A renewed attention on environmental equity and justice
The concepts of environmental equity and environmental justice have been attracting renewed attention on the national and international stage. The House of Commons in Canada is currently deliberating Bill C-266, which if passed, would require the development of a national strategy to advance environmental justice, and assess, prevent, and address environmental racism. Canada’s newly released National Adaptation Strategy identifies equity and environmental justice as one of four guiding principles for designing and advancing climate adaptation strategies. On the world stage, the United Nations recently declared a healthy environment as a human right, providing the impetus for member states to address environmental inequalities and to ensure all have access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
In light of this renewed attention, the NCCEH invited Drs. Jeffrey Brook, Scientific Director, and Dany Doiron, Managing Director of the Canadian Urban Environmental Health Research Consortium (CANUE) to deliver a webinar titled “Putting environmental health equity on the map”.
This webinar discusses the development and implementation of HealthyPlan.City, a tool that allows environmental health professionals, policymakers, planners, and advocacy groups alike to explore where environmental inequities are occurring in cities across Canada. In light of this webinar and recent attention on environmental equity and justice, this blog discusses common terminology and how tools like HealthyPlan.City can be used by environmental health professionals to begin to identify and address environmental inequities in their communities.
What is environmental inequity and environmental racism?
Environmental inequity has a long history in Canada. Decades of research have repeatedly shown that environmental harms such as air pollution and toxic waste disproportionately affect neighbourhoods with greater percentages of low-income, Indigenous, Black and/or other racialized communities. Many studies have also highlighted the skewed distribution of desirable amenities in the built environment such as urban green space and walkability in largely white and wealthy neighbourhoods. Climate change is further exacerbating these inequities, with extreme weather events such as heat waves, floods, and hurricanes often hitting low-income and racialized communities the hardest. For example, during the 2021 heat dome in British Columbia, risk of death was highest for those with lower-incomes and for those living in neighbourhoods with less greenspace, highlighting some of the stark inequities that exist here in Canada.
Environmental inequity is also sometimes referred to as environmental racism, specifically when environmental harms or lack of access to protective environmental features disproportionately affect Indigenous, Black or other racialized communities. The term is used to bring attention to the outsized role that structural racism plays in contributing to environmental inequities.
What is environmental equity and how does it differ from environmental justice?
Environmental equity and environmental justice are two often-conflated terms used to describe the approach used to address environmental inequities. Though similar in their meaning, environmental equity represents the circumstance in which no single group or community is at a disadvantage in dealing with hazardous environmental exposures or natural disasters, regardless of their social position. It involves identifying inequities and providing those affected with the supports needed to achieve a position of equity.
Environmental justice goes one step further, and involves the actions and activism necessary to spotlight environmental inequities to address their root cause(s) in a way that leads to long-term, equitable outcomes. The US Environmental Protection Agency further define environmental justice as seeking the equal treatment and involvement of people of all races, cultures, incomes, and education levels in the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental programs, laws, rules, and policies.
The figure below helps to demonstrate the difference between equity and justice. While both solutions achieve the same outcome (e.g., the ability for all three spectators to see over the fence to watch a sports game), the equity approach provides a short-term solution for addressing the imbalance, whereas the justice approach goes one step further by fixing the imbalance in a way that leads to long-term, equitable access for generations to come.
How does environmental equity differ from health equity?
The natural and built environments have been shown to impact human health in numerous ways, both positive and negative. Ensuring that all people have fair access to protective environmental features to reach their full health potential and are not disadvantaged by environmental conditions is an important part of achieving healthy equity. However, health equity also encompasses ensuring that people are not disadvantaged socially or economically either.
Environmental equity can be thought of as a subset of health equity, and is sometimes referred to conjointly as environmental health equity. Like with health equity, achieving environmental equity or justice requires acknowledging that some people have unequal starting positions, and different approaches will be needed to correct the imbalance to make health possible for all.
How can environmental public health professionals begin to identify environmental inequities?
Chemical exposures, mould, and lack of sanitation are at the core of what environmental public health professionals are tasked with addressing. These also represent some of the issues that frequently show up as environmental inequities faced by communities where low-income, Indigenous, Black, and other racialized peoples often live. As such, environmental public health professionals are uniquely positioned to help identify communities disproportionately affected by environmental harms and advocate for environmental equity and justice. One important way EPHPs can do this is to meaningfully consult with the communities themselves, talking to residents, and hearing about their concerns and priorities. EPHPs are also well positioned to recognize opportunities to address such concerns through current or future government programs and seek ways to build resilience to climate change and decrease inequity while working with communities.
When trying to assess the situation at a larger scale, it can also be helpful to have access to tools that can 1) help identify where communities face greater health risks as a result of hazardous environmental exposures, attributes, or natural disasters, and 2) help identify where communities experience less access to beneficial environmental communities such as parks, recreational facilities or trees. HealthyPlan.City, launched in July 2022 by researchers from CANUE, is an example of a mapping tool that simultaneously visualizes health-relevant attributes of the urban environment with sociodemographic data from the Canadian Census. The result is an interactive map that allow users to overlay different characteristics of the urban environment such as heat islands and tree canopy cover with the proportion of potentially vulnerable populations (i.e., older adults, children, visible minority individuals, low-income individuals, or individuals who live alone) in Canadian communities. The tool allows environmental health professionals, policymakers, planners, and advocacy groups alike to identify which neighbourhoods would benefit most from the addition of features (e.g., a new park or more trees and vegetation) or where interventions should be prioritized (e.g., locating cooling centres during an extreme heat event). So far, the tool allows exploration of heat islands and tree canopy cover as environmental variables; other variables such as air pollution and access to parks and community amenities will be added in early 2023.
Another important tool for identifying inequities are low-cost sensors or sensors shared through library lending programs to detect environmental harms, such as poor outdoor and indoor air quality, lead exposure, and elevated radon levels. In a recent blog, the NCCEH highlighted a collaboration between Peterborough Public Library and Peterborough Public Health to improve indoor air quality by offering public health guidance and a free lending program for CO2 sensors to library members. Such public lending of sensors can help to democratize access to environmental data, giving communities the power to identify and provide evidence of the adverse health impacts of the natural and built environment they are experiencing.
How do environmental public health professionals move from identifying inequities to environmental equity and justice?
Identifying inequities across geographic areas can create the impetus for more rapid change if this information is appropriately communicated and mobilized to community partners, health practitioners, industry and government. Environmental public health professionals can play an important role in sharing this information with both their colleagues and the communities they work in. Interactive maps like those in HealthyPlan.City can be used as helpful tools to communicate this message.
Besides sharing information, there are several other ways environmental health professionals can get involved in addressing environmental inequities. An excellent place to start is by beginning to improve professional knowledge and understanding of the drivers of environmental inequities and possible solutions. These NCCEH resources provide several other ways to take action:
- Equity 101 – Environmental public health organizations can support health equity
- Equity 101 – Environmental public health professionals can take health equity action
- Toward health equity: Practical actions for Public Health Inspectors
While these resources focus on health equity as opposed to environmental equity specifically, many of the actions proposed are relevant and applicable.
Environmental equity and justice are two concepts gaining renewed attention on the national and international stage. While neither concept is new, there is a growing understanding that the environment is deeply intertwined with human health, and that low-income, Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities often face disproportionate exposures to environmental harms, as well as reduced access to desirable environmental amenities. Being aware of these concepts and issues with practical relevance, environmental public health professionals can play an important role in recognizing and working collaboratively on addressing environmental inequities in the communities they serve.
The author would like to thank Allan McKee and Drs. Jeffrey Brook and Dany Doiron of CANUE for their review of this document.
Leah Rosenkrantz is an EH and KT Scientist at NCCEH.
Rosenkrantz L. A renewed attention on environmental equity and justice [blog]. Vancouver, BC: National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health; 2022 Dec 13. Available from: https://ncceh.ca/content/blog/renewed-attention-environmental-equity-and-justice.