The last eighteen months have highlighted many of society’s deep disparities. For many vulnerable and minority populations, these gaps are a lived reality that others are just being awakened to. The increasing occurrence of natural disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic and social injustices from Black Lives Matter to gender inequality from the me-too movement – many of us have reassessed what we value. That value is not simply an economic measure but can be considered more broadly to include health and wellbeing, access to housing and mobility, availability of social services and employment, safety and justice, and community cohesion.
Looking at the work we do in environmental science and permitting, how we can bring a more equitable mindset to our projects? How can we ensure that communities are not disproportionally impacted by disaster recovery or development and redevelopment? This is where viewing our work through the lens of environmental justice can drive socially sustainable project solutions. By creating space for the purposeful inclusion of diverse populations, we can develop solutions that are informed by the community’s vision.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) defines environmental justice 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 polices.”
But how is environmental justice codified into the regulatory framework? In the US, the Biden Administration recently issued two separate orders that directs the US federal government to meet previous commitments to advance environmental justice and modernise the regulatory process so that it promotes racial justice along with public health and safety, economic worth, social welfare, environmental stewardship, human dignity, equity, and the interests of future generations.
These are not the first executive orders in the US to consider environmental justice. The 1994 Executive Order to “Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations” made achieving environmental justice a mission for all federal agencies.
In Canada, Bill C-203 was proposed as a private members bill this year to focus on environmental racism. While the bill was not passed during the parliamentary session, it was acknowledged that environmental justice has a place in the legal and regulatory arena. The shift from an effects-centric approach to a more holistic evaluation of projects that incorporate social and economic considerations, as well as the rights of Indigenous Peoples is part of the Canadian regulatory process through the 2019 Canadian Impact Assessment Act.
As environmental practitioners, we need to unlock resilient solutions that tackle inequities and inequalities and meet the needs of current and future generations. This is where our holistic approach to community and Indigenous engagement is key. Engagement is critical to every phase of a project, from planning to design, development and execution. It is also key for all types of projects, from building new roadways, transitioning to renewable sources of energy, providing mining opportunities and addressing environmental impacts.
Holistic engagement is not a check-the-box exercise. It’s about hearing from everyone – especially those from historically marginalised groups – to understand their needs, interests, priorities and concerns. Holistic engagement also requires that we fully incorporate these learnings into our projects and use them to inform every phase of a project.
We work with our clients to understand the communities that could be impacted by a project encourage and facilitate meaningful dialogue, value the knowledge shared and co-create solutions that solve critical challenges. Through thoughtful and inclusive outreach activities that are specifically designed with and for communities, we can build a holistic understanding that informs planning and decision-making. As projects move to execution, social and economic commitments are championed and collaboratively planned, managed and monitored to hold the project accountable to the community.
If we want to build back better, we must ask ourselves: Are we hearing, learning from and considering the knowledge, experience and perspectives that people offer to enable a better, more inclusive tomorrow? At Wood, our values of care, commitment and courage enable us to think this way as we are committed to enabling a more sustainable, resilient and livable future, for all.