Environmental Justice in Little Village: A Case for Reforming Chicago’s Zoning Law

Isaacs, Charles | April 30, 2020

Chicago’s Little Village community bears the heavy burden of environmental injustice and racism. The residents are mostly immigrants and people of color who live with low levels of income, limited access to healthcare, and disproportionate levels of dangerous air pollution. Before its retirement, Little Village’s Crawford coal-burning power plant was the lead source of air pollution, contributing to 41 deaths, 550 emergency room visits, and 2,800 asthma attacks per year. After the plant’s retirement, community members wanted a say on the future use of the lot, only to be closed out when a corporation, Hilco Redevelopment Partners, bought the lot to build a warehouse that would house hundreds of diesel trucks. At every stage in the process, Hilco enjoyed the advantage of a shockingly antiquated zoning code that has systematically transformed Little Village into a hotbed of environmental hardship and to this day provides miniscule room for impacted residents to vocalize their concerns. This Note argues that Chicago’s zoning code must be amended to deliver environmental justice to communities like Little Village. Following the leadership of other cities across the United States, the City of Chicago should reform the zoning system with new requirements for community engagement, environmental justice analysis, and transparency. If Chicago does not counteract the discriminatory effects of an unjust, undemocratic zoning code, then the people with the narrowest means for seeking political, economic, and medical relief will continue to suffer from lopsided levels of environmental degradation.