to reduce pollution and the cumulative burdens borne by environmental justice communities, spurred by the demands of resident-advocates.

“Communities across the country are charting new territory on how zoning laws can be used to protect communities,” said Maria Lopez-Nunez from Ironbound Community Corp. “This guide would’ve been very valuable to our community when we were fighting for Newark’s environmental justice ordinance. The report is a reminder of all the other communities nationwide that we are connected to in this struggle.”

Given the limitations of environmental laws, local governments are often in a unique position to address environmental burdens through their local land use, planning, zoning, and public health authorities. The municipal actions detailed in the report were taken in direct response to increased pressure from environmental justice advocates.

“Communities fought for a vision of sustainable development and created a Green Zones model that could be used in cities across the country,” said Tiffany Eng, California Environmental Justice Alliance Green Zones Program Manager. “As this report highlights, grassroots community organizations have a lot to gain by building power with broad coalitions and connecting with communities across the country that share our struggle for environmental justice.”

The policies featured in this report are models for action that can drive local land use advocacy to policies that promote environmental justice and dismantle tools that had previously cemented racial, income and health disparities.


The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

The Tishman Environment and Design Center, as part of The New School, is a university-wide center committed to fostering the integration of bold design, policy, and social justice approaches to environmental issues to advance just and sustainable outcomes in collaboration with communities. The Tishman Center offers technical support to community-based organizations, advocates, and policymakers on the frontlines with an emphasis on supporting the co-production of inclusive, bottom-up approaches that amplify the knowledge and expertise of communities. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @NewschoolTEDC

Founded in 1919, The New School was established to advance academic freedom, tolerance, and experimentation. A century later, The New School remains at the forefront of innovation in higher education, inspiring more than 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students to challenge the status quo in art and design, the social sciences, the liberal arts, management, the performing arts, and media. Learn more at

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