Located on the west side of National City, Old Town is home to predominantly Chicanx and Latinx families, both recent immigrants and people who have been living in the neighborhood for generations. Old Town is a family-oriented neighborhood where local residents have a strong connection and feel a collective responsibility to improve the quality of life there.
Unfortunately, the community is a textbook example of how industries and homes shouldn’t mix. For decades, land use planners have treated Old Town as a dumping ground for polluting industries and warehouses. In this neighborhood, it is common to come across more than 35 auto body and repair shops in a 70-block area. Combined with other industrial uses, approximately 32,000 pounds of toxic air contaminants are released here per year. In addition, Old Town is one of the poorest neighborhoods in National City, with a renter household median income of $18,000, in contrast to an area median income of $63,000. Only 28 percent of residents own their homes, which is roughly half the county average. Not surprisingly, the neighborhood suffers from disproportionately high asthma rates, a clear lack of green space, and affordable housing.
Through the Green Zones campaign, the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) has engaged in community-based land use planning and improvements that aim to address the unhealthy mix of industry and homes in Old Town.
Cultivating Local Leadership
For more than 10 years, EHC has been working with local residents to develop, pass, and implement their neighborhood vision in partnership with the city. By engaging in community leadership development, the residents of Old Town have become experts in land use planning, using tools such as neighborhood assessments and surveys, and conducting audits for industrial violations.
EHC also holds monthly Community Action Team meetings and engages in door knocking campaigns. Their Salud Ambiental, Líderes Tomando Acción (SALTA) trainings educate residents on issues of leadership, energy, land use, climate justice, and transportation justice. EHC regularly organizes residents to show up at City Council and other decision-making venues to ensure the issues they care about are being addressed.
Community Planning and Healthier Land Use
Through people-led planning, EHC and the Old Town community developed a land use plan that reflects residents’ aspirations for a healthy community. The Westside Specific Plan, adopted in 2010, includes policies to protect the residential character of the neighborhood, improve environmental health conditions for residents, install pedestrian safety enhancements, and protect the local Paradise Creek waterway. It will help ensure a vibrant, healthy community with affordable housing, well-serviced public transportation, safe pedestrian walkways, compatible land uses, and increased use of clean energy.
A cornerstone of the plan is using rezoning to phase out of unhealthy land uses such as auto body shops — a process that is being facilitated through the city’s 2006 amortization ordinance. At the same time, however, EHC is working to ensure that Old Town and its residents do not lose the vital economic base that these small businesses provide. EHC has been working to develop an innovative green industrial auto park away from the residential area, which could serve as an environmentally sound and economically viable destination for auto repair businesses phasing out of Old Town. It would also be a hub for the paint and auto body industry and would allow them to maintain their businesses in National City while still protecting resident health in Old Town.
The Westside Specific Plan also included a number of visionary projects that are at different phases of implementation. In 2015, the Paradise Creek Affordable Housing Project received $9.2 million in state funding for the construction of 201 units. The development, originally conceived as part of the plan, cleans up vacant land next to public transit, creates a public park and a creek restoration project, and builds biking and walking paths.
The Westside Specific Plan has also been a springboard for citywide land use planning efforts. In 2011, National City adopted a Health and Environmental Justice element into its General Plan, the first city in California to do so. The element outlines a range of solutions to address unhealthy land use patterns that can improve respiratory health and air quality.
EHC continues to advance community-led land use planning in National City, as well as the Barrio Logan, City Heights, Sherman Heights, and Logan Heights neighborhoods in San Diego. These efforts ensure that community members can achieve their vision and values for building healthy neighborhoods.
The Environmental Health Coalition works to improve the well-being of families and children in low-income communities of color in the San Diego/Tijuana region. EHC’s integrated approach engages residents in meaningful civic participation. Through organizing, advocacy, and leadership training, residents are empowered to determine their visions for their neighborhoods and achieve public policies that reflect their desired changes. www.environmentalhealth.org