The emergence of environmental justice in general plans


Lessons from California’s Senate Bill 1000

By Michelle E. Zuñiga and Michael A. Méndez

Urban planning has an uneasy relationship with environmental justice (EJ). Poor planning decisions and discriminatory practices have historically heightened the burdens of environmental contamination in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, in comparison to white, wealthy populations. Since the 1980s, activists have garnered some regulatory and scholarly support for changes to policy and planning processes, but urban planners have been slow to adopt an explicit EJ framework in land-use policies. The urban planning profession, however, has the capacity to help ensure that future development does not repeat the unjust environmental outcomes of the past.

Adopted in 2016 and implemented in 2018, California Senate Bill (SB) 1000 calls for local jurisdictions with disadvantaged communities to include EJ considerations in their general landuse plans. SB 1000 is intended to ensure transparency and community engagement in urban planning processes, mitigate the harm of living near environmental hazards, and facilitate equitable access to health-promoting amenities such as recreation, healthy and affordable food options, and safe and sanitary housing.

Our research examines the following:

How and to what extent have the jurisdictions with the highest cumulative environmental health impact scores (as designated by the state of California) incorporated EJ into their general land-use plans?

What challenges regarding EJ policy have arisen through the implementation of California SB 1000, and how can they be addressed?


Our research paper provides an analysis of the emergence of EJ considerations in general plans. Results are mixed. They highlight positive outcomes in some jurisdictions, such as the development of EJ advisory committees and contextual analyses to educate public officials about environmental harm in the communities that they represent. However, many governments face significant challenges, including a lack of political support, limited discussions of environmental racism, ineffective community engagement, and few resources to implement and monitor measures.

Without support from elected officials and senior planning managers, progress toward EJ will be slow and uneven. Hence, the real work of EJ takes place in the implementation and enforcement of laws and policies. Environmental justice will not be fully realized without strong oversight and political leadership, and racial diversification of urban planning institutions.

In California, the Attorney General’s office has had a key role in compelling reluctant jurisdictions to implement EJ considerations. Despite these challenges, our research shows that SB 1000 is providing some localities with a proactive instrument to redress local environmental hazards and ensure more equitable land-use policies. By offering their examples and corresponding recommendations, we hope to contribute to more equitable environmental and land use planning throughout the United States.


The results of this research invite planners to shift how EJ is viewed, assessed, and implemented. We offer policy recommendations for resources and tools needed for effective planning that supports EJ:

1. Support the development of an EJ advisory committee

Environmental justice advisory committees help ensure that residents are involved from the outset of the general planning process. These committees are typically made up of community leaders, public health    workers, and residents from disadvantaged communities.

2. Provide more resources for jurisdictions to incorporate EJ in general plans
State and federal governments should provide additional resources and staff training to local governments whose communities are most burdened by environmental hazards, especially jurisdictions that are underresourced. One approach would be to provide funding opportunities for the hiring of consultants and community leaders.

3. Develop a hybrid approach, creating a stand-alone element and integrating considerations throughout the general plan
The benefits of creating a stand-alone element include clarity, the elevation of EJ concerns, and the opportunity to recognize large-scale and historical inequities. At the same time, integrating considerations in other parts of the plan shows EJ touches all aspects of the city’s vision for the future.

4. Link EJ considerations with public health, climate action and disaster plans
Relatively few governments are substantively integrating their general plans with public health, disaster, and climate action plans to address EJ. Some cities across the United States are safeguarding these communities by creating departments focused specifically on mitigating the impacts of climate change through an equity lens (Parker 2021).

5. Develop new tools relating to the interaction of EJ and climate change
State and federal governments should develop geographic mapping tools that demonstrate the compounding impacts of factors such as climate change, air pollution, sociodemographics, and other relevant variables. A uniform platform that quantifies potential climate change and disaster vulnerabilities in EJ communities should be available as a free open-source mapping tool.

6. Establish a State Attorney General Office of Environmental Justice Enforcement
State Attorney Generals should create such offices to ensure environmental laws in low- income, communities of color are enforced. In California, the office has been instrumental in facilitating more robust community engagement and substantive EJ elements in general plans.

The policy brief is available for download. And, the research paper is available in Urban Affairs Review.