Despite being known for its tremendous resilience and a rich history of activism and culture, the South Central Los Angeles community also has a long history of environmental injustices. In the 1920s and ’30s, LA rivaled Akron, Ohio in rubber production and Detroit in auto production. Many of these massive industrial facilities were located in the heart of South Central, where lax land use planning allowed for noxious industries to be sited where land was cheap and available. Racialized planning practices like redlining and restrictive covenants left many communities of color with living in places like South Central as their only option. Inevitably, that meant living, working, and playing in close proximity to both stationary and mobile pollution sources.
Today, South Central’s land use map looks like a colorful patchwork quilt of different land use types. According to the Health Atlas for the City of Los Angeles, approximately 59,000 residents in the Southeast LA Community Plan — or 21 percent of the area — lived adjacent to noxious land uses in 2012, such as manufacturing facilities, auto body shops, and dry cleaners. Studies have shown that sensitive uses such as schools, homes, and community centers should not be within 500 feet of a high polluting source. Closer proximity has resulted in poor health outcomes including higher rates of asthma, heart disease, and low birth weight compared to more affluent neighborhoods.
While the goal of the 500 Feet Project is to promote community-driven land use planning in order to alleviate the burden of incompatible land uses in South Central, the long-term vision is to mobilize residents to realize a comprehensive vision of South Central as a Green Zone.
Community-Led Ground Truthing
Although residents understand the reality of living next to polluting facilities, these experiences are not always captured (or documented accurately) in government data. The 500 Feet Project relied on community leaders across South Central to gather on-the-ground data and elevate hidden conditions. Through an innovative approach called ground truthing — a community-based participatory research method that incorporates community knowledge into research design — residents walked their neighborhood to identify industries not captured by official data sources. This process also ensured that analysis of data was linked to policy outcomes. So far, community members have walked five different Census tracts and have discovered 158 unlisted uses and corrected approximately 50 percent of the uses that were already accounted for in the South and Southeast Community Plans.
Community-Driven Policy Development
In addition to verifying data in their neighborhoods, South Central residents and organizations directly participated in shaping policy interventions. In a six-month-long process that entailed community workshops and working group meetings, collaborators identified a suite of land use interventions alongside a broader policy framework that could feasibly tackle the challenge of incompatible lands uses. In addition to direct policy interventions, the community decided that these solutions had to be grounded in a broader framework of community resilience and transformation (see policy diagram). For example, if a parcel of industrial land was to be turned into a different use, they recommended prioritizing affordable housing and community-serving uses in order to counter gentrification forces.
Bringing Clean Up Green Up to South Central
Through a multiyear campaign, South Central organizations were able to successfully elevate the challenge of land use incompatibility in the community planning process. As a result, the Department of City Planning prioritized that shaping of a Clean Up Green Up program in Southeast LA as part of the community plan implementation process. In upcoming years, the 500 Feet Project aims to shape a robust program relying on the important work conducted so far by community leaders and organizations.
For years, South Central organizations have been engaged in shaping the South and Southeast Community Plans. In 2017, Physicians for Social Responsibility – Los Angeles (PSR–LA) convened Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (SCOPE), T.R.U.S.T. South LA, and Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) as part of the 500 Feet Collaborative to begin addressing the problem of incompatible land uses. In addition to addressing this core issue, the collaborative aims to promote community-driven land use planning solutions that shape a long-term vision of South Central as a Green Zone, with clean land, air, and water, and community-serving amenities.