EJ in Our Local Community

North Carolina is home to thriving, diverse communities. Some communities are also deeply impacted by structural inequities that lead to environmental injustice. Learn more about Environmental Justice in the Triangle and Beaufort below.

Environmental Justice in Our Local Community

Durham, NC – Redlining, Tree Plantings, and Green Space

Masters of Environmental Management (MEM) students in the Nicholas School have contributed to our understanding of redlining, tree plantings, and green space in Durham.

“Urban forests are the trees found within city limits along streets, in parks, and in backyards. This urban forest offers many ecosystem services that range from stormwater control to climate change mitigation. In the context of the City of Durham, this urban resource is being rapidly depleted due to the senescence of its mature oak canopy and threats from invasive tree pests. In order to combat this loss, the City was projected to need 1,600 new trees planted every year. The scope of this project sought to understand the present state of the urban forest by examining the current canopy through a historical lens. Historical planting efforts shed light on why and where trees are and are not located. Assessments of recent plantings, current canopy cover, and extent of invasive species in parks will offer insight for the management of the urban forest. The resulting analysis will guide the City of Durham to determine ideal planting sites for new trees to maximize environmental and social benefits with a recommendation for policy change in the existing planting procedure.”

Michael Asch, Gregory Cooper & Anne Liberti. (2016). Replanting Durham’s Urban Forest (Client: City of Durham). Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

Trees are a vital part of a city’s infrastructure. The urban forest provides many ecosystem services to residents including health benefits, air pollution removal, extreme heat reduction, stormwater mitigation, and even lower violent crime rates. Durham, North Carolina is 52% covered by trees, but its canopy is declining from urban development, and it is unevenly distributed due to a history of racial and socioeconomic inequity. Parts of the city that are more urbanized, non-white, and poor tend to have far less tree cover than more rural, white, affluent areas. This Masters Project sought to help TreesDurham and the City of Durham plan a sustainable tree canopy that meets the city’s goal of 55% cover by 2040. Expansion of Durham’s urban forest must address the concerns of the community, maximize ecosystem services, and consider possible changes to city development codes. We addressed these needs by (1) conducting a community survey to understand Durham residents’ attitudes towards city trees, (2) creating a tree-planting prioritization map based on ecosystem services, and (3) modeling the future of Durham’s urban forest under multiple development scenarios. We recommend that TreesDurham and the City of Durham (1) incorporate input from Durham residents, (2) target tree-planting to the areas that need tree ecosystem services the most, including heavily urbanized areas and roadside rights-of-way, and (3) greatly increase tree protection requirements in Durham’s development code. This will ensure that all residents of Durham enjoy access to the benefits of the urban forest.

Grace Hancock, Mingfei Xiong, and Alex Vanko. (2020). Planning a Sustainable Tree Canopy for Durham, North Carolina. Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

Recent work has also been done in a course taught in the Nicholas School by Miguel Rojas Sotelo to foreground local environmental justice issues. Check out this video – Redline, Green Space – that highlights the relationship between the racist practice of red-lining and modern-day green space by Eve Aldenson, Christina Boxberger, Annie Lee, Katherine Li. (2021).

Chapel Hill, NC

In The Lifeline of Chapel Hill: Saving Booker Creek, we follow the journey of a group of concerned yet determined neighbors turned activists who live near the Booker Creek watershed in Chapel Hill, NC, which is around 4098.5 acres large. After hearing that a plan to clear cut 50 acres of mature bottomland forest in order to build seven storage basins, concerned researchers, professors, and residents rallied together to form the Book Creek Alliance, a grassroots activism organization, committed to getting the original stormwater basin plan rejected. Members of the Alliance explain the worrying lack of ecological and climate change impact analysis of the WK Dickson Study and emphasized the weaknesses behind their arguments that deforestation would reduce stormwater flows.

After meetings presenting alternative solutions to the Chapel Hill Stormwater Advisor Board and multiple community meetings, the Town Council voted by consent to cancel the six stormwater basin projects and to create a Working Group including representatives from the neighborhood to form an alternative plan. The most immediate goal of the Alliance is to ensure thorough involvement in the Working Group and propose a green infrastructure task force to protect the neighborhood’s ecosystems. The main controversy of this documentary is determining what the better alternatives may be suitable in replacement of the seven originally proposed stormwater basins that may be cheaper than $22M and also preserve the neighborhood forests.

The film features people on both sides of the aisle as we interview an employee of the WK Dickson firm about their original plan as well as multiple individuals from the Alliance and Working Group. In an investigative style, we film our in-person interviewees among the trees and creek they are working so hard to protect. Our film takes a humanistic approach in understanding how this seemingly small construction project impacts hundreds of individuals’ lives, hundreds of acres of precious ecosystems, and the quality of life of entire communities.
From the more than 800 people who signed an online petition against the stormwater basins to the experts who shared their insight of green infrastructure strategies, the film explores the powers of grassroots activism on water management projects. We believe our film’s approach in focusing on the human effort encourages audience members to engage with environmental issues within their local communities and demonstrates that any individual can make a change.

Emily Zhao, SK Baudhin, Grace Jennings, Jacob Key. (2021) Saving Booker Creek. ENV315S Narrating Nature – taught by Miguel Rojas Sotelo.

Local Environmental Justice Resources