Op Ed: Environmental Justice in Rochester Heights, North Carolina

Written by Bella Teza

Why is environmental racism still plaguing our society? After World War II, a housing boom stormed the country, and many cities, including the city of Raleigh, North Carolina, began to develop new housing communities. As predominately white neighborhoods began to develop north of the downtown center of Raleigh, predominately minority and low-income communities were being developed south of the city (Elia-Warnken, 2020). Increased segregation began to grow within the city, and predominately white neighborhoods prospered with easy access to downtown Raleigh and natural features, such as streams and parks.

On the other hand, predominately minority communities were not given these benefits, and housing contracts made it virtually impossible for residents to leave the community. The Rochester Heights neighborhood, consisting of mainly African American residents, was developed in the late 1950s and was placed directly on the floodplain of the Walnut Creek Watershed (Little, 2012). Since Hurricane Fran in 1996, residents have faced the negative impacts of this floodplain, as reoccurring damage to homes and community centers continues as a result of this community’s misplacement.

The rich history of this community and its placement begs the question of the interests and intentions of local officials, as well as environmental justice and equity.

As time has passed, many have begun to seek solutions to this problem that plagues the Rochester Heights community. In addition to flooding, NC State’s Dr. Louie Rivers explains that within most of these predominately African American communities in the Raleigh area lies PCB-laced soil (NCSU, 2021). This contaminated soil is the result an illegal toxic dump and puts an increased burden on these communities.

Rochester Heights, Raleigh NC (tclf.org)

As the problems that infect this community are considered, institutions, including North Carolina State University, are taking steps to aid this community in combating the environmental injustices that it has faced for many years. American Rivers initially funded a study to survey residents of the Rochester Heights neighborhood and discovered that flooding was the community’s top frustration (NSCU Staff, 2019).

In a response to this ongoing community outreach, the St. Ambrose Episcopal Church, an important center for the community, hosted one of the first green infrastructure projects (Klahre, 2019). The goal of this project was to both create a rain garden that slows runoff while flooding, and filter the pollutants brought in with the water.

In addition to projects hosted by the community itself, restoration of environmental justice in the community has obtained a strong backing by the city of Raleigh.

In the past, the wetlands that existed south to the Rochester Heights neighborhood were neglected and undeveloped; the city of Raleigh even used the land to dump sewage (Klahre, 2019). In the mid-1990s, a group known as Partners for Environmental Justice led an initiative that conducted the creation of the Walnut Creek Wetland Park. In 1998, the group was given a $16,000 grant by the Triangle Community Foundation to fund a cleanup of the wetlands, and lead initiatives to alleviate flooding in the Rochester Heights area (Klahre, 2019). The park was gifted a ten-million-dollar bond for its development, commissioned by the city as reparations for years of environmental degradation (McLeod, 2022).

The mission of this community center is to "make people aware of the importance of wetlands for clean water, habitat, and recreation while emphasizing the importance of human interaction with nature."

As the park flourished, initiatives within the neighborhood itself grew tremendously. Ross Andrews, the wetland center’s first director, began the Neighborhood Ecology Corps, a program used to help neighborhood middle schoolers engage with the environment. The program utilizes grants from the city to work on service projects, such as cleaning up streams and removing invasive species (Klahre, 2019).

The neighborhood is slowly being incorporated into the park itself, and to this day at least two community wide cleanups happen each year. As the creek is continually being restored, pollution in the area has decreased, and development upstream in recent years has offset the water that flows towards Rochester Heights.

The story of the Rochester Heights neighborhood and its restoration is a prime example of environmental injustices that occur each day throughout the country. Low-income and minority groups continuously fall victim to unequal housing developments. Throughout the country, neighborhoods such as these are placed near toxic waste facilities, factories, and fall victim to unhealthy amounts of pollutants. Why do developers and city planners continue to show blatant displays of environmental racism? The problem itself falls to the racial bias of the country and shows how wealth ultimately determines the health of the nation’s citizens.

What can citizens do to show their voice against environmental racism? People must first education themselves on the matter and investigate instances of injustices that occur within their own cities and communities. It is important to amplify the voices of victims and support local leaders of change. By holding government officials accountable and using the privilege of protesting these instances of environmental injustice, citizens can create real change within their communities.  

Although the restoration of the Rochester Heights community and its surrounding watershed is far from complete, it is important to acknowledge the progress that has occurred surrounding the environmental restoration of this community. The damage that was done to this community by city developers could have been completely avoided. However, environmental injustices and racism is slowly being repaid by the City of Raleigh.

Community members look forward to the future of Rochester Heights, and the development of the beauty of its environmental landscape.


Elia-Warnken, Todd. “Rochester Heights & Biltmore Hills.” ArcGIS StoryMaps, Esri, 29 Nov. 2020, https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/c239b23e4f414514b4f65ab6116d023f.

 Klahre, Ayn-Monique. “The Story behind the Walnut Creek Wetland Center.” WALTER Magazine, WALTER Magazine, 1 May 2019, https://waltermagazine.com/explore/walnut-creek-wetland-center/.

Little, Magaret Ruth. “Getting the American Dream for Themselves: Postwar Modern Subdivisions for African Americans in Raleigh, North Carolina.” Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum, vol. 19, no. 1, 2012, p. 73., https://doi.org/10.5749/buildland.19.1.0073. Accessed 20 Feb. 2022.

Maciag, Mike. “Building Homes in Flood Zones: Why Does This Bad Idea Keep Happening?” Governing, Governing, 21 Apr. 2021, https://www.governing.com/archive/gov-flood-zone-floodplain-development-homes-zoning.html.

Mazur, Laurie. “Commentary: The Danger of Development in Flood-Prone Areas …” U.S. News, U.S. News, 8 Oct. 2019, https://www.usnews.com/news/healthiest-communities/articles/2019-10-08/commentary-the-danger-of-development-in-flood-prone-areas.

McAllister, Cameron. “Rochester Heights Resident History.” ArcGIS StoryMaps, Esri, 30 Nov. 2020, https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/35663e5710514076a436e2fa58c3fa12.

McLeod, Cara. “Walnut Creek Wetland Park.” Raleighnc.gov, Raleigh, 4 Feb. 2022, https://raleighnc.gov/places/walnut-creek-wetland-park.

NCSU. “The Walnut Creek Wetland Community Partnership Was Formed by Citizens and Organizations Working in the Community Surrounding the Walnut Creek Wetlands.” Water Resources Research Institute of the UNC System, North Carolina State University, 27 Mar. 2021, https://wrri.ncsu.edu/partnerships/cewm/walnut-creek-wetland-community-project/walnut-creek-watershed-action-plan/.

Staff. “Equitable Resilience: Developing Solutions to Urban Flooding in Raleigh’s Walnut Creek Watershed.” College of Natural Resources News, North Carolina State University, 30 Sept. 2019, https://cnr.ncsu.edu/news/2019/09/equitable-resilience-developing-solutions-to-urban-flooding-in-raleighs-walnut-creek-watershed/.

About the Author

Bella Teza is a Greensboro, NC native and is currently a sophomore at NC State University. She is studying Sustainable Materials and Technology, and hopes to pursue a career in this field as well. Bella is passionate about environmental sustainability and creating a change for future communities and generations.