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Environmental Justice Emerging Trends and Best Practices Guidebook

3. Livability


In June 2009, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, and U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson announced the new interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities. The partnership's mission is to improve access to affordable housing, provide more transportation options, and decrease transportation costs, while protecting the environment and supporting existing communities. The partnership has established six livability principles (see text box). With regard to transportation, livability is about leveraging the quality, location, and type of transportation facilities and services to help achieve broader community goals such as access to good jobs, affordable housing, quality schools, and safe streets.

Although the concept of livable communities might be new to some, the transportation-related goals underlying the concept have been actively pursued for some time, albeit under different labels. These labels include smart growth, TOD, context-sensitive solutions, walkability, and new urbanism. Numerous existing Federal grants and programs support the pursuit of livability, and several more have been created recently.[41]

With its emphasis on improving existing communities and providing equitable, affordable transportation and housing, it is clear that livability incorporates many environmental justice goals. Each of the three Federal agencies participating in the partnership has developed its own approach to environmental justice. As the agencies explore how they can work jointly to advance community livability, they are also developing common frameworks for addressing environmental justice.

Trends in Livability

Livability Principles of the Federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities

  1. Provide more transportation choices.
  2. Promote equitable, affordable housing.
  3. Enhance economic competitiveness.
  4. Support existing communities.
  5. Coordinate and leverage Federal policies and investment.
  6. Value existing communities and neighborhoods.

For some time, advocates for social and environmental justice have argued that the auto-dependent development pattern of the post-World War II era (often described as "sprawl") has exacerbated social injustice. According to these advocates sprawl has accelerated the decline of urban infrastructure and has limited the access of inner city residents to suburban job centers and essential services such as health care and nutritious food.[42] Additionally, social justice advocates have expressed concern that efforts to redirect economic and residential development back to city centers could spur gentrification and displace low-income or minority residents without providing them with any economic, environmental, or social benefits. This criticism has been leveled against the smart growth movement in the past, and it remains a concern for transportation and community planners as they work to advance livability going forward.


The primary environmental justice challenge inherent in promoting livability-focused projects is ensuring the projects directly benefit existing community residents and businesses, rather than simply displacing them. In particular, project sponsors should be concerned about how a project will affect the following:

In addition, as with other public projects, there remains the ongoing need to solicit the input of the affected communities to learn their needs and concerns. The livability case study projects highlighted in this section are addressing these challenges in several ways, such as:

Case Studies

Case Study 1: TriMet Yellow Line Extension (Portland, OR)

This case study of the extension of LRT shows how a transportation project can simultaneously promote community livability and environmental justice. The project enhanced public transit service to traditionally underserved communities and stimulated TOD. At the same time, the project went far beyond typical practices to provide economic benefits to DBEs and workers.[43]

In 2000, the Tri-County Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet) began a 5.8-mile, $350 million extension of the Yellow Line, part of the Portland area's Interstate MAX light rail system. This extension connected the racially and ethnically diverse communities from northern and northeastern Portland to downtown and to the rest of the MAX system. Through careful project design and implementation, TriMet was able to advance the principles of community livability and environmental justice.

The project promoted community livability by:

The Yellow Line extension advanced environmental justice in the broadest sense by improving public transportation options for low-income and minority residents of northern and northeastern Portland. At the time of the project's construction, the communities along the new rail alignment were 44 percent minority and had a 22 percent poverty rate, compared to 21 percent minority and 13 percent poverty rate citywide.[44]

To mitigate the impacts of construction on existing businesses in the corridor, TriMet ensured continued access to businesses along the avenue and worked in three- and four-block segments to complete work as quickly as possible. In addition, TriMet, along with the city of Portland and Portland Development Commission, offered a variety of mitigation strategies, including low-interest loans, technical assistance, storefront improvement grants, and workshops. This effort also included an advertising campaign and a "lunch bus" that brought 14,000 people to restaurants on Interstate Avenue. By the time construction was completed in December 2004, more than 50 new businesses had opened on the street.[45]

Figure 15 is a picture of one of TriMet's Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) light-rail system trains at one of the system's serves 84 stations in the Portland metropolitan area.

Figure 15. TriMet's Metropolitan Area Express (MAX)

Source: Tri-County Transportation District of Oregon, 2005

TriMet's Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) light-rail system serves 84 stations in the Portland metropolitan area. The Yellow line connects northern and northeastern Portland with downtown Portland and the rest of the MAX system.
Source: Tri-County Transportation District of Oregon, 2005.
TriMet set and exceeded ambitious goals for involvement of local DBEs and workers in the project. TriMet's goal was to have 16 percent of construction contract dollars go to DBE firms. To reach this goal, the agency took the following steps:

These efforts resulted in 18 percent of contract dollars going to local DBE firms, totaling $35 million, of which $8.1 million went to DBEs located in northern and northeastern Portland.[46]

This bar chart depicts the distribution of labor between, women, minorities and apprentices. TriMet exceeded the 17% apprenticeship goal with 18.45% of construction work performed by apprentices. The table below the figure provides additional information on the distribution of work hours for construction of the Yellow Line.

Figure 16. Distribution of Labor Bar Graph

Source: Tri-County Transportation District of Oregon, 2005

Distribution of Work Hours for Construction of the Yellow Line

Workforce Type Percentage of total work hours for construction of TriMet's Yellow line
Women 10%
Minorities 23%
Apprentices 18%

To improve local workforce skills, TriMet required as part of a project labor agreement that the largest contractors and subcontractors have 17 percent of their project work performed by apprentices. The agency also encouraged these companies to make good-faith efforts to employ a diverse workforce. TriMet contracted with the city of Portland's Workforce Training & Hiring Program to monitor contractors' success in meeting the apprenticeship goal. In the end, apprentices provided 18.45 percent of total hours, with minority and female apprentices providing 7.72 percent of total hours.[47]

Case Study 2: Atlanta BeltLine (Atlanta, GA)

Although still mainly in the planning phase, the Atlanta BeltLine project merits examination because of how comprehensively it promises to promote livability in the Atlanta region. The multifaceted efforts to address environmental justice concerns are also noteworthy.

The Atlanta BeltLine is one of the largest and most comprehensive urban redevelopment efforts underway in the United States. After decades of growth characterized primarily by the addition of low-density suburbs, the project aims to direct some of the region's future growth within and around the BeltLine, 22 miles of historic rail lines that encircle the city's urban core. Inspired by a 1999 graduate-school thesis that proposed a new transit system along the BeltLine, the idea grew to include not only LRT but also parks and trails, neighborhood preservation and revitalization, Brownfields remediation, mixed-use development, and affordable housing.

The project was formally endorsed in 2005, when the Atlanta City Council, Fulton County Board of Commissioners, and Atlanta Public School Board of Education approved the BeltLine Redevelopment Plan and an associated tax allocation district. Although many components of the project are still in the planning phase, as of June 2010 some individual elements such as new trails and parks have been completed or are under construction.[48] The BeltLine project is expected to benefit some 100,000 Atlanta residents, or 25 percent of the city's total population, who live within walking distance of the BeltLine.

The transportation improvements proposed in the BeltLine project include:

Improvements to the city's existing transportation network, such as new sidewalks, streetscapes, and intersection improvements that will help create a more cohesive urban street network

The livability features of this ambitious undertaking are numerous and have been noted by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan on the White House's blog.[49] The project will direct significant public funds to existing neighborhoods in Atlanta's urban core, while providing more transportation choices to residents. It will promote equitable, affordable housing by investing $240 million over 25 years to build as many as 5,600 new affordable workforce housing units within the BeltLine area.[50] It will promote economic competiveness by redeveloping old industrial sites and other underutilized properties along the BeltLine. From the beginning, the project has valued the unique characteristics of neighborhoods and communities by soliciting and incorporating public input on all of its proposed features. Many of these neighborhoods have been historically underserved and underrepresented in transportation planning.

Many of the project's livability features also promote environmental justice. The new affordable housing units will be workforce units targeted to households with incomes typical of the service sector (including firefighters, police officers, teachers, and nurses). These units are intended to help prevent the displacement of working-class families if property values increase in communities near the BeltLine. As part of the effort to preserve affordable housing, project planners are working to establish a network of community land trusts in the project area. These trusts will keep homes affordable by separating the price of homes from the price of the land underneath them. The trusts buy and hold land permanently while allowing the homes themselves to be bought and sold by residents with limited incomes.[51] While the BeltLine project is focusing on workforce housing, other city support is available for very low- and low-income housing, which will take advantage of the BeltLine's enhanced transportation choices.

Through remediation and redevelopment of Brownfields sites, the project will improve public health and the environment while providing more economic opportunities for inner city residents. To promote more equitable growth across the city, redevelopment plans are being organized around 12 activity centers located around the BeltLine.

Figure 17 represents a Visualization of proposed Atlanta BeltLine light rail line and trail.

Figure 17. Proposed Atlanta BeltLine

Source: Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., 2010

To promote more equitable growth across the city, redevelopment plans are being organized around 12 activity centers located around the BeltLine.

Figure 18. Atlanta BeltLine Project Map

Source: Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, 2009

The public was actively involved in developing the project planning process for the BeltLine, as shown in this picture of a workshop participant marking up a map.

Figure 19. Workshop Participant Marking Up a Map

Source: Martin, 2008

The broader impact of the BeltLine project on regional economic and social disparities has been considered in the BeltLine Equitable Development Plan, which sets guiding principles to ensure the project achieves physical connectivity among Atlanta's neighborhoods while meeting the needs of the diverse people and communities that share the BeltLine.[52] A major component of the development plan is to provide community benefits such as long-term job opportunities for existing and new residents. To help accomplish this, construction contractors receiving funds raised through the tax allocation district will be required to take certain steps to interview local qualified candidates, and to make good-faith efforts to meet targets for the percentage of work hours allocated to people residing near the BeltLine.[53] A job training program is being put in place to prepare BeltLine neighborhood residents for upcoming job opportunities.

Extensive efforts have been taken to solicit public input on the different components of the project. The BeltLine Redevelopment Plan was developed after extensive public input, with more than 1,600 participants attending more than 26 public meetings. In addition, Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., the entity created by the Atlanta Development Authority to coordinate planning and implementation of the project, is using a five-part community engagement strategy to keep Atlanta residents informed and actively engaged. Some features of the framework are mandated by the Atlanta City Council. The five components of the framework are:

  1. Tax Allocation District Advisory Committee.
  2. BeltLine Affordable Housing Advisory Board.
  3. Quarterly public briefings that are recorded and shown on the city of Atlanta's cable channel.
  4. Creation of the Community Engagement Advocate Office within Atlanta BeltLine, Inc.
  5. Five study groups, each one focused on a different portion of the BeltLine project area, to provide community input over the life of the planning and implementation processes.

Milwaukee, WI, was recently designated an Environmental Justice Showcase Community by EPA in recognition of its efforts to redevelop the 30th Street Industrial Corridor, which centers on a former rail line. The corridor is in north-central Milwaukee and is home to low-income communities of color.

Working with Federal, State, and local partners, the city seeks to improve the human, environmental, and economic health of neighborhoods along the corridor by redeveloping Brownfields, implementing "green" stormwater management practices, improving local roads, attracting new businesses, and providing workforce training. For more information on this project, see: .

Case Study 3: Urban Transitway (Stamford, CT)

Phase II Map of the Stamford Urban Transitway The Stamford Urban Transitway will connect I-95 and the Boston Post Road (U.S. 1) to SITC.

Figure 20. Phase II Map of the Stamford Urban Transitway

Source: City of Stamford, 2009

The Stamford Urban Transitway project in Connecticut demonstrates how transportation infrastructure projects can improve transportation choices for regional commuters while also improving choices and living conditions for adjacent communities.

As currently configured, I-95 and the Metro North Railroad separate downtown Stamford from its 323-acre south waterfront area, and significantly impede utilization of the critical Stamford Intermodal Transportation Center (SITC). SITC is one of the busiest transit stations in the country, with more than 20,000 daily weekday commuters, 225 daily commuter trains, more than 1,000 daily commuter bus trips, and paratransit shuttles, establishing it as an entry portal for commuters using the LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy, Jr., and Newark airports in and around New York City.[54]

For years, I-95 has also served as a de facto dividing line, separating the more affluent areas of northern Stamford from disadvantaged neighborhoods in the southern waterfront area. The southern waterfront is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the metropolitan area, with median income ten percent lower than Stamford as a whole. More than 75 percent of residents in the area earn a low income, with nearly 30 percent living below the poverty line. More than 12 percent (1,300 households) do not own vehicles.[55]

To improve access to SITC from I-95 and surrounding neighborhoods, and to spur redevelopment of the southern waterfront, the city of Stamford is constructing the Stamford Urban Transitway. The transitway will include dedicated bus lanes, high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, bicycle/pedestrian routes, intelligent transportation system (ITS) technologies, and multi-use vehicle lanes. The first phase of the transitway was started in 2007, with a major portion of new roadway completed and opened in July 2009. Phase II is now underway, including final design and engineering, environmental permitting and approvals, and right-of-way acquisition.

Picture of New Green Affordable Housing Near SITC. Metro Green Apartments is among the first of the new affordable housing developments to be built near the Stamford Urban Transitway. The 50-unit building, located one block from SITC, is the first phase of a mixed-use TOD. The building has many environmentally friendly features and has applied for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Figure 21. Picture of New Green Affordable Housing Near SITC

Source: Jonathan Rose Companies
Photo Credit: Ruggero Vanni.

The transit way's livability components include:

The development occurring near the transitway is also consistent with the environmental aspects of livability. Stamford already requires new private buildings to meet the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. The city's first green affordable housing development has been built one block from SITC, incorporating features that will reduce residents' long-term energy and maintenance costs. Harbor Point, the major development planned in Stamford's southern waterfront, has earned Gold certification under the new LEED-Neighborhood Development standard. The streets in Harbor Point are designed for lower traffic speeds and to be friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists. Stamford is also connecting the development around the transitway with a 3-mile urban park that is being developed along the Mill River.

As with the other projects highlighted in this section, the transitway's livability features will contribute to the pursuit of environmental justice. In addition to easing access for commuters to SITC, the transitway will improve access for nearby low-income residents to transit services. Because city requirements dictate that 10 percent of all new housing units must be affordable, under current plans the result will be 400 new units of affordable housing.

To benefit local low-income workers, Stamford has required hiring preferences for local workers, best-practice hiring practices for qualified low-income people, and use of apprenticeship programs. The city is also facilitating participation of DBEs in accordance with Federal regulations. By following these practices during construction of the first phase of the transitway, the city utilized DBEs for $4 million, or 11 percent, of the first phase, meeting the State's DBE benchmark. A similar effort in Kansas City, MO, the Green Impact Zone, is working to improve the environmental sustainability of an urban neighborhood.

Kansas City's Green Impact Zone[56]

The Green Impact Zone is a cooperative effort to use Federal stimulus funds to jump-start the transformation of a 150-square block area of Kansas City, MO, that has experienced severe abandonment and economic decline. Roughly 40 percent of its properties consist of vacant lots or structures, and the median home value is less than $30,000. The ultimate goal is to create a community that is environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable. The Green Impact Zone is adjacent to the Blue Valley Industrial District, where the city of Kansas City and the Federal Government have recently spent more than $300 million in flood control and Brownfields mitigation to create jobs and spur economic development and redevelopment.

Picture of a rain garden at 49th and Volker in Troostwood Commons, one of the programs being promoted by the zone's Sowers of Sustainability Program.

Figure 22. A rain garden at 49th and Volker in Troostwood Commons

Source: Green Impact Zone/Mid-America Regional Council. May, 2010

Creating a rain garden at 49th and Volker in Troostwood Commons is one of the programs being promoted by the zone's Sowers of Sustainability Program.

The Green Impact Zone initiative integrates plans and investment related to workforce and economic development, community outreach, youth development, infrastructure, mobility, housing, and energy efficiency. For example, the project aims to improve the housing of every existing resident, in part through weatherization, energy audits, and energy efficiency incentives. Plans call for hiring and training local residents to assist with home weatherization.

In February 2010, the Kansas City region was awarded $50 million from DOT's Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant program. These funds will be used for basic street and sidewalk repairs, bus stop improvements, and traffic signal upgrades and synchronization in key transit and pedestrian corridors in the target area. TIGER funds will also pay for new expanded and enhanced regional bus and bus rapid transit services that will help connect the Green Impact Zone and other urban neighborhoods to the rest of the region.

Underlying all work will be a neighborhood outreach program that builds on the existing, well-organized neighborhood associations. Many of the zone programs and investments are focused on supporting specific priorities set by the individual neighborhoods. These priorities include reclaiming abandoned buildings and lots for housing, parks, and food services.


The projects described here advance environmental justice on several fronts:

Updated: 10/20/2015
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