Transforming Our Communities Requires Protecting Our Climate Investments

By Tiffany Eng, CEJA Green Zones Program Manager

The impacts of climate change are deeply felt in environmental justice communities where residents are impacted by multiple sources of pollution, health vulnerabilities, and related challenges. These health problems are exacerbated by the fact that public investments and resources are scarce in low-income communities and communities of color.

Communities across the state have been leading the way by crafting comprehensive, neighborhood-level sustainability plans that address long-standing environmental health and equity challenges. As a result, California now has a comprehensive strategy to reduce greenhouse gases while improving public health and promoting equitable and sustainable development.

Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) is a groundbreaking new program that ensures that some of the communities most impacted by pollution can receive investments to dramatically uplift and improve their neighborhoods. As the first of its kind, the TCC program is an exciting model that supports the wellbeing of families, empowers communities, cleans the environment, and fights climate change. TCC’s focus on innovation and multiple targeted investments breaks down silos by addressing numerous issues while lifting up community-led “Green Zones” solutions that address residents’ needs.

The TCC program was created in 2016 through the passage of AB 2722, a bill co-sponsored by CEJA and the Greenlining Institute that aims to direct large-scale funding to comprehensive plans at the neighborhood level. Once signed into law, the hard work began: can we translate our vision for deep, community-led investments in EJ communities into guidelines at a program administered by a state agency — in this case the Strategic Growth Council?

CEJA and our allies worked hard to ensure the guidelines for the new program reflected our EJ principles. As a result of our collective efforts, stronger community engagement, displacement avoidance safeguards, and more equitable eligibility requirements were included in final guidelines. This past January, SGC announced winners of the state’s first round of TCC implementation grants and planning grants.

Community-Led Transformation in Southwest Fresno

The City of Fresno received the largest TCC grant of $70 million for a proposal that was largely developed by Southwest Fresno community leaders. Southwest Fresno residents, with support from Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, Fresno Building Healthy Communities, and additional partner organizations, were instrumental in ensuring that an open, transparent, and community-led process guided the plans to allocate funding.

Ultimately, a community-driven steering committee voted almost unanimously to award the majority of funding to projects located in West Fresno, a neighborhood with some of the highest pollution and poverty rates in the state, with the remaining funding dedicated to Chinatown, Downtown, and the neighborhoods in between. This TCC grant will begin to connect these neighborhoods and provide affordable housing, economic development, a grocery store, healthy green spaces, solar panels, electric vehicle charging stations, and a community college center.

“Southwest Fresno residents — confronting decades of exclusion from decision-making processes and underinvestment in their neighborhoods — lead a process and campaign designed to draw tens of millions of dollars in investments that best fit their community’s needs. This plan includes a community college facility, energy efficiency projects, and quality jobs for their neighbors amongst other projects.”

— Grecia Elenes, Policy Advocate, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability

Connecting Neighborhood Assets in Ontario

The City of Ontario also received a $35 million grant for the Ontario Connects plan, a project supported by a multi-stakeholder coalition that included the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice. The collective process to develop and submit the grant included extensive community leadership and built upon previous community efforts to bring greater investments into the Inland Valley.

Funding for Ontario Connects will go toward groundbreaking projects and improvements for some of the most polluted and most socioeconomically challenged communities in California. It will create a mobility hub, affordable housing, job training and workforce development, energy efficiency upgrades, electric buses, active transportation infrastructure, food security projects, and urban greening projects in the Inland Valley.

New Opportunities for Planning in Oakland

SGC also awarded $1.5 million to 10 planning grants to fund EJ planning processes that could lead to possible TCC implementation grants or other California Climate Investment grants in the future. These planning grants are a critical “pipeline” to ensure that communities are receiving support and technical assistance to get ready for the complicated, multi-faceted TCC implementation grants.

East Oakland community organizations were able to use a TCC planning grant opportunity to secure support from the City of Oakland’s Planning Department. The funds will be used to create an East Oakland Resilient Neighborhoods Plan that will advance the environmental, economic, and social justice priorities of six East Oakland neighborhoods. This winning proposal was the top scoring TCC planning grant and was noted for its meaningful and intensive involvement of community organizations as one of the chief strengths.

“I am excited that East Oakland will be leading a community-based planning process with organizations that have been doing this work for years. We have pushed the City of Oakland to acknowledge existing community-led neighborhood plans and the power of a vision for East Oakland made by existing East Oakland residents.”

— Ernesto Arevalo, Northern California Program Director, Communities for a Better Environment

Increasing Green Space for South LA

While not awarded an implementation grant, South LA’s “Rail to Rail” plan remains a strong example of what community-led Green Zones can look like for the Los Angeles region. Initiated by community-based organizations within the Los Angeles Equity Alliance, the plan brought together various stakeholders, including the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro), the City of Los Angeles, and the South Los Angeles Transit Empowerment Zone.

The South LA plan would convert miles of an abandoned railroad line into a green active transportation corridor and community space, providing many benefits such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions, increased transit connectivity, and creative new programs that improve resident health and provide environmental justice education. The plan would also include a resident advisory committee and a range of community-led anti-displacement strategies to ensure that these improvements benefit South LA’s longtime residents.

Securing More Investments Moving Forward

The TCC program’s “Green Zones” approach of creating comprehensive strategies at the neighborhood level is a strong model for California and the rest of the country. TCC lifts up our state’s leadership on climate change and environmental justice across the country and beyond. In fact, the program has already demonstrated numerous successes and has created a ripple effect: TCC’s intensive outreach process serves as a model for other government agencies, while more local governments and agencies are now partnering with community-based organizations on joint funding applications.

However, there are still some areas of improvement for the TCC program, including the need to create stronger anti-displacement requirements, rewarding plans that have long-standing community engagement, and greater opportunities for historically divested EJ communities to access TCC funds.

The success of the TCC program is just starting to be felt in EJ communities across California. We hope to see the program fully funded and sustained in the future, so California can continue developing this innovative model of comprehensive, community-led climate planning that can catalyze neighborhood-led transformations across the state.

This article was originally posted on Medium.