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City puts environmental inequity under the lens

Monday, August 14, 2017 by Jessi Devenyns

Austin’s first chief equity officer has hit the ground running. Last year, Brion Oaks took the position as head of the new Equity Office, and he is now hard at work introducing an “equity lens” intended to focus city departments and commissions on serving all of Austin’s populations effectively and fairly.

In April, when the Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities made its report, it painted Austin as a tale of two cities. Even national publications told two disparate stories. In 2017, U.S. World and News recognized Austin as the best U.S. city in which to live. At the same time, it remained the most economically segregated city in the U.S.

In an effort to address these inequities, the Equity Office is visiting each city department and commission to provide information on their new equity lens initiative. Their latest visit took them to the Environmental Commission.

Carmen Llanes Pulido, a commissioner from the Hispanic/Latino Quality of Life Resource Advisory Commission, accompanied Oaks to offer her expertise on partisanship within the different Austin neighborhood environments. Llanes Pulido partnered with PODER (or the People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources), an east Austin social justice organization, for her presentation.

Llanes Pulido explained how inequities manifested themselves throughout East Austin communities by way of the environment. After a brief history lesson on the 1928 city master plan that historically relegated many black and Mexican-American families to the flood plains of Shoal and Waller Creek, she pointed out that those relocated communities are still seeing the ramifications of moving to flood-prone land. “The history of watersheds and community development go hand and hand,” she summarized. “All you have to do is look at the creeks and the creek systems east of I-35.”

Llanes Pulido expanded on this observation by demonstrating that not only are these racial minority communities affected by “displacement by flooding,” but due to the less-than-desirable location, much of the land directly adjacent to their residences was zoned for industrial development. The result is several long-standing contentions – like the East Austin Tank Farm and Holly Power Plant – between community members and industrialists and the city.

During the presentation, Commissioner Mary Ann Neely pointed out that the Equity Office seems to have a mono lens. “We’re talking about a race inequality tool here,” she said. “What about sexuality or women?”

Oaks explained that the Equity Office tool “leads with race” because it is the primary intersection for all the other inequities that communities experience.

To elaborate on the imbalances that race specifically can impose upon one’s living environment, Llanes Pulido used the East Austin Tank Farm as an example. This industrial site was located at the heart of a traditionally Hispanic East Austin neighborhood where six of the largest major oil companies operated petroleum storage tanks and distribution facilities for decades.

After two decades out of commission, this industrial site has “only been rehabilitated to commercial standards.” Although today’s story of the tank farm is a history lesson, this situation of neglected commercial sites being unfit to be rehabilitated to residential zoning is not uncommon. This is where, Llanes Pulido said, the communities need to pay attention.

“I’ve heard more than one engineer come in and just be in awe of the difference in protection and of impervious cover, especially based on development patterns.” According to her, this can lead to downstream flooding in already-vulnerable neighborhoods, which is why the Watershed Protection Department and the Environmental Commission need to pay attention to the zoning that exists around Austin waterways. “How do we know they’re not going to build more on the land they own?” she asked.

Commissioner Mary Ann Neely said that the consequences of industrialization can be egregious and related a story from her time working with former Travis County Commissioner Ron Davis on the tank farm. “It was determined that the water was polluted underneath (the tank farm),” she remembered. However, she said that they were able to look past the immediate problem and see the vision of the thinkEAST creative collective by addressing “what are barriers and what solutions work?” She said they did so by asking, “How do you engage communities?”

Oaks agreed, saying that engaging the communities from a neighborhood level is the crux of the Equity Office’s function. “The government has actually created the inequity,” he conceded. However, he offers a brighter view on past injustices. “The flip side of that is we also have the ability to create equity,” he told commissioners.

Commission Chair Marisa Perales noted that the Equity Office’s efforts are only possible due to the recent passage of the 10-1 City Council. “It was an effort by the communities who were most impacted,” she said. “That’s why we have what we have today.”

Perales followed up her thought by suggesting that the Environmental Commission encourage Council to use an equity lens when next reviewing Environmental Commission projects. She also asked that a formal request for entry into the Equity Office’s pilot program be listed as future agenda item.

All commissioners met the idea of viewing future projects through an equity lens with approval.

Photo by Matthew Rutledge made available through a Creative Commons license.

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