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Coastal Justice and the California Coastal Act: An Equity Mapping and Analysis Free the Beach!


Coastal justice improves beach access, health, jobs, climate, and effects of sea level rising for communities of color and low income communities

Robert García, Cesar De La Vega, and Erica Flores Baltodano

The people, the legislature, and the governor of California have spoken. Coastal justice provisions amended the California Coastal Act in 2016 under Assembly Bill (AB) 2616. This policy report provides a brief summary of recent developments, and presents the first equity mapping and demographic analyses of the California coastal zone. Here’s what coastal justice will require in the next one, four, to forty years and beyond.

The coastal justice amendments serve three purposes:

  1. The Coastal Act now explicitly incorporates equal justice requirements which promote equal access to the beach and coastal zone and prohibit discrimination based on race, color, national origin, and other factors. These equal justice protections apply independently of the Act, and always have under Government Code § 11135.
  2. The Coastal Act now incorporates the state statutory definition of environmental justice: the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, and incomes with respect to environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Government Code § 65040.12.
  3. The governor is now required to appoint a member to the Coastal Commission who is experienced in and dedicated to environmental justice. Every commissioner is required to comply with equal justice protections under § 11135.

In addition, a separate measure strengthens compliance with and enforcement of equal justice laws under § 11135.

The beach and coastal zone present compelling civil rights and environmental justice concerns. The Coastal Commission’s report on climate change and sea level rising provides a best practice example for analyzing disproportionate impacts on people of color and low income communities. These impacts involve:

  • Access to recreation, beaches, parks, picnic areas, and the ocean
  • Public health and well-being
  • Tribal lands, sacred sites, artifacts, and values
  • Economic well-being, jobs, deeply affordable housing, and green displacement
  • Public participation in decision making
  • Discrimination, including unintended consequences, based on income, wealth, race, ethnicity, or culture.

The mapping analysis and table below demonstrate that people of color and low income communities have the worst access to beaches and the coastal zone. They are disproportionately impacted by climate change and sea level rising. Map 1 on Coastal Justice shows people of color and low income communities have the worst access to beaches and the coastal zone. Map 2 breaks out the analysis for people of color, Map 3 analyzes poverty, and Map 4 analyzes median household income. The Table provides the data underlying the maps. People of color and low income people also disproportionately live in the most environmentally degraded communities with greater health vulnerabilities, more exposure to toxics and pollution, and less access to parks and recreation. These patterns reflect the continuing legacy and history of discriminatory land use, housing policies, park programs, and economic policies that benefited non-Hispanic white folks.

People of color and low income people are among the biggest supporters of environmental protections, including resource bonds for the beach and coastal zone. They vote, and they pay taxes. Yet they are often marginalized or absent from the discussion by mainstream environmental organizations, academics, and government agencies.They are entitled to their fair share of the benefits of the beach and coastal zone, and to protection against discriminatory impacts.

A recent poll and survey of registered voters and beach access concludes: “Our beaches are places open to all of us, where everyone can recreate. We need to make sure they are accessible to everyone.” We agree. Unfortunately, the poll and survey are flawed. Registered voters do not reflect the demographics of the state, as shown in Map 5. Registered voters are disproportionately wealthy and non-Hispanic white compared to the state population. In addition, the survey, which is limited to beach goers, does not consider people who do not go to the beach, and barriers to access for them. Voting and paying taxes are two signs of who is invested in this society. Unregistered voters pay taxes and are entitled to their fair share of publicly funded resources. Indeed, beaches and parks as public goods should be available to everyone regardless of ability to pay or voting record.


1. Implementing Coastal Justice Amendments

The Coastal Commission and staff needs to work with diverse allies to implement the coastal justice amendments to the Coastal Act, including equal justice under § 11135. Advocates are ready and willing to work with the Commission and staff for this purpose. The means for implementation include, for example, training for members and staff, FAQs, guidelines, and signage to inform the public of their rights and responsibilities, local coastal plans, permit applications, accepting offers to dedicate, keeping paths open to the beach, opening a path every quarter mile in Malibu and up and down the coast, crosswalks, sidewalks, traffic lights, and access programs like camping, transit, education and interpretation.

2. Equity Planning Framework

To ensure equity and progress, diverse allies support the following equity planning framework, a framework based in part on the National Park Service study of the Santa Monica Mountains and Rim of the Valley, which includes the coastal zone, and other studies.

  1. Describe what is planned, in terms that the public understands.

Here, for example, improve access to beaches and the coastal zone, and promote climate justice.

  1. Analyze benefits and burdens on all people, including people of color and low income communities.

This includes analyzing numerical disparities (in park access and health, for example), empirical studies and surveys, anecdotal evidence, demographic data, and GIS mapping. The data needs to be publicly available. Standards need to be defined to measure progress, allow for midcourse corrections, and hold officials accountable.

  1. Analyze alternatives to what is planned.
  2. Include people of color and low income people from the start and in each step of the process.
  3. Implement a plan to distribute benefits and burdens fairly, alleviate disparities, and avoid even unintended disparate impacts.

3. The Need for Standards and Data

The California experience with park and beach funding illustrates the need for careful planning based on standards and data. To promote equal access to parks and recreation, California voters passed Prop 84 in 2006, a bond measure authorizing $5.4 billion in public investments to improve parks, coastal protection, and natural resources. AB 31 prioritized $400 million of those funds for investments in communities that are park poor (less than three acres of parks per thousand residents), and income poor (less than 80% of the statewide median household income, about $49,000 in 2016). Fully 88% of those AB 31 funds were invested in communities that are disproportionately of color and low income. In contrast, 69% of the  $1.3 billion in local impact funds not invested under those AB 31 standards were invested in communities that are disproportionately white and wealthy. That’s backwards, and that’s unfair. Vague commitments to “coastal access,” “equity” or “environmental justice” alone can exacerbate rather than alleviate disparities. Only through the creation of constituencies of accountability can government actors and recipients of public funding be obligated to conform to standards adopted by the people. Data based on race, color, or national origin needs to be publicly available to comply with and enforce equal justice protections.

4. Beach and Coast Access through Transit to Trails and Education

Transit programs, such as Transit to Trails and President Barack Obama’s Every Kid in a Park, take people from underserved areas on fun, educational, and healthy trips to beaches, parks, mountains, rivers, and deserts. Virtually every agency that has considered it supports such programs to promote access and alleviate disparities. This includes the National Park Service, US Army Corps of Engineers, the California Parks Forward Commission, and the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), for example.

Transportation alone is not enough. Education and interpretive materials about diverse materials about people and places are needed to give people a sense of belonging in natural spaces and an inclination to be good stewards. The people belong in beaches and parks, and the beaches and parks belong to the people. Combining ethnic studies with conservation topics will help build access to and support for beach, coast, ocean, and climate protections. The United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez, for example, supported passage of the coastal initiative in 1972. Few people remember that today. According to a recent Stanford University study, ethnic studies programs increase school attendance, grade point averages across all subjects including math and science, and number of courses taken because people feel invested in their education when their education includes them. The same reasoning applies to coastal programs. In short, the goal of effective access programs should be: Go to the beach. Have fun. Be healthy. Learn about the people and place. Save the earth and its people and protect against climate change. Get a job as a life guard, ranger, or steward for environmental justice.

5. Resources to Free the Beach!

Transformational change is necessary to modernize the civil rights and environmental, climate, and health justice movement. The “Gang of 100” of social justice, health, and mainstream environmental leaders came together in 2016 to support coastal access, climate justice, good government, and diversity, leading to the coastal justice amendments to the Coastal Act. The most important thing to achieve justice now is to provide unrestricted, long-term support for groups pushing for racial and ethnic justice, complying with civil rights and environmental justice laws and principles, and diversifying mainstream organizations to implement these goals.

This is what it will take to carry on the struggle for coastal justice in the next one to four to forty years and beyond. In light of the changes in administrations in Washington, D.C. it is more important now than ever before for California – and the people – to bend the arc of history towards justice for all.

Download the complete Policy Report with the full set of maps, table, and citations: Robert García, Cesar De La Vega, and Erica Flores Baltodano,  Coastal Justice and the California Coastal Act: An Equity Mapping and Analysis (The City Project Policy Brief 2016).

Visit Free the Beach! online.

Robert García is Founding Director and Counsel of The City Project, and Cesar De La Vega is the Juanita Tate Social Justice Fellow. Erica Flores Baltodano is a civil rights advocate and partner at Baltodano + Baltodano LLP. She led the work to free the beach for ten years as Associate Director and Counsel with The City Project, and serves on the National Advisory Council. See generally Robert García and Erica Flores Baltodano, Free the Beach! Public Access, Equal Justice, and the California Coast, 2 Stanford Journal of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties 143 (2005),

Thank you to the organizers for the opportunity to present maps and analysis supporting this policy brief at the Symposium by the Law Schools of Stanford and UC Berkeley, Davis, and Los Angeles on California’s Coastal Act: The Next 40 Years, This work is made possible in part by the generous support of the Resources Legacy Fund and the John Randolph and Dora Haynes Foundation.