Common Roots: Cumulative Impacts

Low-income communities and communities of color have borne the brunt of pollution for too long. Too many of our communities suffer from asthma, cancers, and other illnesses resulting from the daily onslaught of heavy industrial pollution. These toxins come from multiple sources, not just one factory or highway. Pollution mixes with other social inequalities, such as unemployment and poverty, to create a deadly mix that leads to severe, negative impacts on the health and quality of life in communities of color across the state. Unfortunately, most environmental regulations only look at pollution on a case-by-case basis and in isolation, rather than the cumulative impacts in an area. Laws and policies address one source of pollution at a time, rather than examining exposures throughout an entire neighborhood. Likewise, regulators do not take into consideration other factors that may exacerbate the impacts of pollution, such as health vulnerabilities.

The Green Zones Initiative uses a cumulative impacts framework, which looks at the totality of pollution in a particular area in combination with other socioeconomic and health inequalities. Cumulative impacts is one of the most persistent and devastating issues in low-income communities and communities of color disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution.

Environmental justice advocates have long pushed for a scientific methodology to assess cumulative impacts. For years, decision makers would not take action on environmental justice issues, claiming they could not identify communities, despite clear evidence from residents living in polluted neighborhoods. Many of the organizations in this report have used participatory research to document and ground-truth the great number of polluting sites in their communities, partnering with academics on community surveys and data gathering as a strategy to corroborate the lived experience of residents and ultimately get action from decision makers.

In 2017, as a result of years of advocacy, organizing, and research on this issue, the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) released the third version of one of the leading cumulative impacts tools in the nation, the California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool, or CalEnviroScreen 3.0. Almost all of the communities where CEJA members are moving local Green Zones campaigns are located in highly impacted communities. No matter where the Green Zone, all the communities struggle with a deadly combination of pollution, public health vulnerabilities, and socioeconomic stressors. CalEnviroScreen 3.0 has reshaped what is possible in statewide environmental policy, opening up new opportunities to pass laws and regulations targeting programs and investments into overburdened communities.

Common Roots: Poor Land Use Planning

The way local governments plan and permit various kinds of development — otherwise known as land use planning — shapes how neighborhoods look. The clustering of polluting facilities in low-income communities and communities of color can often be traced back to histories of discriminatory land use practices, such as residential segregation and racially restrictive zoning. Today, rampant discrimination in the housing market and financing options limit where people of color can live, while market-driven economic development patterns continue to lead to a concentration of environmental hazards in low-income communities.

However, land use planning can also be an empowering tool for communities to reimagine how their neighborhood can look, and altering land use policies and practices is often needed to create a healthier neighborhood. Many of the organizations featured in this report use different land use tools in their Green Zones, such as creating environmental justice elements in General Plans, or leading community-based processes to create a resident-driven development plan for a specific site or parcel. These campaigns demonstrate that land use planning can help address old problems, while creating a path forward to implement new solutions.

Land use planning decisions happen for the most part on the local level, so achieving statewide action to address underlying issues can be hard. In 2016, we partnered with our members, in particular the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ), to lead a statewide campaign to win the first state law to require the inclusion of environmental justice in General Plans. SB 1000, authored by Sen. Connie Leyva, went into effect January 2018. The legislation grew directly out of the experience of our members’ work in Green Zones to integrate environmental justice in local land use planning.

Core Principles: Comprehensive

Many of the organizations profiled in this report have won inspiring victories in their communities, ranging from fighting off new polluting facilities to securing affordable housing. But there are systemic barriers to a healthy environment and local economic opportunities — a Green Zone community might win a huge fight to get a local polluter to clean up, but may still struggle with other polluted facilities in the area or lack environmental amenities such as parks. Local, site-by-site successes alone do not add up to the comprehensive change needed in many low-income and immigrant communities of color.

The Green Zones Initiative shifts away from fighting community health threats one by one to a more comprehensive approach based on principles of justice and sustainability. Each Green Zone uses a holistic vision for neighborhood transformation, which is grounded in the voice of local residents. This pushes back on the siloed, issue-by-issue approach that we must navigate because of policy and regulatory frameworks. By using a broader vision for change that is grounded in the lived realities and solutions developed by residents, we create an alternative path for change and shift what is possible in our communities.

Core Principles: Community-Based

Green Zones are grounded in an authentic, community-based planning process that gives residents an opportunity to articulate the need and vision for their neighborhoods. This creates a clear platform of community-identified priorities, amplifies the voice of residents, and provides a road map for Green Zone development.

Every organization featured in this report works directly with residents in highly impacted communities, and they all have used a range of strategies to engage community members in Green Zone development. Whether it is community-based surveys, regular member meetings, local hearings, or leadership training, Green Zones lift up the voices and visions of residents first and foremost.

Core Principles: Solution Oriented

Green Zone communities are models for what community-led transformation can look like. The Green Zone campaigns presented in this report advance multiple solutions that reflect the interconnected issues on the ground and the resident visions for change. Green Zone communities are advancing strategies for change that include everything from bicycle cooperatives, to new Specific Plans to improve zoning in a community, to phasing out polluting land uses, to citywide ordinances setting higher standards for business operations in heavily impacted communities, to community-controlled urban farms. Green Zones don’t just fight the bad, they also bring in the good.

As community groups have embarked upon these visioning and planning efforts, a common challenge has been the dearth of funding for the many innovative projects developed. Local Green Zone campaigns need state funding to make their visions a reality, and we believe public funding should be linked to community priorities. To address this issue, CEJA worked to create a new statewide program to fund community-led solutions. The new Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) program, launched in 2016 by the Strategic Growth Council (SGC), uses public resources to fund large-scale community-led projects that achieve multiple climate, public health, air quality, and economic development goals in overburdened communities. In 2018, the program announced its first major awards to Fresno, Ontario, and Los Angeles, along with 10 additional planning grants, totaling $141.6 million in statewide investments. Through the program’s development and implementation, CEJA is experimenting to see if we can link community-led planning to major statewide investments and public programs, which have their own constraints.

Core Principles: Collaborative

When reading each of the Green Zones profiles, the depth of partnerships in every local campaign stands out. From local coalitions like the Los Angeles Collaborative for Environmental Health and Justice or the Richmond Environmental Justice Coalition to task forces and working groups that bring together community-based organizations with local, state, and federal agencies implementing Green zones requires multifaceted partnerships. Green Zones seek to implement big changes and no one organization can do it alone.

New Challenges: Resources, Economic Development, and Displacement

A challenge in building long-term opportunities for community development is ensuring that the very people who helped bring in visionary new projects are not displaced as a result. With housing costs soaring across the state, Green Zone communities are grappling with ways to ensure that new investments, resources, or projects that green up the neighborhood bring direct benefits to longtime residents and do not inadvertently push people out. Some Green Zones are tackling this by fostering community control of resources and projects, through innovative efforts such as land trusts and locally owned cooperatives.

These types of community governance and resource management develop local capacity and assets, as well as safeguard against unintended negative consequences of neighborhood-level transformation. We are also working to identify statewide tools and policies that can prevent displacement, such as inclusion of anti-displacement criteria in statewide funding programs like TCC.

Even with these challenges, generating economic opportunities that provide environmentally sustainable living wage jobs for longtime residents is a core component of Green Zones. Green Zones across California are showing how we can generate economic development while reducing pollution.

As part of the Clean Up Green Up ordinance in Los Angeles, the businesses featured on this site are able to access new resources to help them adopt greener practices. In San Francisco, People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights is developing a community-led farm that will employ youth. In National City, the Environmental Health Coalition is seeking to phase out polluting businesses while simultaneously developing a green industrial park that is away from homes and schools.

Green Zone communities are forging new local living economies that are inextricably linked to the overall vision for environmental health and justice.

Green Zones: Transforming Toxic Hot Spots into Healthy, Thriving Neighborhoods

Environmental justice communities are taking the health of their neighborhoods and environment into their own hands. Green Zones are advancing comprehensive, community-led solutions. With this integrated approach to transformation, communities can address the long-standing environmental justice issues they face. It is a new strategy to achieve healthy environments and thriving local and sustainable development that all communities deserve.

The Green Zones model of a comprehensive place-based strategy that advances sustainable community solutions is a part of our long-term vision to see a Just Transition toward the resilient, sustainable economy that our communities and our planet need. The solutions held within Green Zone campaigns are the same solutions that will help move our entire state away from the extractive economy that is destroying the climate. Green Zones embody the community leadership, sustainability, and vision for local thriving economies that our communities and planet need.

Ultimately, Green Zones is not just an opportunity for low-income communities and communities of color to live in healthy, thriving neighborhoods. It is also an opportunity for all of California and the country to begin implementing the just, sustainable policies that are needed to face the changing climate and changing world. Green Zones can become a model for strengthening local economies, environments, and democracies across California and the country.