How Chicago’s Mayor Is Trying to Fight Environmental Racism

Mayor Brandon Johnson is introducing several methods intended to address how environment has a disproportionate racial impact.

Chicago mayor Brandon Johnson is committed to addressing environmental racism in the city  with a slate of several new initiatives, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.

In 2022, a federal investigation determined that Chicago was guilty of violating the civil rights of its residents “by concentrating polluting businesses in Black and Brown communities” which largely make up the city’s South and West sides.

Some of the Johnson administration’s proposals include policies to implement faster responses by city departments to environmental complaints from residents, the reduction of air pollution with the use of air monitoring and measures, public involvement in with the community in strategic planning and development taking place in the city, and making investments in areas that experience the highest levels of pollution.

Additionally, Johnson says he will seek new legislation from the City Council for planning and zoning that will make it harder to place polluting businesses in the same communities.

At a news conference at City Hall on Monday (September 18), Johnsson spoke about his vision to eradicate environmental racism in the Windy City.

“In the greatest city in the world, no neighborhood should have to suffer the burdens of pollution more so than any other neighborhood,” Johnson said accompanied by community activists. “The time to act on environmental justice is now.”

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After numerous residents complained that relocating the General Iron scrap metal business in Lincoln Park to the East Side was a discriminatory act, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched a year-and-a-half investigation. Eventually, HUD said that moving the business from a predominantly white, wealthy neighborhood, to a Black and Latino community was a civil rights violation. 

Before she left office, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot signed the binding agreement with President Joe Biden’s administration to advance the fight against environmental racism in the city which Johnson is building upon.

“Chicago is listening to the long-standing concerns voiced by environmental justice organizations and community members who have described how intensive industrial operations and commercial transportation affect their neighborhoods, health, and quality of life,” Lightfoot said at the time. “While there are still years of work ahead, together we have laid the groundwork to remedy the harms caused by pollution and other burdens for generations of residents in environmental justice communities. Now we pass the baton to the incoming administration and City Council, and look forward to continued progress on these critical issues."

Olga Bautista, a community activist who was a part of the contingent that filed the civil rights complaint, said that the process had been one that was years in the making.

“This is a milestone in a much longer journey,” Bautista explained.

Following the investigation, Chicago expanded upon what it calls “environmental justice communities” to include “Austin, East Garfield Park and West Garfield Park, Englewood, Humboldt Park, Roseland,” and other locales on the city’s West and South sides after conducting a study.

According to the report, these communities are more at risk of pollution because of the amount of heavy traffic from busy roads among other factors. Those communities join Little Village, McKinley Park, Pilsen, East Side, and South Deering as the most vulnerable places where pollution is concentrated.

“Advancing environmental justice alongside economic development is necessary to better guide our actions to mitigate environmental burdens in Chicago,”  Johnson said. “In the months to come, we will work to build support for a new ordinance that protects all Chicagoans from the cumulative impact of air and water pollution, climate change, improper land use, and other stressors so that residents share directly in the benefits of creating healthy, sustainable communities throughout our city.”

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