The Social Environment


The National Environmental Policy Act, also known as NEPA, is an environmental law that established the
decision-making process agencies must follow prior to the design and construction
of transportation projects that use Federal funding or require Federal approval. Following the right process or class of action
is vital to properly completing the NEPA process. The significance of your project’s impacts
on the human and natural environment, not the project’s size or cost, determines
the project’s appropriate class of action, whether you are going to do a categorical exclusion, (a “CE”), an environmental assessment, (an “EA”), or an environmental impact statement, (an “EIS”). The NEPA process also provides a coordinated
approach for evaluating the social, economic, and environmental impacts of your proposed project. This is often referred to as working under the NEPA umbrella. So, what is a “social environmental impact?” It is simply any change the community defines
as important and unique to its quality of life. That might include the displacement of homes or businesses, community cohesion, mobility, safety,
noise, or air quality impacts. When assessing social impacts, you must give particular
attention to any low-income or minority populations because transportation and other
types of infrastructure projects have historically tended to have more impacts on these groups. So, how should we address social environmental impacts while creating transportation solutions that communities will support? Let’s look at a community impact assessment, an approach
for developing a picture of your affected community, working with them to lessen the impacts of
your project and documenting your efforts. When developing a picture of your affected community,
start by defining the community’s boundaries. Use local knowledge and input from the
community to help define the study area. Next, gather demographic data and community
characteristicsabout the people within these boundaries. For example, what are their income level, age
distribution, ethnicity, and English proficiency? Do they rely on transit or public housing assistance? Where are the recreational areas, schools,
places of worship, and social services? This snapshot will help you identify the affected populations and give you insights to possible outreach methods so
you can open up a dialog with them about your project. As you perform your research, remember
that members of the affected community are your best source of information in
understanding your project’s potential impacts. As you learn more about community concerns, you should
evaluate alternatives that could lessen the social impacts. The inclusion of pedestrian trails,
street lighting, landscaping, and even the rehabilitation of housing units
are examples of possible mitigation to consider. We’ve just reviewed the key components
of a community impact assessment. Now, let’s see these steps in practice. In our example, a one-mile stretch of city street will be
widened to add a center turn lane to decrease congestion. The study area includes businesses and houses adjacent
to the street and the surrounding neighborhood. One of the potential displacements is a five-bedroom
assisted-living home for the elderly. The project team begins by reviewing census data.
The data show that residents in the area are older and have a lower average household income
compared with the rest of the city. The project team interviews the manager and
the residents of the assisted-living home. The team learns that residents of the group home routinely walk to the community center
for exercise and other daily activities. The team also learns that many caregivers
and family members live in the community and either walk or take the bus when
visiting family in the assisted-living home. The residents and their families express
concern about being separated from each other and the harm it would have on their caretaking relationships. In order to gather more information, the project
team hosts an open house at the community center. Many of the area seniors attend the meeting
and express concerns about the relocations. They also express concern over their inability
to safely cross the streets because of traffic. After hearing all the concerns, the
project team re-examines the study area for options that would avoid
relocating the assisted-living home. They explore shifting the road widening to impact a fast
food restaurant instead of the assisted-living home. After further studying the project area, the
project team determined that the restaurant could be relocated to a commercially
zoned vacant lot one block away. The project plans were also revised to install new sidewalks
and pedestrian crossing signals at all affected intersections. The revised plans are shared with area residents
and the project team receives positive feedback. Residents are pleased the project now includes new
sidewalks and will be safer for them to cross the street. Throughout the project, the project manager has
kept a record of the public involvement activities and actions taken to address the communities’ concerns. This information is included in the social
environment chapter of the NEPA document to support the decision to revise the project plans. As we’ve seen, all actions—including
public involvement efforts—are documented. This documentation shows that you
are conducting community outreach and that community input is being
considered in project decision making. For more information on social environmental impacts, consult the environmental toolkit on the
Federal Highway Administration, or FHWA, Web site. This valuable resource contains
orientation materials, case studies, information related to low-income and minority populations, and other helpful tips for evaluating social impacts
and conducting community impact assessments. Your State department of transportation and
FHWA division office can also provide guidance and help you develop approaches to evaluate
and address your project’s social impacts.

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