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Martin Luther King, Civil Rights, and Environmental Justice

"When you go beyond a relatively simple though serious problem such as police racism . . . you begin to get into all the complexities of the modern American economy."
--Martin Luther King, Jr. "A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr."

This year, 2014, marks the 20th anniversary of the President's Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice and health, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty.

Martin Luther King highlighted urban planning, parks and recreation, schools and education, human health, meaningful work, and democratic decision making as genuine civil rights issues. There has been progress in these areas in Los Angeles. Healthy green land use, equitable development, and planning by and for the community is helping to change L.A.

Civil rights laws -- including the Environmental Justice Order and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- have helped. These laws have shaped L.A. We will consider green justice here.

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The site of the Los Angeles State Historic Park could have been warehouses. Instead, it's a park. Andrew Cuomo, who was Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) at the time, withheld any federal subsidies for the proposed warehouse project unless there was a full environmental study that considered the park alternative and the impact on people who were of color or low income. Secretary Cuomo acted in response to an administrative complaint, citing Title VI and the President's Order on Environmental Justice. As a result, the state bought the land for the park. The L.A. Times called the community victory a heroic monument and a symbol of hope. As reported in the Times, The City Project, with diverse allies, "organized a civil rights challenge that claimed the project was the result of discriminatory land-use policies that had long deprived minority neighborhoods of parks."

HUD's decision was a seminal act that has led to real change -- in creating green space on the ground, and at the policy level through plans for a new national recreation area in the San Gabriels, the expansion of the Santa Monica Mountains, and the greening of the L.A. River.

L.A. State Historic Park | The City Project

On the ground, HUD's action inspired the green justice movement that is helping create or save great urban parks, including:

HUD's decision is a best practice that other federal agencies are carrying on through voluntary compliance with civil rights laws in the planning process.

For example, the National Park Service (NPS) recognizes that people of color and low income people face disparities in access to parks -- these disparities harm their health, and park agencies have an obligation to alleviate these disparities. And NPS is taking action, such as their recommendation for a new national recreation area in the San Gabriel Mountains, citing the President's Order on Environmental Justice and health. Congresswoman Judy Chu cites health and environmental justice as two of the main reasons why the new recreation area is needed. According to NPS, L.A. County is one of the most disadvantaged in access to parks for people of color, and county averages mask dramatic disparities. Non-Hispanic whites have disproportionately greater access to parks. Latinos and African-Americans are 12-15 times more likely to have less park acreage per capita than non-Hispanic whites. Communities with the least amount of green access tend to have higher rates of obesity and diabetes. NPS seeks to improve green access, recreational opportunities, and transit for all through the proposed NRA. For example, 36% of black and 35% of Hispanic high school students nationwide are overweight or obese, while 24% of non-Hispanic white high school students suffer from these conditions. Evidence-based social science research collected by NPS, through its Healthy Parks, Healthy People U.S. initiative, shows that parks can play an important role in alleviating socioeconomic health disparities. NPS is also developing a Community Engagement Resource Guide to serve park officials and stakeholders across the nation, working with diverse allies.

Vista Hermosa Park | The City Project

The Army Corps of Engineers released its draft study for the greening of the L.A. River in September 2013, citing the President's Order on Environmental Justice and health. The Corps recognizes that a "key concern in Los Angeles is the growing disparity of access to and use of open space resources, including parks, ball fields, and natural areas by those living in low income communities of color."

Diverse allies have submitted public comments to work with federal, state, regional, and local agencies to promote healthy green land use, equitable development, and planning by and for the community in the San Gabriels and the Santa Monicas, and along the L.A. and San Gabriel Rivers. These allies stress the need for voluntary compliance with the President's Order on Environmental Justice and health, Title VI and its regulations, and the Affordable Care Act sections on non-discrimination, wellness, and prevention.

Discrimination under these laws includes intentional discrimination, and unjustified and unnecessary discriminatory impacts based on race, color, or national origin in programs or activities by recipients of federal funding, including parks. A thoughtless policy can be as unfair as, and functionally equivalent to, intentional discrimination. As a matter of common sense, discriminatory programs or activities should be avoided in favor of those that serve everyone's interests fairly, effectively, and without discrimination.

Mayor Eric Garcetti has pledged to comply with Title VI and parallel state laws to promote equal access to parks and recreation. The California Parks Forward Initiative is a new "independent, multi-year collaborative process that seeks to ... transform the [state parks] system into one that is financially sustainable and better meets the needs of California's growing population and changing demographics." This provides an opportunity for implementing green justice.

Barry Sanders, the president of the City Parks and Recreation Commission, recently wrote in the L.A. Times about the growing number of parks in L.A.:

Los Angeles has always been known as "park poor" . . . for too many Angelenos, life in our far-flung city is park poor because these assets are far from their homes, and transportation to the parks is difficult . . . We are changing that . . . We can transform Los Angeles.

We agree. L.A. can do it. We can help.

Park Access for Children of Color Living in Poverty with No Access to Car. Click to enlarge | The City Project

About the Author

I am a civil rights attorney. Fighting for the simple joys of playing in the park and school field for children of color and low income children is the hardest work I have ever done.
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