The generation of Americans born at the beginning of the 21st century can expect to live, on average, 30 years longer than those born at the beginning of the 20th century. And at least 25 of those years are attributable, not to antibiotics, vaccines, and other medical advances, but to improvements in our physical and social environments, such as food and water sanitation, workplace and traffic safety, restrictions on the use of tobacco products, and housing conditions.
Geographic distribution of poverty rates in Bay Area counties.
In fact, the odds of being healthy can depend very much on the community in which you live. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, people who live in West Oakland can expect to live on average 10 years less than those who live in the Berkeley Hills. Similarly, people in Bayview/Hunters Point can expect to live on average 14 years less than their counterparts on Russian Hill, and residents of Bay Point can expect to live on average 11 years less than people in Orinda.
Life expectancy in the Bay Area—and around the nation—conforms to a pattern called the “social gradient.” The more income and wealth people have, the more likely they are to live longer. This pattern can be seen in the graph “Bay Area Life Expectancy by Race/Ethnicity: Data from 1999-2001” (on page 85), which correlates life expectancy to the extent of poverty in specific areas (census tracts). People who live in places where there is the least poverty can expect to live, on average, 10 years longer than people in places with the most poverty.
There is an environmental and health crisis brewing in the inner city and working class barrios of the San Francisco Bay Area. Their residents—primarily working class communities of color and immigrants—are dealing with the health impacts of heavy local and regional traffic that has been disproportionately channeled through their neighborhoods. Thanks to the transportation planning decisions made over the last generation, families looking for housing are often faced with the “choice” of an affordable but unhealthy community vs. a healthy but unaffordable neighborhood.
A Community Overwhelmed by Traffic
Southeastern San Francisco’s Excelsior District is a vibrant, working class community, home to many families of color and immigrants. It is also a community cradled by Highway 280 and the large, busy thoroughfares of Alemany Boulevard, Mission Street, and San Jose Avenue. So, there is a constant flow of traffic—particularly fast-moving trucks and buses on residential streets.
Concerned about the health impacts of the inordinately heavy traffic with its concomitant air pollution, noise, and safety hazards on the largely immigrant and working class communities of the area, PODER (People Organizing to Demand Environmental & Economic Rights), along with researchers from the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) and the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health (UCB), developed a community-based Health Impact Assessment (HIA).
PODER, community residents, and allies conducted door-to-door surveys in Spanish, English, and Chinese; counted traffic on street corners; took pictures of the neighborhood; and interviewed local residents to gather first-hand experiences and document the voices and ideas of the community within the HIA. The participatory approach brought together people of all ages and immigrant backgrounds to share their knowledge and experiences.
On March 20, 2008, hundreds of people filled the hall at Bannings Landing in the Los Angeles port community of Wilmington to witness the Los Angeles Harbor Commission adopt a Clean Trucks Program to reduce air pollution at the Port of Los Angeles. The program’s goals were straight-forward: replace and retrofit approximately 16,000 trucks in order to meet the 2007 federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emissions standards by 2012.
Once implemented, the Clean Trucks Program—which faces stiff opposition and pending lawsuits from industry—would require trucking companies which service the Port to hire truck drivers as employees rather than relying on independent truckers. With this model of doing business, the city hopes to reduce truck emissions, create a stable workforce, and set up mechanisms for community and government accountability.
Low-income communities of color have long struggled with racist, discriminatory land use practices that diminish health, safety, and quality of life. It is not uncommon to see residential areas opened up for industrial development, houses located next to freeways and toxic polluters, and new freeway development and truck routes targeted at these communities.
The question is: Do these communities have the
power to change these zoning practices and revitalize their
neighborhoods? How can they leverage their needs against developers and
decision-makers seeking to gentrify their communities?
Empowering the Poor
The Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) has worked for nearly 30 years to empower poor communities to become meaningful participants in their neighborhood’s policy decisions and development processes to:
* ensure healthy neighborhoods
* maintain and create affordable housing
* preserve community character and culture
* promote sustainable communities.
In the late 1990s, the community garden movement was thriving in New York City. In hundreds of locations, community members had cultivated gardens of all kinds on city owned land. The gardens presented a cornucopia of vegetation—with flowers, vegetables, and fruits. Some gardens were only a sliver of land wedged between buildings, while others were contemplative or artistic, but all were social centers where life literally bloomed.
The Giuliani administration decided to sell off the 114 city-owned lots for development despite the protests of members who had created these oases of green and community. The Trust for Public Land (TPL), is a national nonprofit dedicated to conserving land for people. When it became unclear whether litigation could save the gardens, TPL stepped in and purchased a little over half of the gardens, with Bette Midler purchasing the remainder through the New York Restoration Project.
TPL’s 1999 acquisition of 62 community gardens slated for destruction was the single largest nonprofit initiative in America to preserve urban gardens. (Since then, other gardens were added to bring the total protected by TPL to 70.) Some of the gardens have been turned over to the city’s Parks Department, others needed to be taken over by the community to ensure that they would be adequately stewarded over the long term. (The deal provided that the land would revert to the city if it ceased to be used for gardens).
Imagine cities as places where working people can afford to live and raise their families, where there is concern for clean air, water, and land. Imagine vital exchanges across generations and beautiful places where people gather. Urban life is at its most vibrant when people from various parts of the world bring together their music, food, cultural systems, and religious expressions. All of these make for cities that manifest the strength and brilliance of the human garden.
Moving the Environmental Movement
For the better part of the last century, the conservation movement and its offspring, the environmental movement, have had a negative view of cities. It started with John Muir’s celebration of nature in reaction to the ugliness of industrial development, urban pollution, congestion, and noise. But this bias against cities is changing. Environmental groups now acknowledge that the way we live in cities is at the nexus of many environmental challenges.