The Intersection between Highways and Social Justice

As the result of well publicized documentation of police brutality against young African-Americans in the United States, social activists across the country have recently taken to major highways and interstates and blocked these roads in acts of non-violent civil disobedience to protest the treatment of their fellow citizens, bringing traffic to a standstill. Protesters in San Francisco, Atlanta, and St. Paul, MN, all used these roads that at one point erased the established communities that existing in the right-of-way long before the term “Interstate” was part of the national lexicon.

It can be argued that one of the single most destructive federal policy decisions that negatively impacted urban cities in the United States was the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. With the enactment of this legislation meant to expedite cross-country travel and commerce, federal transportation planners began to seek avenues and thoroughfares that bisected and subdivided the civics cores of numerous metropolitan cities as the controlled-access highways left indelible marks on the urban landscape.

The decision making process, in regards to where the Interstate System would travel through, acted as a catalyst for suburban growth and eventually facilitated “White Flight.” The alignments and right-of-ways of the interstate system were destructive in their action through the razing of city blocks and the erasure of neighborhoods from their physical location to accommodate the space needed to allow for multi-lane highways to snake through the urban fabric, as no attention was paid to local interests and the significant impact that the of construction the freeway caused.

This construction displaced residents, destroyed the physical form of neighborhoods, and scarred (both physically and psychically) our cities for decades to come. “The desire of the car owner to take his car wherever he went no matter what the social cost drove the interstate highway system, with all the force and lethal effect of a dagger, into the heart of the American City.” (Carl Solberg 1973)

As time progressed, new highways were constructed, as homes were razed and neighborhoods disappeared to create space for the highway’s footprint, residents began to band together to counteract the top-down planning efforts of government agencies and entities that were focused on giving the motor vehicle primacy in the urban transportation network. Thus began the era of the “Freeway Revolt.”

Examples of citizens revolting against the destructive force of highway alignments and right-of-ways:

Wallace, Idaho, (pop. 790) sought National Register of Historic Places recognition for the majority of its Downtown as a historic district. This classification resulted in the Federal Highway Administration to reroute its planned level-grade alignment of Interstate 90 through an elevated viaduct, because a large majority of the buildings in Downtown Wallace gained National Historic Place status, thus legally blocking any attempts to raze the community for the freeway.

Interstate 95 (I-95) runs the entire length of the East Coast of the United States, some 1920 miles, from Florida to Maine. It is the longest North-South Interstate in the United States. But when plans were announced to have the alignment of I-95 to bisect the Nation’s Capital, opposition to these plans began to foment. After significant opposition from all segments of Washington society with a rally cry of “White man’s roads through black men’s homes,” the plans to take I-95’s alignment through Washington were scrapped, and the alignment was routed around Interstate 495, the Capital Beltway, thus making I-95 non-contiguous as a result of public opposition.

In recognition of the negative impact that urban interstates have burdened cities with, policy shifts by municipal leaders across the globe began to acknowledge the positive impact that removal of freeways could have on their communities.

In Seoul, South Korea, then-Mayoral Candidate Lee Myung-bak ran on a platform to “daylight” the Cheonggyecheon is a 4-mile creek that had been covered to allow for the construction of a major arterial highway through the center of Seoul. The removal of the roadway created a tabula rasa for landscape designers to create a three-mile urban park that has increased local biodiversity and incited economic development.

In San Francisco, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake several damaged State Route 480, also known as the Embarcadero Freeway. The alignment ran along the Bay front of San Francisco, acting a visual barrier between the city and the waterfront. As a result of damaged sustained during the earthquake, plans by Caltrans to rebuild the freeway were met by opposition by city residents and officials. Then-Mayor Art Agnos staunchly supported the complete removal of the Embarcadero, eventually being ousted from power when his political coalition shifted allegiance, but twenty years later the Port of San Francisco honored him due to his unwaivering support of the Embarcadero demolition with a monument stated “This pedestrian pier commemorates the achievement of Mayor Agnos in leaving our city better and stronger than he found it.”

By facilitating the removal of highway infrastructure in the urban core, communities can become reconnected to waterfronts, parks, and other physical space that people were once cut off from, as the highways themselves created physical barriers to urban connectivity. In light of the results of removal of freeways and interstates from the urban core, there is an emerging amount of empirical evidence and real estate statistics that show improvements in property values of real estate near areas benefitting from the removal of highway alignments and road infrastructure. The long lasting effects of the highways across the United States will reverberate for years, but the forward-thinking policy views of bold leaders can seek to begin the process to reverse the negative impacts that freeways have caused in our urban communities.

The direct social action by modern day social activists in utilizing the Interstate as a tool of protest, in light of the historical inequities brought upon the communities where the right-of-way of the roads were located, almost brings full circle the conversation about the impact of highways have had on the social fabric of the urban cores of our major cities.

David Simon, MCP, is a Community Planner who has worked in diverse communities across the United States ranging from the Rust Belt to Appalachia,  from communities metropolitan to rural, with municipal planning agencies and non-profit neighborhood Community Development Corporations. Returning to the DC Metro area where he grew up, after 15 years working and going to school in the Midwest, he is impressed at the growth and development that the Region has accomplished. As the newest team member of Nspiregreen, he seeks to make an impact in the communities that our team works with, through proactive community engagement, while utilizing his passion for urban environments and community development.


Earth Day is Everyday: The Fight for Environmental Justice in Alabama’s Black Belt

Earth Day is celebrated annually to spread awareness of environmental issues and to show support for

Chanceé Lundy of Nspiregreen (right) pictured with Esther Calhoun (center) and Adam Johnson (left) of the Black Belt Citizens for Health and Justice

Chanceé Lundy of Nspiregreen (right) pictured with Esther Calhoun (center) and Adam Johnson (left) of the Black Belt Citizens for Health and Justice

environmental protection. On this Earth day, I want to bring awareness to vulnerable populations who often find themselves battling Goliath to preserve their quality of life. Man made hazards create environmental injustices that impact people who often don’t have the political clout or financial capital to fight back. A few weeks ago, I had a chance to meet Esther Calhoun, who finds herself thrust into battle with little to no financial resources and few supporters. The Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice operates on a budget of $500 a year; yet, they are determined not to give up the fight.

Her voice began to tremble as she told her story but she was determined to let us know about the environmental injustices her community faced. In spite of great opposition, Esther Calhoun, President of the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, continues to lead the fight in what seems like a never ending battle. No, she isn’t from Flint, Michigan, the town that has thrust Environmental Justice into the national spotlight. In fact, her community is far from it. Uniontown, Alabama is a small town in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt (an area known for its rich black topsoil) where nearly 48% of residents live below the poverty level and the population is 88% African American. The town is about a thirty minute drive from my hometown, historic Selma, Alabama on US Highway 80 West. It is also not far from Emelle, Alabama home of the nation’s largest hazardous waste landfill. It’s certainly not a battle that anyone wants but the dumping of coal ash on her community and sewage spray fields that now contaminate a local creek compelled her to act. She describes how the coal ash and smell of sewage are causing health issues in the community and ruining their way of life.

In 2008, the Tennessee Valley Authority had a coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee. The TVA agreed to pay the Alabama Department of Environmental Management $1.00 per ton to send coal ash to Uniontown, Alabama by rail. Coal ash typically contains metals such as mercury, lead, chromium and cadmium; however, the Environmental Protection Agency has not deemed it a hazardous waste. Such a designation which would have not allowed the Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown to accept the waste. Residents can see the coal ash from their door steps and Ms. Calhoun passionately talks about what it’s doing to their quality of life. Residents claim that it’s causing paint to peel off of their cars and dare not eat food from gardens that have now been contaminated with coal ash. It’s certainly not what people who live in rural Alabama would or should expect. Ms. Calhoun discussed the neuropathy that she now has and new illnesses such as cancer that are plaguing many residents in Uniontown.

Besides coal ash, sewage spray fields were installed, for $4.8 million, as a way to treat sewage. Residents who know the area well were against the idea and just as they suspected the sewage spray fields are not working. The soil in this part of the state is mostly clay therefore impermeable. This has caused the sewage to not percolate in the ground and instead it has created run off into a local creek with possible contamination of the local water supply. The dust from coal ash and now the smell of sewage permeates the air in Uniontown.

These issues are hard for Ms. Calhoun to discuss but I imagine they are even harder for her and her neighbors to live through. To add insult to injury, the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice are now being sued for $30 Million  by Arrowhead Landfill (the recipient of the coal ash) for libel and slander.

As we’ve witnessed time and time again environmental issues disproportionately impact minority communities. As we commemorate Earth Day, let’s remember to support communities like Uniontown, Alabama, who may not have the political clout or national media attention, but still deserve access to clean air and water. Earth Day is about people who dwell on earth too.

To stay up to date with Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice – join their Facebook page and you can donate via their website.

Chanceé Lundy Russell is the Co-Founder of Nspiregreen LLC an environmental consulting, urban planning and public engagement firm based in Washington, DC. The Selma, Alabama native received her BS in Environmental Science from Alabama A&M University and her MS in Civil Engineering from Florida State University. She is passionate about environmental justice issues and works to create healthy, livable communities for all.


More Than Bottled Water

The Contamination of Flint’s Water and the Environment Around You

Without a doubt, the Flint, Michigan water disaster is a catastrophic event that illustrates what happens when negligence, outdated infrastructure and lack of planning collide. Since the crisis came to light, people have rallied about the injustice, donated bottles of water and raised money to support the community. These things are commendable to keep the spotlight on a devastating situation; unfortunately, what’s happening in Flint isn’t shocking to many in the environmental community. Lest we forget that just two years ago there was a massive chemical spill in the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia that contaminated the water supply for over 300,000 people or the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill of 2010 which caused irreparable harm to the environment and poor communities across the gulf coast. These are the stories that make the news but poor and marginalized communities are bombarded daily with chronic polluting sources. According to a study published recently in Environmental Research Letters, industrial emitters subject poor communities to extreme amounts of pollution. Furthermore, the Environmental Health News article “Unequal exposures: People In poor, non-white neighborhoods breathe more hazardous particles” highlights air quality issues and associated health impacts that poor and minority communities are exposed to by industrial sources.

What is happening in Flint and other underserved communities across this country is exacerbated by compounding issues such as:

  • Industrial contamination –The majority of industrial polluters are located near poor and marginalized communities. From a historical perspective, this is where land was cheaper and communities lacked political and economic capital to fend off polluters. In many cases, these are/were major sources of employment. Many of these industrial sources release contaminated discharges into the air, land, and nearby water bodies. Even if an industrial source has closed, legacy contaminants persist in the environment.
  • Lack of investment in infrastructure– The Safe Drinking Water Act stopped the use of lead in pipes that carry drinking water in 1986 (30 years ago); however, pipes that have not been replaced since that time still have plumbing or plumbing components that contain lead. Lack of investment in upgrading these systems and not prioritizing them in the areas of greatest need is a real problem.  In nearly every one of his State of the Union addresses, President Obama appealed for more investments in infrastructure. Roads, rail, and bridges are desperately in need of repair; however, buried infrastructure such as pipes must also be a part of the conversation. In fact, the 2013 American Society of Civil Engineers Infrastructure Report Card rated America’s drinking water infrastructure with a grade D.
  • Inadequate sustainability planning– While many places are abuzz with “going green,” sustainability is more than changing light bulbs and turning off the water when you’re brushing your teeth. Sustainability includes properly planning for infrastructure improvement and/or replacement as well as reducing and cleaning up pollution. In the midst of the Flint crisis, many people have demanded the pipes be replaced immediately (rightfully so) but proper planning and design can mitigate what can be an engineering nightmare . For communities that are resource strapped, adequate planning is a luxury item so they remain stuck in the need phase until disaster strikes. 


  • Technology– The need for robust technology and access to information is intensified in the midst of a crisis but many poor communities lack the digital tools. In Flint, the data which would help pinpoint homes and pipes that were most at risk was contained on 45,000 index cards. Maps hadn’t been digitized. Having this information readily available electronically could dramatically increase response time. Less sophisticated communities need assistance to bridge the digital divide.
  • Political Will and Social Inclusion–  Public Safety, unemployment, and poverty often dominate the conversation in poor and marginalized communities; however, the capital improvement plan, emergency management and pollution prevention plans have to be just as important. Investments in infrastructure can help decrease unemployment and create a skilled workforce. It’s critically important to make sure underserved communities are prioritized when funds flow instead of only those with a high tax base. There has to be political will at every stage of government to ensure environmental justice regardless of socioeconomic status. Moreover, social inclusion is important to ensure equitable access to resources.

Back in Flint, water bottles, filters, and volunteers help residents but are only a Band-Aid on a 3rd degree burn. The damage goes much deeper and calls for both immediate action and long term investments in infrastructure. It also calls for funding to assist residents to make the needed pipe replacements in their homes. Water is the source of life for humans. Such a basic human need should be safely available regardless of socioeconomic status. Alas, environmental justice is just one piece in the systematic cycle of poverty and oppression that faces current and future generations of Americans in historically disenfranchised communities. However, environmental issues, though mostly unseen by the naked eye, directly impact public health and safety of residents. Investments in such infrastructure could mean jobs for residents and a lasting positive step for marginalized communities. Furthermore, government accountability, technology upgrades, investment of time and resources and genuine concern for humanity must be prioritized to protect this country’s most vulnerable populations.

Be Informed: Do you want to find out more about what’s happening in your neighborhood? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) annually publishes the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) which contains information on industrial chemical releases to air, land and water dating back to 1987. Although this information is self reported by the company, it’s a great tool to understand what’s happening in your community. Access the TRI database by clicking here.

Chanceé Lundy Russell is the Co-Founder of
Nspiregreen LLC an environmental consulting, urban planning and public engagement firm based in Washington, DC. The Selma, Alabama native received her BS in Environmental Science from Alabama A&M University and her MS in Civil Engineering from Florida State University. She is passionate about environmental justice issues and works to create healthy, livable communities for all.



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