Sustainability and Poverty

by Jennifer Breneman

“Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment.”  Preserving and conserving our environment for the current and future generations has become a hot topic.  The way to do this is through the concept of sustainability.  The Environmental Protection Agency describes the concept of sustainability with the following, “To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.” Sustainability efforts have taken off in many areas of the United States.  San Francisco, California, for example, has been a pioneer in the sustainability movement, reducing waste, reducing air emissions, and conserving water.  Interestingly, San Franciscans earning in the top 95% of the residents’ income, earn well over $400,000 a year. Two examples of sustainability initiatives seen implemented around the United States are parklets and complete streets movements.  

Parklets are typically small, temporary platforms that take up two or more street-parking spaces. They convert those parking spaces into a type of mini-park that the public can use for recreational activities.  Parklets encourage less reliance on vehicles, which cut down on emissions.  Cities such as San Francisco, Philadelphia, Sacramento, Fort Lauderdale, and Seattle, are just a few of the many cities that have been pioneers in the Parklet Program Movement.  Not surprisingly, some of the wealthiest earners reside in these cities.  For example, Seattle recently surpassed Washington, D.C., to rank among the top-three high-income cities.

Complete street movements have also taken off. Complete street ordinances promote  streets that safely accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists, children, and people with disabilities.  Chester County, Pennsylvania, adopted a complete streets ordinance for Baltimore Pike, a main roadway in the county.  The ordinance provides accommodation for people biking, people walking, people using the […] bus, and people using any other form of non-motorized transportation while still maintaining the roadway’s efficiency to move motorized vehicle traffic. Chester County,comprised of a predominantly white population with a median family income of over $100,000, is far from a poverty stricken county. These movements are formidable efforts at combating environmental degradation in this country.  The problem is that not enough efforts are being targeted toward lower-income, racially diverse areas.  Sustainable efforts must be undertaken everywhere, not just the affluent areas of the United States.

Chronic poverty creates hardships for residents in areas of employment and housing and leaves them lacking basic necessities. The poor are often exposed to pollution and environmental degradation which causes a higher incidence of health problems.  For example, Appalachia, a poverty stricken region, is home to mountaintop removal coal mining.  This coal mining uses explosives to expose coal seams under the surfaces of mountains.  Some of the health problems seen in this impoverished area include significant higher rates of birth defects.

Urban areas of poverty also see negative health consequences among their residents. A recent study that found “low-income and minority groups — in particular, poor children of color — tend to be most exposed to air pollution. As a result, these children may be more likely to suffer from chronic respiratory conditions. In fact, almost one in four impoverished Hispanic and Puerto Rican children in the U.S. have asthma, compared to “about one in 13 middle-class or wealthy white children.”” Activists in New York City have also alleged a connection between  the exhaust fumes from garbage trucks and a higher incidence of asthma among the poor children in the city.

Hazardous waste sites, municipal landfills, incinerators, and other hazardous facilities are disproportionately located in poor and minority neighborhoods. Proving the idea that poor urban areas and minorities suffer the most environmental injustice, the Commission for Racial Justice conducted a study in 1987 regarding toxic waste and race, and found “a strong link between race and location of hazardous waste facilities.” This study found that of 27 hazardous-waste landfills nationwide, a third (which represent almost 60 percent of the total hazardous waste landfill capacity) were located in Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. Of these, three of the largest sites were located in predominantly black-populated areas, and these three “accounted for about 40 percent of the total estimated hazardous-waste landfill capacity in the entire United States.” It appears that race was the most prominent factor in the location of commercial hazardous-waste landfills, even more prominent than household income and home values.  

More recent studies have found similar results. For example, a Massachusetts study of the locations of hazardous sites and polluting facilities in the state found that communities of color and working-class communities housed significantly more hazardous sites and facilities than wealthier communities and those with a small minority population.  Poor and colored-populations also tend to live in areas where high lead exposure is likely, due either to soil contamination or to lead paint. It seems that there is a disparity between the poor and ethnically dense areas of the United States that are in great need of sustainable efforts and the wealthy areas in which the efforts are being made.  Low-income areas which suffer most from environmental ill-effects need the sustainable efforts the most.   

Thankfully, there seems to be a growing trend among sustainability directors in U.S. cities, who are planning environmental improvements, on focusing on the most deprived areas of their cities.  These directors are working on efforts such as bikeways, community gardens and energy efficiency retrofits. One such city is Chicago. Chicago conducted a study and determined where the energy inefficient buildings were located.  It targeted low-income areas where the opportunity to help people retrofit their homes or install other energy efficiency measures was present.  Chicago then connected homeowners with utility and nonprofit retrofit programs, and set up a new call center to direct residents to the right programs, resulting in the retrofits of thousands of homes.

Ideally, the trend will continue and more cities will follow Chicago’s initiatives in remedying environmental concerns in the low-income and racially dense areas that are most affected by the problem.  Sustainability must be an ongoing effort undertaken by all for the maximization of Earth’s resources and human health, safety and welfare.




  1. Learn about Sustainability, United States Department of Environmental Protection
  2. Hasmik Djoulakian, The Top 5 Reasons Why San Francisco is California’s Sustainable City, (Dec 16, 2016)
  3. Heather Knight, S.F.’s Richest are wealthiest in the land, The San Francisco Chronicle (Mar 28, 2015)
  4. Parklet Application,
  5. Reclaiming the Right of Way: A Toolkit for Creating and Implementing Parklets, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs (Sep 2012)
  6. San Francisco Parklet Manual Version 2.2, San Franscisco Planning Department (Spring 2015)
  7. City of Sacramento Parklets Program Manual, City of Sacramento Department of Public Works (Mar 18, 2014),
  8. Parklet Program Application, City of Fort Lauderdale Department of Sustainable Development, (last visited Sep 20, 2017)
  9. Parklet Handbook, Seattle Department of Transportation (last visited Sep 20, 2017)
  10. Gene Balk, As Seattle incomes soar, gap grows between rich and poor, Seattle Times (Oct 6, 2014), available at
  11. Akifa Khattak, Complete Street Draft Ordinance Narrative
  12. Race/Ethnicity, Chester County Pennsylvania, available at
  13. Gerken, James. Impoverished Americans Face Environmental Health Problems, Huffington Post (Aug 29, 2012)
  14. Robert D. Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, (1st ed, 1990)
  15. Rachel Massey, Environmental Justice: Income, Race, and Health, Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University(2004) available at
  16. Jacob Scherr, Sustainability moves low-income neighborhoods from the fringe, (May 14, 2014, 4:30 a.m.),

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