If you have not heard the phrase “intersectional environmentalism,” it is time to Google it.
The refreshing concept of intersectional environmentalism has been brought to center stage because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is so new that it lacks a Wikipedia page; intersectional environmentalism addresses “an inclusion version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet.” Furthermore, “it identifies how injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected.“ By bringing the topic in plain view, intersectional environmentalism addresses issues faced by vulnerable communities and the earth without minimizing social inequality.
“Intersectional Environmentalism acknowledges how social justice and environmentalism are intrinsically linked and work together to achieve environmental justice.”
- Leah Thomas (Intersectional Environmentalist)
While the new phrase is gaining significant traction, the concept itself is not new.
Social equity has been on the radar of several industries but with general social justice awareness on the rise, so too is the desire for a more proactive approach for all. The first piece of the puzzle revolves around overall health and wellness best practices.
For most, the connection between health and wellness is not a far jump to becoming good stewards of the environment.
For example, we realize that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) or chemicals in food are detrimental to our health, and we improve our overall health when we consume cleaner whole foods. This type of awareness allows for a resulting action: caring directly about how chemicals are being applied and becoming more invested in our agricultural process. If you apply that approach to the concept of intersectional environmentalism, you can connect the last piece of the puzzle—social equity.
Beyond the what and how of consumerism is the who and where.
Within our current climate, who has access to clean, whole foods—and who is left living in a food desert? Who is directly working the farmland that produces our produce, and how does it affect their health and wellness? What aspects of becoming more environmentally conscious are failing to consider or recognize, and how can we make future solutions to environmental change more inclusive and long-lasting?
By prioritizing the three core elements of wellness, environment, and social equity, we can forge the way for truly sustainable solutions mutually beneficial for people and the planet.
Currently, the EPA estimates that 70 percent of the country’s contaminated waste sites, or superfund sites, are located near low-income housing. On top of that, it’s estimated that an astounding 47 percent of people who live critically close to hazardous chemical facilities are Black or Latino.
When we are made aware of the issue, our immediate impulse is to measure the impact that a solution could provide. Except, how does one quantify a challenging metric to define, and whose impact can be so broad?
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated interest in health and wellness initiatives because it has forced us to analyze something that has previously been easy to ignore. However, compared to easy to implement solutions such as healthy eating programs, recycling, and access to outdoor amenities—social equity solutions are not being adopted or implemented at the same rate.
Real estate and land use professionals are taking note of this important issue and exploring solutions to specific social equity issues in their application for the built environment, but best practices and quantitative data are hard to come by, making implementation all the more challenging. With no standard guidelines for social equity practices, many do not know where to start.
Although hard data and metrics currently fail to close the gaps, analyzing previous practical applications of forward-thinking initiatives provide a useful tool in understanding how the solution was reached and what factors played into the final product.
For example, where real estate professionals have successfully implemented health, environment, and social equity solutions, there have been key drivers or motivators. Government incentives at the local, state, and federal levels, combined with public perception, have fueled a necessary interest in adopting better practices. Building certification programs such as WELL, LEED, and Living Building Challenge are beginning to add in additional credits that specifically encourage socially equitable solutions.
For the notion of intersectional environmentalism to be successfully applied in the real estate industry, responses will need to be community-specific. The approach to solving this puzzle is not a one-size-fits-all equation—rather, it gathers input from affected communities, weighs and considers the long-term results of certain ideas, and harnesses the power of change through active leadership and “boots on the ground” involvement.
Things we can do today include:
- Identify health and social equity measures utilized within your own projects.
- Understand what initiatives might work for your portfolio.
- Support and become involved with organizations doing social equity work.
- Commit to stakeholder engagement during projects.
- Partner with experts to ensure proper implementation, and then track initiatives and create your own data.
We cannot wait for best practices to show up on our doorstep; we must look at what we have and make smarter, more sustainable business decisions than we did yesterday. Our communities, our health, our environment, and even our ROI will be better for it.
For more resources and further information, I recommend checking out two reports recently published by Urban Land Institute and the Intersectional Environmentalist website:
- ULI Health and Social Equity in Real Estate: State of the Market
- ULI Health and Social Equity in Real Estate: Examples from the Field
Courtney Richardson is a senior associate project designer at BOKA Powell.