How Environmental Education Can Address Issues of Environmental Justice in Urban Settings

by Anjelique Hjarding, Alicia King and Belinda Chin


• Environmental injustice occurs when the most vulnerable, poor, minority or underserved populations carry the greatest burden of environmental risk by living in “undesirable” areas.

• Environmental education can provide an opportunity to connect people to nature even in urban areas, and help empower people to mitigate environmental issues.

• Addressing the challenges of environmental justice through the support of environmental education programs can help engage people in actions to improve their environment.

• As citizens engage in environmental education and action bringing positive changes in their communities, they become more empowered to take future actions to further improve their environment.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) environmental justice is defined 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 injustice occurs when the most vulnerable populations carry the greatest burden of environmental risk. Environmental justice seeks to create environmental equity and address issues of environmental racism and inequalities that are the result of human settlement and industrial development. Scholars have explored the topic of environmental justice on both applied and theoretical levels. From examining the geographic distribution of toxins (Lewis & Bennett, 2013) to equitable allocation of green space (Boone et al., 2009) to the debate over how to define environmental racism, there tends to be a pattern of environmental injustice suggesting that minorities and poor people are those that live in areas considered “undesirable.”

Many of the urban communities we work with are touched daily by environmental injustices. Landfills, interstates and train lines are most often located in close proximity to low-income minority neighborhoods. These areas often have reduced access to natural amenities and green space is often distributed by socio-economic lines (Agyeman & Evans, 2003). As educators, how can we work to bring environmental justice education to the forefront?

Environmental justice issues have a history of being excluded from environmental education study (Haluza-Delay, 2012). This can occur because educators lack an understanding of environmental justice or the politics of the education system dissuades teaching on controversial topics related to race and injustice. Environmental education can provide an opportunity to connect people to nature and can help empower them to actively address environmental issues. In fact, the North American Association for Environmental Education suggests that diversity and justice should be a top priority in environmental education, and that more progress should be done in this area.

Students in the urban environment can often experience a disconnect between themselves and the natural world and may not notice their direct impacts on the environment. Lessons focused on issues such as the carbon footprint allow students to visualize their impact on the environment and will help make the issue relevant.

Seattle: Race and social justice initiative
In 2002, the City of Seattle launched its Race and Social Justice initiative, and Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation (Parks) began an Environmental Stewardship Initiative. The Race and Social Justice is Seattle’s effort to focus on the roots of problems – to change the underlying system that creates and preserves inequities – rather than attempt to treat the symptoms (Seattle, 2008). Seattle City Hall acknowledged the need to expose institutionalized racism and expunge discriminatory municipal policies, procedures and practices overall; and Parks wanted to equitably serve more people, more often in the public green spaces where people live, work and play.

In 2014, residents of a historically diverse, working class Seattle neighborhood applied for a grant from the Department of Neighborhoods to pay for an environmental assessment and design for a bike trail in a public green space imbedded within a residential area. The Parks Board of Commissioners approved the project early in the year. No one had proposed a recreational use in a public green space before. In fact, there were no policies to refer to regarding uses of public green spaces. By summer, advocates and opponents of the mountain bike trail were vying for time to speak to city council members about their points of view.

The story, as reported by the local newspaper, The Seattle Times, presented points of view that, intentionally or not, perpetuated historic social constructs (Shellenberger & Nordhaus, 2007). These included: conflicts between whites and people of color concerning uses of parklands, “people are not a part of nature,” and people of color not having access to nature unless they are working in it. Those interviewed for the article were all white residents of the area. A photograph with the story showed a white male leading a work group in the green space consisting only of youth of color (Photo 1). However, there were no direct quotes given by youth of color in the article. Imagine the empowering potential of environmental education if used in this situation as a tool to facilitate discussion for better understanding and clarity of the issues among the various stakeholders.

Both opponents and advocates of the project used environmental justice to make their arguments to City Council. Opponents claimed the mountain bike trail would “exclude all but the able-bodied,” with a neighbor quoted as saying (Seattle Times, July 28, 2014): “We’re talking about young, white male energy. This is public land. This is a social justice issue.” Advocates for the bike trail said, “…[it] would give youths who aren’t able to get out of the city an opportunity to
experience the joy of riding their bikes in the woods. And in the process… the kids

Photo 1. Volunteer work party at site of proposed bike trail.

would gain an appreciation of nature and a sense of ownership for the greenspace.”
The green space was an urban mix of invasive plant species and native flora. Neighborhood volunteers, including many youth groups, spent hours restoring the forest and installing public trails. The area attracted wildlife as well as illegal dumping, homeless encampments, and drug use. At the end, City Council voted to award the grant in favor of the bike trail, with a caveat that Parks develop policies for use of green spaces (Seattle Times, August 13, 2014).
A lot of progress has been made regarding Seattle’s institutional commitment in 2002 to expose and scrub itself of discriminatory practices, policies and procedures. That said, there is still a lot of work to be done to reach equity and social justice.

Washington,DC: Urban Bird Treaty
Urban Bird Treaty program in Washington, DC engaged with several organizations that focus on the Anacostia River. One such organization, Anacostia Watershed Society, works to engage teachers and students in public policy and advocacy actions through targeted programs.

The Anacostia has a long history as a working port and industrial river, leaving a legacy of toxic pollution that impacts the health of aquatic life and humans that fish, swim, or otherwise recreate on the river. Stormwater runoff collects trash, bacteria, and toxins, and flows into storm drains, and straight into the Anacostia River and its tributaries. With a watershed that is 70 percent developed, the Anacostia is impacted by a huge amount of impervious surface. The Anacostia River is so severely impacted by trash that in 2007 it was declared “impaired by trash” under the provisions of the Clean Water Act. Additionally, the developed areas near this river serve a primarily low-income minority population.

There are many efforts to pick up trash manually or catch it with trash traps, but ultimately trash use needs to be reduced from the source. Reducing this impact one of the biggest challenges. The Anacostia Watershed Society has several programs available for teachers and students to help engage citizens in actions that will not only teach them about the watershed environment, but also how to take actions to improve the environment and to become part of the solution.

As part of the Urban Bird Treaty program, Anacostia Watershed Society was awarded grant monies to work on several projected related to engaging diverse and minority audiences in areas that are demographically considered underserved minority neighborhoods. Sixteen teachers were mentored and equipped for the Rice Rangers program (wetland plant growing in elementary school classrooms), including 11 grow light systems set up in schools. About 300 Washington, DC students participated in a lesson on wetlands and planted native wetland seeds in classrooms, engaged in field studies on the Anacostia River by pontoon boat and participated in wetland planting events. Elementary school students grew 2200 wetland seeds in classrooms and planted the grasses in restoration plots at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Kenilworth is a National Park in the inner city of Washington, DC surrounded by areas where communities are mostly underserved.

While there are not yet any statistics to show that engaging citizens in this area resulted in actions independent of the organized efforts presented to students and citizens, environmental justice actions are being shared with citizens and continued efforts are being monitored.
Agyeman, J., & Evans, T. (2003). Toward just sustainability in urban communities: Building equity rights with sustainable solutions. The annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 590(1), 35–53.

Boone, C.G., Buckley, G.L., Grove, J.M., & Sister, C. (2009). Parks and people: An environmental justice inquiry in Baltimore, Maryland. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 4, 767–787.

Haluza-Delay, R. (2012). Educating for environmental justice. In Wals, A.E.J., Stevenson R.B., Brody, M., & Dillon J. (Ed.), International handbook of research on environmental education (pp. 394–403). Routledge.

Lewis, T., & Bennett, S. (2013). The juxtaposition and spatial disconnect of environmental justice declarations and actual risk: A new method and its application to New York State. Applied geography, 39, 57–66.

Seattle Forestry Commission. (2014). Revised letter to Seattle Parks Commission – Mountain bike trail at Cheasty Greenspace. April 1, 2014.

Seattle Office for Civil Rights. (2008). Race and social justice initiative: Looking back, moving forward. City of Seattle.

Seattle Times. (2014). Council clears way for bike-trail work. Seattle Times, August 13.

Shellenberger, M. & Nordhaus, T. (2007). The Death of environmentalism: Global climate politics in a post-environmental world. Break through: From the death of environmentalism to the politics of possibility. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Thompson, L. (2014). Residents split on parkland bike trails. Seattle Times, July 28.

Tucker, T. An Environmental justice (EJ) teaching resource: Inventory and analysis of current practices in College EJ Education. Seattle University.

Article reprinted from Urban Environmental Education, an e-book published by the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE). Downloadable at