A People’s Glossary of Environmental Justice and Planning Terms

To celebrate the release of our recent Environmental and Housing Justice Platform (EHJP), CEJA has produced a community-friendly glossary of environmental justice and planning terms to provide additional context and explanation for the values, policies, and principles presented in the platform.

Active transportation

  • Definition: People-powered forms of transportation, such as walking, bicycling, etc. Active transportation relies on walkways and bikeways to connect neighborhoods and communities to people’s jobs, recreation areas, schools, and other places that meet people’s daily needs.  
  • Purpose: Active transportation systems are important because they help people get to where they need to go without personal vehicles, which improves air quality, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, increases access to resources, and promotes public health and more livable communities. 

Bioregional governance

  • Definition: A way of governing that promotes balance and harmony between human communities and natural ecosystems, where people engage in collaborative decision-making and mutual care for communities, habitats, and ecosystems. Bioregions are areas defined by natural boundaries, such as rivers and mountain ranges, and by the cultures of the communities in that region.
  • Purpose: Bioregional governance can create vibrant and healthy communities in many waysby supporting community-based solutions for disaster preparedness and climate resilience, lifting up sustainable indigenous practices, and reducing carbon emissions. Communities that are directly impacted by pollution and climate change oftentimes have the best understanding of how to solve these issues.

Biodiversity corridors

  • Definition: Biodiversity corridors are natural areas that allow animals to safely move from one natural area to another, and benefit endangered plants and animals. Underpasses for wildlife also help reduce vehicle collisions with humans (also known as a wildlife corridor, habitat corridor).
  • Purpose: These corridors allow animals to move safely without encountering dangers such as roads, buildings, or predators, and help improve their access to food and water. They also help spread seeds and pollen, which improves the diversity of plant life. Centuries ago, our landscape was covered by different vegetation types (swamps, grasslands, forests, etc.), but now humans have cleared and developed over much of this vegetation. Biodiversity corridors allow populations of animal species to survive and thrive over time.

Brownfields and brownfield redevelopment  

  • Definition: A brownfield is a former industrial or commercial site that contains toxics and environmental contamination, where the future ability to use the site for redevelopment depends on its ability to be properly remediated or cleaned up. 
  • Purpose: Brownfield redevelopment must ensure that sites go through high-quality processes for environmental analysis, clean-up, public notice, and public commenting and participation before any redevelopment occurs. Without these processes to support proper cleanup and accountability to the public, building housing or other land uses on top of toxic and contaminated land will lead to negative health impacts for the people who will live, work, or play on these sites for decades.

Buffer / Setback


  • A buffer creates a physical space between two different types of neighborhoods or zones in order to protect sensitive areas (e.g., where people live or go to school) from harmful land uses (which produce pollution and other hazards). Buffers can be created by putting a transition zone in between a sensitive neighborhood and a harmful one (such as by putting a commercial business zone in between a residential neighborhood and an industrial zone), or by putting landscaping and parks (also called green space, greenways, or open space) between two different zones.
  • A setback creates a minimum distance between a building or a structure and a sensitive land use in order to protect the sensitive use. For instance, a setback may be required between a house and a road or a river, or between an oil rig and a residential community.
  • Purpose: Buffers and setbacks are land use tools that can be used to protect sensitive communities from land uses or businesses that can harm people’s health and the environment.


  • Definition: When a certain type of land use is a “use by right,” that means that the development can receive a building permit if it complies with all of the local requirements. This type of land use goes through a ministerial approval process instead of a discretionary review process (in which a city/county analyzes a project and can decide whether or not to modify or deny a permit). In other words, a by-right use does not have to go through a public hearing for approval and is exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
  • Purpose: While it can make sense for certain land uses to be approved through this simple “by right” process, it may be inappropriate if certain land uses may create environmental harm or if incompatible land uses are being approved, fast-tracked, and concentrated in vulnerable communities. Zoning and land use planning has a discriminatory history of putting harmful and polluting land uses in or near low-income residents and communities of color. Since this ministerial or “by-right” approval process does not require public notice, public feedback to improve the project and minimize harm is diminished significantly. 

California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)

  • Definition: CEQA is one of California’s most important environmental laws that seeks to avoid, reduce, or prevent environmental damage while fostering robust public engagement. It ensures that certain developments  (“projects”) are analyzed to see if those projects may lead to negative impacts on the environment. CEQA is also used to notify the public about certain projects that are being proposed for their neighborhoods (such as mixed-use development or a warehouse facility) and provides a way to identify solutions that can reduce or minimize the various combined impacts (“cumulative impacts”) on the surrounding community. 
  • Purpose: CEQA is important for local communities because it notifies them about important development projects that are coming into their area and can provide them with an opportunity to give feedback on how a proposed project may affect them or their neighborhood. If a development might negatively impact people in the surrounding community, CEQA also provides opportunities for people to identify ways to reduce environmental impacts.

Capacity building 

    • Definition: Activities such as training, workshops, resources, and other strategies that can assist the public (especially under-served and under-represented community members), so that they are able to participate in a public decision-making process in a meaningful way. Capacity building is important for making decisions that can improve the health and wellbeing of communities in need. 
    • Purpose: It is important for government officials to engage in capacity-building with communities that have been and continue to be discouraged from participating in government decision-making, particularly low-income residents and Black Indigenous, and people of color. Policy decisions may negatively affect the environmental health of certain communities with particular vulnerabilities if capacity building is not done to ensure their meaningful involvement.

Climate resilience


  • Resilience is the capacity of a community to maintain 1) its core identity in the face of change, and 2) a state of dynamic balance in which change can be avoided or recovered from without producing a big shift to a new form. Resilience can create more community cohesion, inclusion, power, and participation and can lead to the creation of more holistic solutions.
  • Climate resilience is the ability of communities to withstand, recover, and learn from past disasters in order to create strong future response and recovery efforts. This process can include an ability to support people’s physical and mental health; promote social and economic equity and the well-being of the community; create integrated and coordinated planning, response, and recovery systems (by government and/or non-governmental organizations); and increase social connectedness for resource exchange, cohesion, response, and recovery.
  • Purpose: Communities that are more resilient are able to handle catastrophic events and keep themselves safe as our climate changes. However, people’s ability to remain resilient is often shaped by policies and discrimination.

Cumulative impact

  • Definition: “Cumulative” can be defined as “the total amount of something when it’s all added together.” Therefore, cumulative impact refers to the combination of different pollution exposures and effects, public health stressors, and socioeconomic vulnerabilities that are affecting a community. A cumulative impact assessment also addresses people that are more sensitive to pollution, such as young children and people with asthma, and socioeconomic factors, such as poverty, cost of living, and education.
  • By measuring the combined impacts affecting each census tract in our state, California’s CalEnviroScreen 3.0 mapping tool is said to measure cumulative impacts.
  • Purpose: When designing solutions to address a wide variety of environmental issues and related vulnerabilities, doing a cumulative impact analysis is important for making more equitable decisions. 

Environmental justice (EJ)

See also: AB 1628 (R. Rivas, 2019)

  • Definition: In general, environmental justice is “the basic right of people to live, work, go to school, play, and pray in a healthy and clean environment.” The State of California defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of people of all races, cultures, incomes, and national origins, with respect to the development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” 
  • AB 1628 (R. Rivas, 2019) changed the state definition of environmental justice so that it includes, but is not limited to, all of the following:
    • The availability of a healthy environment for all people.
    • The deterrence (prevention), reduction, and elimination of pollution burdens for populations and communities experiencing the adverse effects of that pollution, so that the effects of pollution are not disproportionately borne by those populations and communities. 
    • Governmental entities engage and provide technical assistance to populations and communities most impacted by pollution to promote their meaningful participation in all phases of the environmental and land use decision-making process.
    • At a minimum, the meaningful consideration of recommendations from populations and communities most impacted by pollution into environmental and land use decisions. 


  • Definition: A greenfield is an undeveloped area of land, usually agricultural areas within or outside a city. 
  • Purpose: Developers sometimes seek out these undeveloped areas to build housing because they are less congested than urban spaces, do not contain toxic materials, and contain space to potentially build more development in the future. Although developing on untouched greenfield land is cost-effective for developers, it is bad for the environment. It can lead to deforestation and the destruction of natural habitats and contributes to urban sprawl and increases in greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

Healthy food access

  • Definition: Access to safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice.
  • Purpose: Healthy food access is an important part of environmental justice. Living a healthy life means having access to nutritious, affordable food. However, for millions of people, the only accessible options are unhealthy foods. In low-income communities, convenience stores and fast-food restaurants may be abundant while grocery stores are scarce. An important part of health equity is building neighborhoods in a way where healthy food options are nearby and affordable for families.


  • Definition: Government agencies and decision-making bodies are required to hold a public hearing prior to making different types of planning decisions. At these hearings, officials will explain the proposed decision, consider it in relation to any laws, regulations, and environmental impacts, and will listen to testimonies from the public. At the end, a government decision-making body will vote to support, deny, or modify the proposal based on all of this information. 
  • Purpose: Hearings are public meetings that allow local community members and affected stakeholders to have a voice in decisions that will affect their health, wellbeing, and opportunities. It is important for community members, especially low-income residents and people of color who have historically lacked a voice in government decisions, to have their voices heard during these processes. 

Infill Development

  • Definition: Development of vacant or underutilized land, within areas that are already mostly developed. Ideally, infill development is not just a patchwork of development over different vacant lots. It should focus on creating thriving, equitable, and resilient neighborhoods. 
  • Purpose: When done well, infill development can revitalize and strengthen a neighborhood, providing opportunities for greater social connectivity and access to community resources, while also minimizing people’s impact on the environment. However, when vacant sites are developed without meaningful public input or equity in mind, infill projects can lead to social and economic injustice, gentrification and displacement, and environmental harm. 


  • Definition: Rematriation is a return to a spiritual way of life with respect for Mother Earth. Rematriation considers the ways in which we can center Indigenous knowledge in land use, research, and other areas. 
  • Purpose: Rematriation is a process of returning land, getting in touch with nature, and utilizing ancestral knowledge to care for the planet. 

Rent burdened household 

  • Definition: A household is rent-burdened if a renter pays more than 30 percent of their income on housing. A household is severely rent-burdened if it pays greater than 50 percent of its income on rent. Many people agree that at lower incomes, the 30 percent threshold is still too high (e.g., 30 percent of $20,000 is not the same as 30 percent of $200,000) given the increasingly high cost of living and differences in household needs. As a result, rent-burdened households often face difficulties when it comes to affording other basic necessities such as food, clothes, transportation, and healthcare, and are at greater risk of displacement and homelessness. 
  • Purpose: Regardless of how we choose to measure rent burden, rent affordability directly impacts individuals and families’ ability to stay housed and access basic living needs including health care, groceries, and transportation. Additionally, someone paying a large portion of their paycheck toward rent likely endures negative health impacts as they struggle to make ends meet, in addition to other stressors that low-income, BIPOC, and other vulnerable renters often experience. 

Sensitive land use

  • Definition: Sensitive land use is any land use that’s particularly vulnerable to pollution, toxins, and emissions from infrastructure and industrial development. This includes housing/residential development, hospitals, hotels, schools, nursing homes, child care facilities, shopping centers, playgrounds, and some public buildings.
  • Purpose: Any land that is classified as “environmentally sensitive” is an area that’s considered in need of special planning and consideration when it comes to land development regulations. In these places, zoning laws have to take into account the increased harm caused by pollution and plan accordingly. For example, warehouses should not be placed right next to elementary schools due to the high volume of freight trucks that go to and from the facility every hour of every day. When harmful land uses are sited next to sensitive land uses, environmental justices often occur. 

Shared Mobility 

  • Definition: Shared mobility refers to methods of transportation that are shared among multiple users, either at the same time or one after the other. This includes public transit like buses and trains, micro-transit, bike sharing, car sharing, and carpooling. 
  • Purpose: By enhancing shared mobility options (including improving public transportation infrastructure and increasing access to shared micro-mobility devices), communities can use environmentally friendly options for traveling from one place to another on a daily basis. These options can help low-income communities save on transportation costs as well as improve air quality in pollution-burdened environmental justice communities.

Social Housing

  • Definition: A housing model that prioritizes permanent affordability, social equality, and democratic resident control. Social housing is created in the public interest,is not subject to market pressures, and is permanently decommodified through public, cooperative, or non-profit ownership. To achieve social equality, social housing reduces segregation by race and income and provides housing for people across income levels. Additionally, residents have rights to organize, manage, and participate in the governance of their building.
  • Purpose: The social housing model is important because it aims to achieve social equity by redefining housing as a public good and human right. Currently, vulnerable renters face increased risks of displacement and homelessness as a result of increased rent prices, harassment, and legal and illegal forms of eviction due to the for-profit nature of housing. The social housing model takes this concept and turns it around, eliminating the financialization of housing by moving the ownership and control of housing out of the hands of investors and into the democratic control of residents. This shift ensures that all residents, regardless of income or other characteristics, can secure quality affordable housing and meaningfully participate in building governance. 

Upzoning (and downzoning) 

  • Definition: Upzoning is the rezoning (or reclassification) of land to allow for a higher density of use (for example, to change an industrial or a commercial area to a residential area), which also tends to increase the value or price of the land. Downzoning is the reverse, in which land is rezoned to reduce density, thus decreasing its economic value. When upzoning happens, the zoning codes usually change so that buildings can be taller and/or denser to support the creation of more housing units. 
  • Purpose: In recent years, developers and policymakers have viewed upzoning as a strategy to build more housing in order to address California’s housing crisis. However, decisions to upzone an area must be done carefully to prevent unintended negative consequences from occurring, especially for low-income and BIPOC residents, that can harm the environment or affect people’s health and their ability to remain housed.

Urban sprawl

  • Definition: Urban sprawl happens when housing, commercial development, and/or roadways are developed beyond city limits and in greenfields or in low-density communities. Such development patterns have little concern for planning or protecting the environment and make cars an absolute necessity for going from one place to another.
  • Purpose: Urban sprawl has serious implications for human health and the health of our environment. With proper city and regional planning, cities can grow in less environmentally harmful ways by critically considering the denseness of neighborhoods and access to public transportation and other social needs. When we develop urban spaces in a sustainable way, the result is cleaner air and water, protection of nature, lower infrastructure costs, and increased quality of life.