Environmental Injustices in Chicago

By Brenda Cabrera

To understand the complex social issues that exist in todays society, one can find plentiful insight found in history. In “How Chicago built its ‘Superhighway” by Tomasz, the author explores the history of why the many expressways that bridge the suburbs to Chicago were built where they are currently located. The takeaway being that the expressways were built with the interest of White middle class families so that they could have access to the city. Several White families left the city in what is known today as “white flight.” After World War II, Black families began moving out of the “black belt” of Chicago which was located on the South Side. Many Black families did not end up on the South Side by accident, during the Great Migration the city saw a great influx of Black people relocating to the city. Integration has long been an issue for the city of Chicago, history shows that “restrictive covenants” were created to prevent property owners from renting to Black individuals looking to build a new life. That alone pushed Black people to the “black belt,” an overcrowded area where they  were permitted to live but not provided quality housing.


Realtors used racism as a tool to make profit off of White and Black families during “white flight,” illegal practices such as “redlining” and “blockbusters” were used to encourage White people to move to the suburbs. The use of the automobile also made leaving the city accessible for people that could afford one.

Expressways soon became a need for the city, the issue being that the expressways were built directly through the city. Where the expressways were built was strategically planned to go through what was considered the “slums,” where Black families resided. The construction of the expressways displaced thousands of families with no additional housing built to support the community. These communities had to then accept the traffic going through their neighborhoods, along with the noise and poor air quality. In addition to all of the construction, there was little to no space for parks and recreations. Expressways destroyed communities of color by bringing health concerns and little to no access to other resources to the displaced families. As a result, the development of expressways was not only an environmental injustice but it also intentionally racially segregated the city of Chicago.

History of how the “superhighways” were built has had  lasting effects on the communities. Today, Chicago’s west and south neighborhoods are still under served with racial minorities being the primary residents. The issues of lack of affordable housing stems from a history of systemic racism as Tomasz further elaborates on in the article. Chicago HOPES for Kids actively serves many of the communities that have been burdened with displacement due to past actions of people in power, such as the Austin, Englewood, and South Shore neighborhoods. And though the city of Chicago is left with undoing the harm done to these neighborhoods, there is still work to be done. The south and west sides of Chicago are still plagued with environmental injustices, from lack of adequate, affordable housing to toxic air quality.

Though it may seem disillusioning to learn about these types of issues, the point is not to wallow in guilt over these injustices but to spark awareness and action in all residents of Chicago. An example of change is the coal plants that were located on the southwest side of the city. For years the residents in Little Village rallied to shut down a coal plant that was polluting the air and after their long standing efforts and several health reports made. The coal plant was finally closed in 2012. Hundreds of Latinos and surrounding Black communities air quality was severely impacted. Change is slow but informed, active, residents utilizing their own agency to speak out on issues can also have lasting effects.


Below are just some of the many organizations to get involved with in Chicago: