Historic Preservation and Environmental Justice: A Q&A with Carlton Eley

By Jacquie Johnson posted 7 days ago

  

The Forum Blog is publishing a series that responds to the question: When does historic preservation become social justice? The series explores multiple themes, including how preservationists can apply environmental justice to protect our most vulnerable communities. Two posts in the series share insights from environmentalists working at both the national and local levels about how and why preservation should address environmental inequality in vulnerable and under-resourced communities, present resources and best practices for environmental justice work, and provide notable examples of preservation and environmental justice working in tandem. Interested in starting a discussion about the series? Sign up for Forum Connect.

The second contributor is Carlton Eley, a senior environmental protection specialist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Eley is an environmentalist, urban planner, and accomplished expert on equitable development who regularly organizes educational content for audiences around the country through lectures, workshops, panels, and webinars. He has written multiple articles on the subject, including “Equitable Development: Untangling the Web of Urban Development through Collaborative Problem Solving.” 

How can preservationists help address environmental justice in our most vulnerable and under-resourced communities? What are the benefits and challenges of doing so?

The starting point is to become acquainted with the history of the environmental justice movement, which reveals that the value of preservation is not lost on environmental justice proponents.

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Reverend Leon White, left, and Charles Lee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stand beside a new marker, unveiled by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, that acknowledges the birth of the environmental justice movement in Warren County. | Credit: Carlton Eley

When the environmental justice movement was in its infancy, citizens expressed concerns about being "overburdened by pollution." These concerns included untenable practices in housing, land use, infrastructure, and sanitation. In other words, citizens were mindful of impacts from deterioration in the built environment.

These concerns often intersected with values that preservationists share. For example, in 1991, the Principles of Environmental Justice were publicly adopted by delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. One principle states: “Environmental Justice affirms the need for urban and rural ecological policies to clean up and rebuild our cities and rural areas in balance with nature, honoring the cultural integrity of all our communities, and providing fair access to all to the full range of resources.

Five years later the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council revisited this focus on cultural integrity. In 1996 the council’s first report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency included recommendations concerning preservation and the protection of cultural resources. Specifically, the council encouraged “strategies and efforts which serve to support, enhance and protect a community’s culture and history.”

The origins and values of environmental justice reveal several key lessons for preservationists:

  • First, sensitivities to environmental justice, which start with community involvement and community cleanup, should carry through to community recovery and redevelopment. Vulnerable populations seek development that is responsive to their needs.
  • Second, the common ground between environmental justice and historic preservation is the ethic of stewardship, which suggests that one assumes the responsibility to be a custodian or caretaker of the assets within one’s domain and to pass those assets on to another generation. In the end, sustainability is the motive for environmental justice.
  • Third, planning at its best takes the social implications of land use and economic development decisions into account. For example, ensuring that the cultural assets of underserved populations are not compromised through community revitalization requires careful consideration.

These lessons point to opportunities for cohesion across sectors.

What resources and expertise does the field of preservation offer to advance environmental justice efforts?

Preservation can be credited with expanding the dialogue about sustainability beyond the parameters of energy efficiency, environmental protection, and economic resiliency. As a practice, it is one of the pathways for elevating the social and cultural pillars of sustainability and affirming their legitimacy.

The dialogue about sustainability does not end with the building envelope or the settlement pattern of the communities in which we live. It also includes lessons from the humanities, which teach us that the treasures we pass on to future generations include our common story—the narratives, the institutions, and the cultural assets that give communities a sense of place.

Great communities are more than a collection of buildings, streets, and parks. Deliberate conversations about balancing the goals of economic and cultural development can yield better community outcomes, especially for underserved populations, vulnerable groups, and communities with environmental justice concerns.

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The Paseo YMCA in Kansas City, Missouri, is the birthplace of baseball’s Negro National League, and the property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Brownfields Cleanup Grant for $165,000 was awarded to support the property’s restoration in 2005. Currently, it is the home of the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center. | Credit: Carlton Eley

In recent years, the preservation field—through the National Park Service (NPS)—has produced important resources and tools for supporting environmental justice. Specifically, the National Center for Cultural Resources—which is now incorporated within the Cultural Resources, Partnership and Science Directorate—created “Reflections on the American Landscape.” This informative series of publications for identifying and interpreting the heritage of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Hispanic Americans, and African Americans offers a cogent explanation for how cultural influences shape the built environment and affirms the value of subtle attributes collectively known as “intangibles.”

The research conducted for this three-part series is a practical example of how to address environmental justice under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which has been a long-standing point of interest among environmental justice proponents. Specifically, NEPA encourages “preserv[ing] important historic, cultural, and natural aspects of our national heritage, and maintain[ing], wherever possible, an environment which supports diversity and variety of individual choice.”

Give us an example of an environmental justice effort in which preservation was a key component.

Although environmental justice solutions are often presented in the context of the law, public health, waste management, or public involvement, community planning is another important leveraging point. Occasionally, local efforts to encourage environmental justice through planning include preservation as a key component. One example is the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Management Plan, which engages many policy issues pertinent to environmental justice, including preserving cultural resources; access to natural resources; land issues; economic development; education, awareness, and capacity building; land development; respect of local knowledge; and climate change.

The Gullah Geechee people are the descendants of enslaved Africans brought to the southeastern United States from the primarily rice-producing regions of West and Central Africa. Due to geographic isolation, this population has retained many aspects of their Creole culture, including language, arts, crafts, folklore, rituals, and sense of place and family. Unfortunately, the unique traditions and attributes of the Gullah Geechee people are increasingly threatened by land conversion and unbridled patterns of development.

Acknowledging the national significance of Gullah Geechee culture as well as the resources that could be endangered, Congress passed the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Act in 2006. The act defined the boundaries of a new heritage area, the 12,818–square mile Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which runs along the coasts of four states, and directed the Department of the Interior (DOI) to create a management plan for that area.

The management plan was completed thanks to the faithful persistence of a citizen-led commission established by the DOI. The plan does not usurp local or regional planning processes. Instead, it complements established plans, using a collaborative approach to help varying stakeholders make decisions that are informed and sensitive to protecting cultural practices, sites, and resources within the boundaries of the corridor.

In the end, the objectives of historic preservation and environmental justice are not mutually exclusive—indeed, they can be complementary. The synergies from addressing both, rather than cherry-picking, can restore public trust, improve community morale, protect public health, and strengthen the integrity of places that capture our affections—while also connecting to new audiences and leveraging untapped talent. In a nation of 324 million people, there is a market for a sustainability movement offering those returns.

Jacqueline Johnson is the manager of programmatic diversity for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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  • Inclusion
  • Sustainability

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