SB 1000: A New General Plan Element

 by Emily Foley, Planning Tech at M-Group

A major addition may be coming to the general plans of Californian cities. SB 1000 (Land Use: General Plans: Environmental Justice), currently working its way through the legislative process, would add new requirements for environmental justice policies, or possibly a standalone element, to the seven required elements of a general plan. With this legislation, all cities would need to identify their “disadvantaged communities” and develop strategies to mitigate and reduce environment-related health risks. Cities would have to incorporate SB 1000 into their general plan the next time they update two or more general plan elements on or after January 1, 2018. 

Environmental justice is a term coined during the Clinton Administration in 1994 as a part of Executive Order 12898. According to the EPA, environmental justice is defined as: 

"The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to ... environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Fair treatment means that no group of people ... should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or the execution of federal, state, local, and tribal programs and policies."

Additionally, California defines it as “The fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, and incomes with respect to … environmental laws, regulations and policies." When applied, environmental justice takes the impacts to all residents into consideration when developing policies or land uses that would affect the environment, and does not allow any population demographic to be ignored, or excluded. Research has shown areas with lower education, lower incomes, and a higher percentage of minority residents are more likely to have environmental threats and pollutants in their neighborhoods. Environmental justice laws seek to eliminate that bias. 

Generally, environmental justice seeks to improve the quality of living conditions for those in disadvantaged communities. California’s official definition of a disadvantaged community is very specific, and the areas have been quantitatively identified. Disadvantaged communities are “identified by the California Environmental Protection Agency … [or] a low-income area that is disproportionately affected by environmental pollution and other hazards that can lead to negative health effects, exposure, or environmental degradation”. A list of disadvantaged communities was officially created by the state government in 2014 as a part of SB 535 (California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006: Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, 2012). This bill required that a quarter of the proceeds from the cap-and-trade program, a strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, must be set aside for “disadvantaged communities”. The method to identify disadvantaged communities utilizes a program called CalEnviroScreen. The formula is based on 19 pollutant and socioeconomic indicators, which are analyzed by census tract. Indicators include a wide scope of data from drinking water contaminants and asthma rates to language isolation and educational attainment. The census tracts are ranked, and the highest (worst) scoring 25% of tracts are considered “disadvantaged”. 

CalEnviroScreen 2.0 map that details how and where regions are disadvantaged:

Because the ranking is by census tract, some cities do not have any disadvantaged communities. Unfortunately, cities that have the most disadvantaged communities are significantly less likely to have the municipal budget to cover the costs of incorporating environmental justice policies into their general plans and implementing the strategies. As cities that have resources or are spurred by necessity to update their general plans begin to lay out the environmental justice strategies and implementation programs, they will help set the policy framework to not only effect change in their communities but, to guide other California cities as well.

Cities in the Bay Area that contain disadvantaged communities include: Oakland, Richmond, San Francisco, Daly City, Hayward, East Palo Alto, Santa Clara, and San Jose:

SB 1000 has four basic requirements for cities, whether those requirements are combined into a single environmental justice element or distributed throughout other existing elements. They are 1) identifying disadvantaged communities, 2) incorporating policies to reduce the environmental health impacts that adversely affect residents in disadvantaged communities, 3) incorporating policies to include residents of disadvantaged communities in decision-making processes, and 4) incorporating policies that prioritize improvements and projects in disadvantaged communities. A number of California cities with disadvantaged communities have already adopted policies that fulfill one or more of the requirements.

Los Angeles, Richmond, San Pablo, and National City (San Diego County) have all adopted Health Elements that incorporate environmental justice policies. Some policies these health elements have in common include: access to physical activity and public facilities such as parks and bike infrastructure, access to healthcare and public services, access to healthy food, and protection from environmental health hazards such as pollution or lead paint. The City of Chula Vista has an Environmental Element that has five policies in an Environmental Justice Objective. The City of Oakland identified environmental justice as a priority in their Land Use and Transportation element back in 2004, though it has fewer policies that today would consider under the umbrella of environmental justice. 

The City of Santa Ana is in the process of updating their General Plan, which gives them the opportunity to incorporate environmental justice policies. In preparation, they have adopted a Strategic Plan which includes environmental justice policies regarding participation and community engagement during the General Plan Update process. The City of San Francisco has a Community Facilities Element which focuses on access to various services, including health care and child care for low-income neighborhoods. These cities will be able to adapt many of their existing policies to SB 1000, and other cities will be able to use these policies as examples for the needs of their own disadvantaged communities.

To date, SB 1000 has not yet been passed. On June 29, 2016 the Committee on Local Government voted to pass it and forwarded the bill to the Committee on Appropriations to review. It will be reviewed on August 3, 2016. After the committee votes, the next step will be for the Assembly to have its third reading and make a decision. As of May 27, 2016 SB 1000 had received support from a large number of environmental, health, and cultural non-profits and interest groups. There is a lesser number of parties in opposition, but it includes a number of cities. The bill has been amended between May 27th and the writing of this article, which has led the California Chapter of the American Planning Association to change their opinion from oppose to support. To stay up-to-date on the most recent status on the bill, check the legislature’s webpage for the bill.

A new requirement for environmental justice element is a potentially huge change to the way cities are planned. It has the potential to empower and protect a large number of people in California who have been impacted by environmental health hazards. The state will need to consider implementation and funding sources to assist the cities that need environmental justice reform the most. 

Emily Foley is a Planning Technician at M-Group and recent graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s City and Regional Planning undergraduate program. She is interested in SB 1000, understanding the legislative side of planning, and studying how State-level policy affects local planning. She looks forward to seeing whether the bill is passed in the coming months.


SB 1000 was approved by Governor Brown on September 24, 2016.