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What can environmental justice look like in the built environment?

13 November 2023

A guest thought leadership article by Bianca Laura Latini, Associate Sustainability Engineer and Global Lead of Social Impact, Buro Happold. 


The built environment is now well-versed in defining and tackling environmental sustainability challenges, but when it comes to social sustainability, and its intersection with its environmental counterpart, individuals, developers, and cities are still navigating what it means to them and how they can meaningfully bring it to the forefront of their strategies.  

Exploring environmental justice requires asking ourselves where we stand as humanity in the face of climate change and the multiplying threats of the 21st century, where we want to stand, and how we get there in an equitable and just way. On a macro scale, the fight for human rights and environmental rights are inseparable — as much as we try to separate ourselves, we are part of the global ecosystem. 

The term ‘environmental justice’ originates in the early 80s in response to a new social movement highlighting what hundreds of studies now show, that “in general, ethnic minorities, indigenous persons, people of colour, and low-income communities confront a higher burden of environmental exposure from air, water, and soil pollution from industrialisation, militarisation, and consumer practices.”(1)

In the context of the built environment, there are three pertinent questions for us to consider to explore this: 

  1. How is the material demand of our growing cities, and their supply chains, affecting the communities we extract them from, and how do we consider this in the way we design? 
  2. In the transition to meet national and city net zero commitments, how will retrofit costs, on-site renewables, and electricity prices affect those living under the fuel poverty line, and how do we mitigate this?
  3. How do we target the right communities and properly engage with those affected by our projects to ensure we improve the built environment for those who will be most affected by climate change?

How material demand affects communities

Let’s consider that it is often the case that the communities at the beginning of our supply chains rely on the ability for their environment to regenerate post-extraction for survival. “They know that when the land is mined and trees are cut, their water source dries up or they lose grazing and agricultural fields.” (2) 

We know that building materials are recycled only in part, and therefore, even an economy that would not grow, would need fresh supplies of raw materials. So while it can be said that reducing the embodied carbon of the buildings would be key here, it can argue that building less through refurb and adaptive reuse should be a greater priority, paired with the strive for a circular economy. 

How net zero implementation costs affect those under the fuel poverty line

A recent project for C40 Cities used a toolkit created by Buro Happold to understand the benefits of retrofit in cities, shedding light on why this is particularly challenging. When simulating the effect that decarbonisation would have on communities living in social housing, the consumption reduction, paired with the electrification of the site, resulted in decarbonisation ambitions being met, but only a small reduction in costs to the users. 

Electricity is coupled with gas energy prices, and is typically three times the price of the latter, making it difficult to sufficiently reduce costs to bring occupants out of fuel poverty. This can be mitigated by onsite renewables, with the added benefit of reducing the amount of new infrastructure (and raw materials, to support point 1) for the national grid, but these can be expensive for those already living under the fuel poverty line. 

Hence, it is imperative that policy prioritises fuel poor households, that electricity be decoupled from gas, and that private investors consider these added benefits for affordable housing. 

How to engage with communities most affected by climate change

Buro Happold’s approach on The Los Angeles County Climate Vulnerability Assessment examined the county’s physical and social vulnerabilities to climate hazards such as extreme heat, flooding, and wildfire. The analysis underscored the importance of equitable adaptation measures, as certain communities and populations are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change than others. 

Vulnerability, in this context, is not a measure of individual agency or weakness; it is an indicator of the structural factors, including historical injustices, that make an individual or population more susceptible to negative impacts. 

The County was able to leverage data and findings from the LA CVA to prioritise areas for future adaptation interventions including green infrastructure, cooling centres, bus shelters, and wildfire mitigation efforts. 

Another project that Buro Happold is working on, at a city level, is The EJNYC Report and Portal, New York City’s first comprehensive study of environmental justice issues. The study is exploring disparities faced by the city’s disadvantaged communities and evaluates current programmes and processes related to environmental decision-making. 

The portal will feature data for community organisations, residents, and other stakeholders to better understand how their neighbourhoods are impacted by environmental benefits and burdens. While still underway, this project lays the foundation for the future EJNYC plan that will include actions to address systemic and persistent environmental inequality. 

Advancing environmental justice at COP28

As COP28 approaches, Buro Happold will have its eyes on two of the key environmental justice items on the agenda, namely getting the loss and damage fund up and running and agreeing on a framework for the Paris Agreement’s global goal on adaptation (GGA). 

World Green Building Council will also be releasing a new social impact paper, ‘Creating Better Places for People: Placing people at the centre of the built environment’, to further these discussions and ensure the improvement of the built environment for those who need action the most. 



  1. Mohai, P., Pellow, D., & Roberts, J. T. “Environmental Justice.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources, vol. 34, 2009, pp. 405-430.
  2. Narain, Sunita. “How to Be or Not to Be the Year of Environment.” Business Standard, 10 Jan. 2011
  3. “Environmental Justice.” NYC Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice, 1 Nov. 2023,


Other reading

Alvarez, L., & Coolsaet, B. “Decolonizing Environmental Justice Studies: A Latin American Perspective.” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, vol. 1, no. 2, 2018, pp. 224-249.

Laudes x Dark Matter Labs. “A Just Transition to a Sustainable Future: Dark Matter Laboratories.” April 2023. [Online document]. 

Martinez-Alier, J. “The Environmentalism of the Poor: A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation.” Edward Elgar Publishing, 2014.

Schlosberg, David, and Collins, Lisette B. “From Environmental to Climate Justice: Climate Change and the Discourse of Environmental Justice.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, vol. 5, no. 3, 2014, pp. 359-374.