Ryan Mello Interview


Ryan Mello

Interviewee Affiliation

Tacoma City Council Member


Racheal Balles and Joe McCord

Date of Interview


Document Type



The interviewee addresses environmental justice through an anthropocentric lens, stating that inequities in transportation and air quality contribute to several injustices for disadvantaged communities. He believes that having adequate green spaces compels community members to walk more and drive less, thus lessening our overall dependence on single occupancy vehicles (SOV). Moreover, having such green spaces encourages greater contact between community members, heightened community awareness, improved neighborhood safety, and an overall increase in social capital. His approach to environmental justice is anthropocentric, as his concepts tend to valuate nature for human utility.


Racheal Balles/Joe McCord: Please state your name and organization or affiliation.

Ryan Mello: My name is Ryan Mello and I serve on the Tacoma City Council here in the city of Tacoma

RB/JM: And what is Environmental Justice?

RM: For me environmental justice is about having environmental health and environmental sustainability for all members of our community and not just some. So, across America we find a lot of times lower income communities of color often relegated to unsafe, unhealthy kinds of neighborhoods. There are lots of examples of what we need to work for environmental justice for Tacoma for example, but the term environmental justice for me is making sure all communities including low income communities and communities of color are afforded the same levels of access to public transportation and transportation options are afforded livable and walk-able communities, are afforded clean air clean water and clean land to live on. So that’s what it means for me to have environmental justice.

RB/JM: Okay and how does, or doesn’t environmental justice work in your community?

RM: So in Tacoma – and I think a lot of communities in Puget Sound – have similar environmental justice concerns where often, lower income communities and communities of color are often times living closer to freeways and roadways which will then have significantly lower air quality, both indoor and outdoor air quality. Also, major environmental justice concern is access to public transportation. So lower income communities who don’t have access to not only affordable housing but no access to convenient and consistent public transportation is a huge concern because most folks, at least in Washington State, spend about 22% of their income on owning, managing , and operating single occupancy vehicles. 22%, that’s a lot of money. 22% of middle income or upper income person is not a big deal. 22% of someone living, you know 50% or 80% of area median income, 22% is a big deal. That’s big chunk of their income. So, if they’re not being well served by public transportation options and that’s an environmental justice concern, because that means then they have not only are they relegated to a less walk-able, less livable community, but they’re spending a disproportionate share of their income on getting to work/getting to school. That’s money they don’t have to put food on the table. That’s money they don’t have to send their kid to college. That’s money they don’t have for their family’s healthcare, or to make their home more livable. So, air quality is a significant environmental justice concern in Tacoma and Puget Sound. Access to public transportation and another very significant environmental justice concern is access to open space to recreate and access to a livable and walk-able neighborhood. We find a disproportionate share of truly walk-able neighborhoods to grocery stores, to work, to school, and to neighborhood conveniences disproportionate to wealthier neighborhoods than in lower income neighborhoods, and that’s a social justice and environmental justice concern.

RB/JM: What do you think needs to change?

RM: I think we need to make sure that when we’re looking at environmental health, that not just rich white folks, or middle class white folks are being listened to, and that we are paying attention in solving environmental health problems for all communities – not just some communities. We need to fight like heck and have the same kinds of standards for the quality of our neighborhoods in all of our neighborhoods, and not just some of our neighborhoods. Not just the ones that show up at city hall because they have their wherewithal, the political capital, or they know how to navigate the system. We need to make sure that all of our neighborhoods are built in such a way where they are truly walk-able. You could walk to the grocery store. Walk to the dry cleaners. Your kids can safely walk to school. You can walk to the neighborhood park. You can get on public transportation and go to work or school if that’s what you choose to do. So, we need to have the same level of standard, livability and conveniences, in every neighborhood and not just the neighborhoods that can afford them.

RB/JM: And what parts of environmental justice important to you and why or why not?

RM: The issues that I talked about already are the ones that are most interesting to me. They are the ones that I work on. One of my responsibilities on city council is serving on the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency Board of Directors. So the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency is made up of elected officials throughout the four county regions: Pierce, Kitsap, King, and Snohomish Counties. We’re the governing body of the Clean Air Agency, and so looking at clean air from an environmental justice perspective. Again, where are daycares and schools sited next to roadways and freeways? Often times they are in lower income neighborhoods that have these schools sited there next to roadways and freeways. We know from data the indoor and outdoor air qualities are significantly lower than a school a mile or more away from the highway or freeway. So we have got to be really cognizant as local elected officials who zone and plan our communities for a living that we’re being thoughtful of about where we are placing these public institutions, like schools, especially where younger people are, whose lungs are developing. So clean air is a really significant concern and issue that I continue to work on, especially with all the air quality issues that we are dealing with in South Puget Sound where we are situated. We have significantly lower – because of our geography and temperature and many reasons out of our control – air quality. Also for reasons within our control, we have significantly lower air quality. A lot of people use wood stoves to heat their homes and burning wood creates carcinogens and other air quality concerns that are very significant to people’s health when they breathe that in. So it might keep them warm for a couple of hours, but it’s doing long term damage to their health which is not a tradeoff that people should be forced to make. Can I stay warm for the night and keep indoors, or is my kid going to get asthma . . . someone should not have to be making that decision . . . that’s fundamentally unfair, I think.

RB/JM: So how does concern for the environment fit with other environmental justice concerns with sustainability health and nature?

RM: It all fits really well, and really nicely. If we’re able to build our communities to situate where people feel safe walking, and there is a place to walk to. Like the park, or like the grocery store, or the little restaurant, or the local bar, or the local whatever. It will mean more people are walking instead of driving everywhere. It lowers obesity rates. It increases health because more people are walking to run their daily life. So it’s a proven fact that it increases people’s health and well-being. It lowers people’s obesity levels. It has people interacting more with their neighbors “bumping” – the term in social science is “bumping.” People are bumping into each other more often and getting to know the people they interact with on a daily basis. So, it really helps contribute to the safety of a neighborhood and the convenience of a neighborhood and the economic prosperity is lifted when people are less reliant on single occupancy vehicles to get around. It’s so much cheaper to use public transportation. So not only is it more convenient, but it’s significantly cheaper, so people can keep more money in their pocket and it contributes not only to their economic well-being, but their own health and well-being.

RB/JM: Okay, in your opinion how is environmental justice useful to you in addressing the issues in your community, and how might others be able to help?

RM: Environmental justice is important because it helps us talk about all these things we we’re talking about today. About how we plan our communities, about how we build our communities. What heat sources we use. How we advocate for public transportation being convenient and accessible for everybody. So, it’s a great platform to talk about all these other things we care about, and it means lifting all communities up and not just some communities, and allowing more people to care about clean air and more people to care whether or not our neighborhoods are walk-able or not. So I think that there’s a lot for people to do. I think that we need to put a spotlight on the inequities that we see, and so through data can demonstrate that certain communities have lower air quality, certain communities aren’t walk-able, and what does that mean? Certain communities are relegated to not having access to public transportation. What does that mean for disposable income and other impacts in our daily lives, or monthly home budgets? We can quantify all of this stuff. We can tell the powerful stories qualitatively. About how all these things, in fact, affect people’s health and well-being and quality of life, but we can also very much quantifiably explain how this impacts folks. We need people to come and tell their story to local elected officials at city hall, either at a public hearing, or one-on-one, to educate local policy makers about how all these decisions we make at the local state and regional level impact people’s lives. We’ve got to be willing to tell their story.

RB/JM: And is there anything else on this topic that you would like to say?

RM: I just think that environmental justice is a really important topic to keep talking about, and I think it takes those of us who are more privileged to fight for those who everyone to again put a lamp on environmental justice concerns. Oftentimes folks who are disproportionately impacted don’t have time to come to city hall and talk about the impacts on their life. So once we cut someone’s bus service from them, how are you going to expect them to, when their only mode of transportation is bus and their not within walking distance of city hall, or whoever the decision makers are, it’s no wonder they’re not come banging on the podium saying figure out a way to get me more bus service because they can’t get to the meeting that they need to tell you how much they need the bus service. So, it’s pretty unbelievable. So, I think it takes folks who are more privileged and have privilege in their life to educate themselves and be open and honest about the situation to many of our communities. So, we got to be really aware of environmental justice concerns, and it’s important and incumbent upon all of us to fight and rectify all of those environmental justice concerns so we can all lift everybody up.

RB/JM: Well thank you so much for your time.

RM: Thank you.

This document is currently not available here.

Additional Files

Balles_Transcript[1].docx (25 kB)