Mapping Environmental Justice

Environmental justice is a relatively new concept that was coined in the 1980s. It combines demographics with environmental factors. GIS can better illuminate the environmental justices or injustices in areas through the comparison and illustration of data.


Above is what could be considered a “story map” of environmental justice in three cities: Atlanta, Charlotte, and Richmond. Story maps are an interesting facet of geography in the digital world. Story maps tell a story through media, in this case video, which helps relate maps with other geographic elements. other and an overarching narrative. Story maps can make maps and geographic concepts accessible which may not be apparent outside a guided narrative.

The video above focuses on the environmental comparison of three cities. It’s interesting to see the concept of environmental justice present in all three cities. In each city there seems to be three types of areas. There is a collection of low-income population areas, which may or may not be contiguous, where environmental factors are the worse. There seems to be areas that doesn’t classify as “low-income” but serve as spillover areas for undesirable environmental factors. For example, the southeast part of Atlanta isn’t classified as “low-income” but it suffers almost as much from the detrimental environmental factors like the amount of diesel particulate matter in the air. These areas could be classified as not low-income but not high-income enough to be exempt from detrimental environmental factors.

And, of course, there are the high-income areas. These areas are spared from all the damaging aspects of environmental pollution. The core of the environmental justice problem arises from this perceived injustice. The argument is that even though the high-income areas might mitigate negative environmental factors through paying higher prices for property, both through taxes and the bottom line of a sale, it is unjust to deny the same environmental consciousness to the lower and mid-income areas. This is operating under the assumption that a quality environment, especially where negative effects are mitigable, is a human right and, when denied, is injust on a humanitarian level.

Traffic is an interesting factor to consider. At first thought, one might not think this is a factor that could be manipulated to fall within this income/environmental schema. Imagine an airport, it is constructed and the value of the residential properties within earshot plummet because of the noise pollution. Considering this evolution of value, we could assume roads follow a similar pattern. However, noise pollution from traffic has several elements that can be employed to either reduce the associate noise pollution or reduce the volume of traffic. Sound barriers can be used to limit the amount of noise that reaches residential properties. These also serve an aesthetic purpose and, while not being a designers first choice, can help dress up a property, thus further increasing its value, creating a positive feedback loop that is not present in less fortunate properties. You’ll likely find these sound barriers in high-income areas. This is not because the desire isn’t there for the low-income residential areas. It’s because the financial incentive isn’t there.

The use of alternative transportation methods alleviates these traffic problems for a price. Implementation of bike-friendly infrastructure reduce the volume of traffic but may require expanding and repaving roads, reducing speed limits, adding sidewalks, and developing areas along roads to accommodate bike paths and bike lanes. This brings us back to our original investment problem. What is the worth of implementing the projects if there is no return? Should bike-friendly infrastructure be legislated as a human right? Pedestrian traffic elements like footpaths, elevated footpaths, trails, and greenways follow the same logic and would provide similar results. If a neighborhood’s local amenities are easily accessible by foot it reduces the amount of local traffic. HOV lanes and carpooling elements follow the same logic as well.

Lead paint is another element that contains some interesting implications. Two important legislative measures have reduced the amount of lead in paint used in commercial and residential applications in the 1970s and 80s. A younger city like Charlotte shows a lower concentration of lead paint compared to a city like Atlanta. Charlotte’s construction boom was in the late 80s and 90s, a time where the widespread use of lead paint was discouraged by legislation. Richmond and Atlanta, however, developed during a time before this preventative legislation and the higher amounts of lead paint cooberate this.

Should these environmental factors be legislated? Should they be retroactive? Should they apply for new developments only? Should the free market continue to dictate the environmental quality of neighborhoods? These are all questions that environmental justice initiatives seek to address. Again, data is the light in the darkness to illuminate these issues and cartography is a medium that can present it to the minds that may one day solve it.