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Environmental Justice and the Power of Parks

by: Caroline Stillitano

What is Environmental Justice?

Environmental justice is defined by the EPA as, “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

How did the Environmental Justice Movement begin?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “the environmental justice movement was started by individuals, primarily people of color, who sought to address the inequity of environmental protection in their communities.” In 1987 The United Church of Christ Commission on Racial Justice released their report titled “Toxic Waste in the United States”. This document explored the statistical relationship between the location of hazardous waste sites and the racial and socioeconomic composition of the communities in which these exist nationwide. The study found that as of 1987, over 15 million African Americans, 8 million Hispanic people, and half of all Asian/Pacific Islanders and Native Americans resided in communities with at least one abandoned or uncontrolled toxic waste site. This study was the first of its kind to explore the intersection of race, class, and environment on a national level.

Parks as a Resource

As the climate continues to change and marginalized communities continue to be most affected by these changes, parks can offer a sanctuary in overcrowded cities that are often sites of environmental injustice. The Trust for Public Land recently came out with a special report titled “The Power of Parks to Address Climate Change”. The report explores how parks and the implementation of green spaces are integral to the mitigation of climate change, especially in cities. According to this report, parks “are very good at buffering the effects of climate change. Green space has the power to lower air temperature and absorb flood water, and can be designed in such a way as to significantly enhance those climate benefits” (Trust for Public Land Special Report). Additionally, this report explains how green space is not equitably distributed. The Trust for Public Land analyzed the 100 most populous cities in the United States and found that neighborhoods that are predominantly composed of people of color had access to 43% less park acreage than predominantly white neighborhoods.

Wingfield Park

Studies have found that communities of color are more heavily exposed to air pollution than wealthy predominantly white communities. The causes of systemic air pollution and its correlation to communities of color stems from housing policy decisions made in the 1930s that continue to have harmful effects as the climate changes. In the wake of the Great Depression, the federal government graded neighborhoods across the country for their potential for real estate investment. Neighborhoods with high immigrant populations or populations of people of color were typically outlined in red on maps, in order to denote them as risky places for real estate lending. The Fair Housing Act banned racially restrictive housing covenants and discrimination in housing, such as red-lining, but the legacy of racial discrimination in land use policy has lasting effects today. For example, these communities were often the sites of industrial facilities, emissions infrastructure, ports, roads, and other major sources of pollution. In the United States, low-income communities, which are often communities of color, have been historically underserved regarding access to public green spaces which portrays a tangible example of how environmental racism affects communities of color.

The urban heat island effect is a phenomenon that happens in cities due to the high density of buildings and cars and lack of airflow in streets. Green spaces and parks provide relief from the urban heat island effect as trees provide shade and increase oxygen flow. The distinct lack of green spaces within historically marginalized areas increases these communities' exposure to the dangers of the urban heat island effect. As climate change increases and severe heat events become more common, communities of color will be increasingly and unjustly exposed to dangerous levels of heat with no relief in the form of green spaces.


The issue of climate change intertwines the economy, social and cultural aspects of society, and the environment together. In order for environmental justice to be achieved, we must consider the ethical principles of justice as distribution, justice and recognition, and procedural justice. Justice as distribution can be considered in order for lawmakers to acknowledge the distributional injustices that come from social structures, such as environmental racism, slow violence, and intergenerational inequity. It must be acknowledged that justice and fairness in terms of mitigation for environmental harm is not equally placed on all people in a society. Low income communities and communities of color are often subject to the worst forms of distributional injustice. From a social and cultural framework, justice as recognition is an important principle for dealing with intergenerational inequity. The lack of recognition that marginalized communities receive means that they are often left out of legislative decisions which inhibits them ever achieving procedural justice. Procedural justice deals specifically with the fair and equitable distribution processes of a state. All of this is to say, if you are not recognized, then you are not able to participate. Unfortunately, too often marginalized communities are left out of these important conversations and legislative decisions, further continuing the cycle of environmental injustice.

Reno/Sparks Parks Score

If you currently reside in Reno, Sparks, or Washoe County generally you are probably familiar with some of the 200+ parks across the area. The 2022 Trust for Public Land ParkScore gave Reno a ranking of #69 out of 100 other parks across the country. In terms of equity, Reno scored 40/100 for distribution of parks and parks acres according to race and income level. According to the report, 77% of low-income households and 80% of people of color are within 10 minute walking distance of a park. However, the report also found that low income neighborhoods have less than half as much access as high income neighborhoods. Additionally, there is 0.2 as much park space in neighborhoods of color when compared to white neighborhoods (Trust for Public Land Special Report). You can check out more of the park scores here! Teglia's Paradise Park

Educational Materials

If you are looking for books to read about environmental justice I suggest the nation’s first environmental justice book, Dumping in Dixie, by Dr. Robert Bullard. This book tells the story of 5 communities of color trying to secure their right to live in a healthy environment. If you are looking for a more academic interpretation check out Defining Environmental Justice by David Schlosberg.



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