In the American Rust Belt, industrial decline and a low-income, minority population often go hand in hand. Most would agree that both the cities and the citizens of areas coping with deindustrialization are in need of a boost. But when abandoned and contaminated industrial areas get a facelift, do community members actually reap the benefits?
In a 2010 paper, Jonathan D. Essoka of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finds that when these abandoned urban industrial sites, known as brownfields, are redeveloped black and Latino residents are often pushed out rather than lifted up.
Essoka bases his analysis on the concept of Environmental Justice, which aims to ensure that disenfranchised populations are not disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards. Brownfield redevelopment seems like a win-win for many communities from the perspective of environmental justice, as it promises to alleviate harmful environmental risks and to improve economic prospects for low-income, minority residents. However, Essoka’s research suggests otherwise.
Essoka focuses on census data from 258 sites that received EPA Brownfields Pilot Grants between 1990 and 2000 because they were either contaminated or perceived to be so. He examines the demographic shifts of minorities, single mothers, and the elderly in order to pin down who, if anyone, is displaced by brownfield redevelopment.
While Essoka finds no clear displacement of single mothers or the elderly, he identifies clear gentrification along racial lines.
Sixty-one percent of the brownfield redevelopments studied displaced a statistically significant number of black residents, and fourteen percent displaced a significant number of Latino residents. Essoka determines that the results cannot be explained by chance population changes because, overall, the black and Latino populations increased in the cities studied during this time frame.
Essoka argues that when city officials and urban developers choose to redevelop a brownfield they are guided by the economic benefits to the city, rather than the benefits to the existing community. While Essoka acknowledges that some degree of displacement may create more integrated neighborhoods, he contends that strong evidence of racial gentrification diminishes any chance of Environmental Justice.
To combat the trend toward displacement, Essoka recommends that local officials shift the incentives for developers away from quick profits and toward community involvement and long-term commitment to a neighborhood. Without these changes, Essoka worries that redeveloped brownfield sites may prove to be just as “toxic” to the wellbeing of black and Latino residents as they would have been had the clean-up never occurred.