University of Washington Tacoma
Julie Palumbo and Tiawania Harris-Dalton
Date of Interview
This interviewee contends that environmental justice is about recognizing patterns of inequity connected to undesirable land use, as well as inequities that exist in how environmental goods and services are apportioned to urban communities. She states that communities of color and low income suffer the most from these patterns, and suggests that better regulatory policies and proactive management strategies are needed to correct this. She uses examples from her own research to emphasize the importance of clean waterways and healthy shorelines (“urban blue spaces”), stating that most of these areas are preserved for the benefit of white elites. The interviewee asserts that environmentalists must work harder to integrate human rights and social inequities into their efforts to better understand how wealth and privilege contribute to ecological decline. Her stance toward the topic of environmental justice is anthropocentric.
Wessells, Anne, "Anne Wessells Interview" (2013). Puget Sound Environmental Justice Interviews. 12.
Additional FilesWessells_Transcript.docx (25 kB)
Julie Palumbo/Tiawania Harris-Dalton: I’m Julie, and we’re here talking to Anne. She is a professor with the University of Washington, Urban Studies Program. We’re here talking to her today about a very important topic of environmental justice. So, we’ll just jump right into talking. So, to you Anne, what is environmental justice?
Anne Wessells: I think the way that most academics think about environmental justice, and I include myself in this, is actually more appropriately termed environmental injustice. Because, as the phrase, term, and the concept developed it was about recognizing patterns of inequity that developed the siting of what are known as locally undesirable land uses in urban space and urban planning. It really means environmental burdens. Things that are bad, things that cause harm, things that you don’t want to live near or be near, like (dumps, and waste sites, and industrial contamination) and those sorts of things. Although, for me as you probably know from my classes, I’ve invested a lot of my career in also thinking about environmental goods and benefits, and joining a number of scholars who suggest that those benefits also deserve an environmental justice frame.
JP/THD: Good. So then how does or doesn’t environmental justice work in your community and within the UW community?
AW: I really loved that question, because, it made me think about the fact that I am a member of a number of different communities. So, I first and foremost am a member of an academic community. As a social scientist I think environmental justice worked really effectively to bring forth patterns of structural inequity and structural racism that are associated with the siting of these burdens here, predominantly low income communities, which also are frequently communities of color. So, in the academic community the job and the work is really about surfacing the data and the empirics to try to make those patterns more explicit.
As a planning scholar and a policy scholar, one of the things I love about my field is it’s also a very professionally oriented field, so, I also consider myself part of the wider planning community and so urban planners, policy makers, and public managers, I think have become much more sensitive to and committed to environmental justice in the last 10-15 years and are responsible for upholding regulatory policy.
JP/THD: Right. So, in your opinion are you find that things are changing in your community?
AW: I think so. I think there’s been a lot of successful change on the part of urban planners, public managers from the viewpoint of the state. And that is I think a positive, good outcome when policies get changed and we are all collectively expected to uphold new policies. I would say the third community that I consider myself a part of is as an urban coastal elite, for lack of a better word, and I use that carefully. I’m not wealthy, but respective to the rest of the world I think I have come to recognize that I have enjoyed relative privilege in my life. I have never struggled to eat, that I have never struggled to have a roof over my head; I’ve had access to wonderful educational opportunities. So, in that community where I would say, where it’s well resourced kind of urban neighborhoods. I don’t know that the environmental justice frame has infiltrated as deeply as perhaps we might like, and so projects like this that you’re undertaking right now, are really wonderful. They help to bring forth a way of thinking about land use and where different things are sighted and who gets impacted by these outcomes of our kind of processes of allocation, that seem like there neutral from procedural standpoint but when we really look at the outcomes and the consequences of where things go, we realize, wow, there are some people who are baring the burden more than others, and some people have access to benefits more than others.
JP/THD: Yeah, I totally agree with that. So, what parts of environmental justice are important to you, personally?
AW: I think for me, the most important aspect of environmental justice and the area where I’m really committing a lot of my academic and scholarly energy is to elevating the idea of urban blue space. Which is something that I write about in my research that really has to do with urban waterways, shorelines, and waterfronts. We are familiar with the idea of urban open space, as something that has eared this kind of critical analysis from urban planners and geographers. Looking at green space in particular as an environmental benefit and saying who gets access to that benefit. I mean there are all these restorative properties of being in nature that calm stress, their public health benefits, there’s just tremendous empowering and psychological benefits to being in nature.
And, so what I have tried to do and am committed to trying to do, is to kind of elevate blue space to hold a similar space that we have for green space. To think about who has access to waterways, who gets to enjoy their views, who gets to be on the water, who gets to fully experience and feel the benefits and the joys, for lack of a better word, or something like the calming benefits of being close to water. Because, I think that’s not something that academics or planners are taking seriously enough. Right now.
JP/THD: How does concern for the environment fit with our environmental justice concerns?
AW: When I was think about this question, I was thinking about how one of the things I think environmental justice allows us to do, is to broaden the tent, so to speak, for environmentalism. In a good way, I think historically environmentalists have been considered more upper middle class, white tree huggers, who maybe have attachments to the environment that are existential or aesthetic or they want to just go off to Walden Pond and kind of be by themselves. And, I think rightfully so, it’s hard to mobilize a kind of thorough going commitment on a part of a society, to say, we all need to get behind that. There are appropriate kind of questions around wealth and privilege. So, environmental justice extends the environment frame to say, this is not just about plants and animals. It’s about people and this is about people’s health and it’s about their access to clean air, clean water, clean land. These are basic human rights. I think that in the sense that environmental justice gets at a wider range of social issues it’s been a very powerful frame to show the kind of human capital and social capital implications of the environmental movement.
JP/THD: Yeah, those are all important things. Also, in your opinion, how is environmental justice useful to you in addressing issues in your community? And how may others be able to help you in this fight for everyone having access to water, land, parks, and all those healthy things that we need.
AW: Well, as I said, I think the environmental justice frame makes this great move to kind of broaden the tent. I do think that one of the things that I see in my community, I think it’s been well embraced by the academic community, clearly, and that’s kind of the first stage. Starting with Robert Bullard, at this point decades ago. It’s made its way into civic governance and amongst civic leadership and the kind of public sector. I think moving into the general public discourse, there’s still a lot of progress to be made. In my view, it’s a really challenging problem. I think the reason, again in my view, I think the reason for this it’s a profoundly uncomfortable frame to be faced with the kind of empirical evidence that many of us, if not most of us, are part of some social systems that are destructive and inequitable. Because, most of us, I think experience ourselves intentional, we have good intentions. I think most people want to be responsible; or want to live with integrity. So, to be faced with an environmental justice analysis that is by its very nature indicting, it’s telling us look at these patterns of structural inequity that we are all participating in. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, for a lot of us. I think one of the ways we can most help ourselves, and our communities is to be patient with each other as we absorb and digest that. I think that’s one of the hardest things that I am aware of, is to be shown some system that you have been a part of and acculturated into that you’re participating in, that is really irresponsible. So how do we be respectful, that a lot of people don’t like to being accused, and they’re going to get defensive, and they’re going to get kind of self-justifying. To not let them off the hook, not let ourselves off the hook. But just recognizing that the last thing we need is to polarize into these ideological divides.
JP/THD: Well it sounds like what you’re trying to say is that we are all part of one world, and we are all in this together. I think that is very exciting, you have a lot of exciting ideas. I’m glad that you had the time to talk to us. I really appreciate that. Is there anything else about this topic that you would like to say . . . is there anything that we missed?
AW: I’m so glad you’re doing this. I really commend you for taking on such an important topic. I would just hit one more time this idea of our shorelines and they’re being a public trust. In the state of Washington it goes back to our common law tradition that our shorelines and our water are shared in common. I think a lot of people don’t really even realize that they have the right to waterways and to urban waterways. Understanding that urban blue space, as we become an increasingly urban society, as more and more people live in cities and as those cities are concentrated in coastal areas thinking about those waterway sights and urban blue space as a social good is really a crucial move if we are to be able to live with each other and share access to these key resources and benefits.
JP/THD: That would be absolutely exciting, to see that in the future. Thank you again Anne, for joining us. Thanks for interviewing with me. This is Anne Wessells of the University of Washington’s Urban Studies Program. Again thank you so much.
AW: Thank you.