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Environmental Justice: Community Restoration Efforts Along the Wolf River Urban Watershed

Published onDec 24, 2019
Environmental Justice: Community Restoration Efforts Along the Wolf River Urban Watershed

A research study on environmental justice and community restoration along the Wolf River Urban Watershed proposes a multi-stage process to: document the undue burdens borne by the environment, habitat, and neighborhood residents of this important urban ecosystem; research best practice solutions for environmental and community restoration; and identify policies and regulation to prevent repeating the unjust actions of the past.

Basic Position

Environmental injustice occurs when a disproportionate amount of negative effects are predominantly borne by a minority or low-income population, or effects borne by a minority and low-income population that are more severe than borne by others. 1 Negative environmental and economic effects are predominantly being borne by minority and low-income populations in North Memphis and Frayser along the urban section of the Wolf River. Long-term actions of federal, state and local officials, as well as private market forces, have placed disproportionately high and adverse effects on the health, safety and welfare of the remaining neighborhood residents in this area.

In an October, 2018 article in Neuroscience News, “Being Born in the Wrong Zip Code Can Shorten Your Life,” researchers report on why being born and raised in certain areas can have a dramatic impact on your life expectancy. The U.S. Mississippi River Delta Region is one such area and a growing incidence of chronic disease poses a threat to the lives, livelihoods, productivity, and economic vitality of its communities.2 Additionally, certain urbanized areas within Delta cities (like Memphis, TN) host some of the highest rates of poverty in the nation, and lead the country in many public health challenges such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension and other chronic diseases. Place, race and class shape how well and how long people live, but state and local governments have the opportunity to play a role in increasing life expectancy within their communities. As research shows, where local government spending is higher, life expectancy increases among those with lower incomes.3

These critical community issues have come to form the work of the University of Memphis Design Collaborative (UMDC) around the built environment’s effect on quality of life, with foci on improved mobility planning, community health and social justice. As a member of the AIA Design & Health Research Consortium, the UMDC’s Place & Health initiative provides a framework to examine how the built environment can influence community health and how neighborhoods can approach restorative action.

According to the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, average life expectancy in the U.S. is 78.6 years. Their National Center for Health Statistics data tool shows that life expectancy estimates vary greatly at the census tract level. Compared to the U.S. estimate, life expectancy in Tennessee is only 76.1 years, and in communities around the urban section of the Wolf River, it is only 71.5 years, or 7.1 years less than the national average and 4.6 years less than fellow Tennesseans.

The Wolf River originates from a spring in the north of the State of Mississippi and flows through West Tennessee and North Memphis on its way to the Mississippi River. It is a multi-faceted resource providing wildlife habitat, recreation, and historical and cultural connections throughout the Mid-South. Critical in protecting the region’s drinking water, the Wolf River serves as a source of recharge for the Memphis Sands Aquifer.4

The water quality of the urban section of the Wolf River is impaired by sedimentation and siltation from urban development practices. The three creeks flowing into this section of the Wolf have physical habitat alterations, dissolved oxygen, phosphorus, and alterations to littoral vegetative cover from concrete channelization. A “do not consume” fish advisory for this reach indicates the presence of chlordane and other contaminants in fish flesh, and further downstream areas such as North Memphis add mercury as a parameter of concern in the “do not consume” advisory.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) administers the Non-point Source Pollution Program, funded through Section 319 of the Clean Water Act. Today, non-point source pollution is the nation's largest source of water quality problems.5

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) administers the Non-point Source Pollution Program (NPS) in Tennessee on behalf of U.S. EPA. The TDA-NPS Program is non-regulatory, promoting voluntary, incentive-based solutions. It primarily funds watershed restoration projects with the goal of improving impaired water bodies and educational programs designed to raise public awareness of practical steps that can be taken to eliminate NPS pollution.

In 1985 the Wolf River Conservancy was formed as a non-profit local land trust in order to be able to protect lands along the Wolf River as a public natural resource. In 2013, the Conservancy took another step forward and adopted a comprehensive land conservation plan. This plan assesses the entire Wolf River watershed for its conservation values based upon ten scientifically accepted environmental characteristics.6 The plan also establishes conservation prioritization, which focuses resources on rural recreational sections of the Wolf River and ranks the environmental issues plaguing the western urban section of the river at the bottom of its priorities.

Historically most of the state’s resources have funded watershed plans for middle and east Tennessee. Communities have placed as higher priorities if their watersheds are a direct source of their drinking water. The City of Memphis has recently begun commissioning regular drainage area master plans, including 15 drainage plans in the last three years. However, a drainage area master plan for the urban area of the Wolf River has not been funded. This section of the Wolf River, like many sections of urban rivers and streams running through impoverished neighborhoods, has been targeted for industrial development, landfills, gravel pits and other uses that cause environmental contamination and economic hardship for its residents.

In the 1960’s, the area was identified by the Tennessee Department of Transportation as an ideal route for the Interstate 40 beltway. It was carved through the Wolf River floodplain, further fragmenting the marginalized neighborhoods of North Memphis. The presence of the interstate also incentivized multiple large manufacturing plants to open in the area, which attracted low-wage workers to the surrounding neighborhoods. A sequence of massive closings throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s left workers unemployed and isolated in these abandoned neighborhoods. The manufacturers left contaminated creeks and streams in this watershed, along with blocks of vacant facilities that soon became blighted brownfields.

Record flooding in 2011 devastated many of the neighborhoods along this urban section of the Wolf River. A federally-funded National Disaster Resilience Competition Grant led to a Mid-South Resiliency Plan, which in 2018 identified a wide range of recommendations, including floodplain management, infrastructure upgrades, building-scale strategies, land use planning, post-disaster opportunities, innovative governance models, and funding opportunities. The Plan’s Wolf River activity will re-establish wetlands and other flood storage to accommodate water flow, thereby protecting nearby and downstream homes. In conjunction with wetland restoration, this activity also provides for completion of the Wolf River Greenway connection, an 18-mile foundational trail of the regional Greenprint network, as well as repair and upgrades to two local parks and creation of a green street.7

Two recent landfill use applications are being debated by the Memphis & Shelby County Land Use Control Board. Currently there are no local or state regulations which strictly prohibit land uses that have potential to cause environmental damage, such as landfills in the Wolf River floodplain.

How can quantitative research alongside participatory research effect positive change for prioritizing public resources and regulations to support under-served and environmentally sensitive areas such as the Wolf River urban floodplain? This question is being addressed by our research study on environmental justice and community restoration along the Wolf River Urban Watershed.

The University of Memphis Design Collaborative (UMDC) is a joint venture between the Department of City & Regional Planning and Department of Architecture.

Andy Kitsinger
Interim Director and Co-Professor
University of Memphis Design Collaborative
University of Memphis

This event is supported by the National Science Foundation, Award #1929601. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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