Schematic showing proposed West Oakland Bart redevelopment

Environmental Justice: The Past and Future in Oakland

Anna Haefele

Living in a clean and safe community with access to health care, transportation, employment, and educational opportunities—outside green spaces and healthy food supplies among others—is important in promoting individual and community well-being. However, due to structural and economic barriers, not all individuals experience equal access to these resources. In fact, the negative consequences of economic, industrial, and municipal development have long been offloaded to vulnerable communities that do not have a robust ability to fight unfair practices. Righting this wrong is a central goal of environmental justice. 

What is Environmental Justice?

Defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies,” environmental justice sits at the crossroads of social justice and environmentalism. Critically, this understanding of environmental justice highlights the importance of community involvement and agency in decision-making processes. While there is still much work to be done, in recent years, there has been an intensifying focus on the role of state and local governments in ensuring that environmental justice becomes a central part of policy and practice, with the aim of granting an equal voice to underserved communities. 

A Path to Justice in Oakland

One recent example is last year’s release of Oakland’s request for proposals for their General Plan Update (GPU). Framed as “an opportunity for all Oaklanders to work together to create a visionary blueprint for the future,” the project puts environmental justice at the center of the city’s future development and at the top of its guiding principles. In the document, Oakland commits to integrating “principles of fairness and justice into all City policies,” and emphasizes working collaboratively with communities to devise systemic changes. 

This stands in stark contrast to many of Oakland’s past actions, which have often harmed marginalized communities, such as the development of the MacArthur, Cypress, and I-980 freeways; increased exposure to industrial pollution and exhaust in West and East Oakland; the above-ground West Oakland BART, which displaced a vibrant cultural and business district; or the redevelopment of Oak Center and Acorn in the 1950s and 60s. Due to a pernicious combination of economics and segregation, these neighborhoods, all historically occupied by people of color, have consistently been subjected to environmental injustice, disenfranchisement, and dispossession, hindering the well-being of generations of Oakland residents. 

Esther's Orbit Room next to the 7th Street Bay Area Rapid Transit line in San Francisco
Bart on 7th Street, San Francisco. Credit: FoundSF

Granted, Oakland’s request for proposals is not the first attempt by the city to do better for its communities of color. Sustainability, equity, affordable housing, and transit have been included in the city’s stated development goals for at least two decades. Despite explicitly including these goals in the current General Plan, which was adopted in 1998, and subsequent revisions, the city has faced significant challenges in realizing them. For instance, West Oakland, a traditionally majority-Black neighborhood with a long history of dispossession and displacement, still lacks a single grocery store. Additionally, over the last several years, income inequality and housing instability in Oakland and the Bay Area have intensified, disproportionately impacting people of color and those with low income. One aspect that likely contributes to the delta between the city’s expectations and its reality is a historical lack of inclusivity in the decision-making process. One area where this emerges most clearly is in efforts to develop affordable housing. Californians (and many others across the developed world) are notorious for pushing back against affordable housing projects. But there is evidence to support that community involvement in the design and site selection of affordable housing communities significantly reduces opposition. 

A collaborative and community-focused update to Oakland’s General Plan may well respond to issues related to environmental justice that have historically plagued the city. The focus on collaboration and inclusivity will enhance the Plan’s material goals and increase the chance to solve problems instead of simply shifting burdens to Oakland’s most vulnerable residents. Projects like the proposed A’s stadium and the redevelopment of the West Oakland BART are an opportunity for Oakland to test its commitment to the well-being of marginalized communities and put the collaborative, inclusive problem-solving it has proposed into action.

Cover image credit: West Oakland BART Redevelopment (City of Oakland)

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