You might recall the old saying, “Good fences make good neighbors,” from studying the Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall” in school. First published in 1914, the iconic work …
You might recall the old saying, “Good fences make good neighbors,” from studying the Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall” in school. First published in 1914, the iconic work explores the notion of walls and fences as protective barriers and instruments of division, as a rueful narrator describes his annual encounter with a crusty neighbor who fends off his musings about whether the stone wall that divides their farm fields serves any useful purpose. “Before I built a wall,” the narrator says, “I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offense.” But his neighbor puts up a metaphorical wall against deeper meanings and can only repeat the old cliché, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Frost was considering fences that divide people—physically, politically, intellectually, spiritually. However, another kind of fence has entered our vocabulary, a fence that symbolizes not division but proximity, contained in the expression “fenceline community.” It’s a central concept of the environmental justice movement, describing a residential community immediately adjacent to a commercial or industrial site (or multiple sites) that produces noise, traffic, chemical emissions, toxic waste, light pollution and other environmental impacts that damage residents’ health and quality of life. Those effects also destroy property values, making it impossible for homeowners to relocate out of danger.
Historically, the residents of fenceline communities are disproportionately African-American, Latino and low-income, a fact confirmed by a strong body of research, starting with a 1983 study by the Government Accounting Office. The study found that three out of four hazardous waste landfills in the U.S. were located in communities of color with average incomes below the poverty line. In 1987, the United Church of Christ Committee on Racial Injustice found that 15 million Black Americans and 8 million Latinos lived in counties with at least one abandoned or uncontrolled toxic waste site. According to the 2018 research report Life at the Fenceline: Understanding Cumulative Health Hazards in Environmental Justice Communities, 39 percent or roughly 124 million Americans live within three miles of one of the nearly 12,500 high-risk chemical facilities in the U.S. Further, the vulnerability zones for these industrial and commercial sites—where homes, schools, nursing homes, medical facilities and workplaces are located—can extend up to 25 miles in radius.
In the years since the groundbreaking GAO Report, numerous grassroots community groups, regional networks and legal clinics have sprung up to help affected communities oppose harmful projects and to lobby for legal protections at the state and federal level. Today, the movement also recognizes the pioneering role played by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in awakening our awareness of the ways that racial equity, economic and political justice, safe housing and working conditions, and access to health care are all related and encompassed within the concept of civil rights. The watershed event in this process of realization is the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968. There, Dr. King’s leadership helped connect issues of racial discrimination and unequal pay with recognition of sanitation workers’ extremely hazardous working conditions associated with waste disposal, lack of protective gear and the broader harms to their families and communities. Today, Dr. King’s larger and more visionary conception of civil rights is credited as a catalyst for the environmental justice movement.
Environmental justice is now intertwined with climate justice as we recognize that, just as communities of color and low-income communities have historically been subjected to a higher level of toxic pollution and an indifferent record of environmental enforcement, their status as fenceline communities makes them more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Economic barriers make them less likely to benefit from equal investment and assistance as we transition to renewable energy and a fossil-free economy. The expansive concept of civil rights, as propounded by Dr. King, is central to effective climate action, embodied in the concepts of climate protections for all communities, and a just transition to new technologies that preserves workers’ rights and strives to ensure that investment benefits, as well as climate burdens, are shared equitably.