Academic journal article Ethnologies

Spatiality and Environmental Justice in Parkdale (Toronto)

Academic journal article Ethnologies

Spatiality and Environmental Justice in Parkdale (Toronto)

Article excerpt

Starting in the 1980s in the United States, environmental justice was established as a broad-based social movement and research paradigm to recognize the combined environmental and social justice concerns that are disproportionately experienced by marginalized people. The strength of the linkages between grassroots initiatives, research in the academy, and legal and policy reforms has helped to make the environmental justice perspective attractive to researchers and progressive activists outside the American context. In Canada, environmental problems and environmental injustices have always existed, even though, until recently, they have not been named.

As part of the project of beginning to name environmental injustices in Canada, in this article, I explore the significance of a critical analysis of social space to understand environmental justice problems in an urban Canadian community. Environmental injustices that impact on particular geographical locations have a readily apparent, fixed spatial aspect. However, I argue that a broader view to the politics of how space is produced and reproduced is necessary to explain the way in which the spatial manifestations of political economic transformations can create new and dynamic environmental injustices (Massey 1993).

In the first part of the article, I briefly outline some of the key components of the environmental justice perspective. Then, by drawing on critical work in the area of human geography, in particular Edward Soja's (1996) and Henri Lefebvre's (1991) work, I review the limitations of the dominant approach to spatiality in the American environmental justice literature. For most of the article, I examine my arguments in favour of a critical view to social space through a consideration of my field research findings in the Toronto community of Parkdale.

Environmental Justice Research and Spatiality

In the United States during the 1980s, residents of racialized and low income communities began speaking out and demanding compensation for the environmental problems in their communities that were adversely affecting their health. Infamous incidents, such as Love Canal in upper New York State, received national and international attention. Grouping together new types of local activism, the term "environmental justice" emerged as a nexus social movement for a wide range of other American movements including: the anti-toxic movement; a growing critique of the mainstream environmental movement; and the civil rights movement. "Environmental justice"(1) arose as the broad term for the desired objective to gain and maintain healthy environments in communities, workplaces, and homes by eliminating a multitude of obstacles to marginalized people by improving their quality of life (Pellow 2000: 583). In 1982, prominent civil rights activist, Benjamin Chavis Jr. coined the more narrowly defined term "environmental racism" to describe the systemic and institutional racism experienced by communities of colour. While debates over the significance of class marginalization relative to race marginalization dominated the early American environmental justice literature, the overall goal of eradicating social and environmental injustices is the same.

American environmental research played a role in helping to create a broad set of themes, methodologies, and objectives to unite the range of local initiatives and grassroots conceptual approaches to environmental justice. American environmental justice research began with two main streams of thought: first, an emphasis on providing and identifying evidence of environmental injustices, and second, an emphasis on explaining how communities and organizations address both discursive struggles and hegemonic struggles for collective action. The first stream of research uses empirical and, often, quantitative statistical analyses and geographical information systems (GIS) to provide systematic information about the spatial distributions of environmental hazards (Mohai and Bryant 1992; United Church of Christ 1987). …

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