Environmental inequalities are hot topic at Richmond sustainability conference
on November 7, 2011
When Luz Gomez, the deputy chief of staff for County Supervisor John Gioia, tried to establish a small deli on a corner in North Richmond, even with help from the County, had to overcome more zoning code, development agency and operator obstacles then she anticipated.
Though she says that she feels close to opening the neighborhood’s only restaurant, it has been a battle that has lasted years.
“I can’t tell you the kinds of barriers we have encountered along this road,” Gomez said. “When we think about making fresh food available in the neighborhood, sometimes we underestimate the kind of challenges we will find.”
That was just one of the problems that exemplified some of the local issues affecting Richmond residents. Federal, state and local authorities discussed these issues, plus jobs, transportation, safety, food and business at the Plan for a Sustainable and Livable Richmond Conference on Wednesday.
“Where you live matters,” said Dr. Anthony Iton, senior vice president of The California Endowment. “Health is also about the place you live and the opportunity you have access to.”
Iton said that inequities in environmental policy lead to gaps in health conditions, and thus trigger social problems.
Inequality was one of the overriding themes of the conference. EPA administrators, local city officials, nonprofit organization leaders, bank representatives and residents discussed health inequalities as well as environmental issues that adversely affects Richmond.
It was the fifteenth stop on a national tour to promote interagency cooperation on local environmental issues.
Speakers included U.S. EPA administrator Lisa Garcia and Henry Clark of West County Toxics Coalition, who lectured on big-picture environmental issues affecting urban areas.
During his lunch lecture, Iton highlighted studies that show a close correlation between life expectancy and poverty rates. The studies suggest that the correlation exists because of the same health, transportation and job issues that were themes of the conference.
After zooming in on the numbers, Iton said, “You can actually monetize the cost of life. If you live in the Bay Area, $12,500 will buy you one year of life.”
One of the primary goals o the conference was to find a way to make everyday life easier, as well as healthier, for Richmond residents.
But one big issue, many agreed, is engagement with the community. Richmond residents don’t know about environmental policies that directly affect them because their day-to-day life is too exhausting, said Jkeitha Richardson, a San Pablo resident.
“I am here now,” Richardson said. “I am here because I am concerned.”
“We aren’t going to make progress without public support,” Gioia said. “It has really been community leaders, activists and community-based organizations that have pushed the federal, state and local agencies to move forward on environmental justice.”
The smaller sessions included time for active conversation about the topics. In a conversation about public transit, for example, people were grouped into different tables and were encouraged to talk. Participants wrote down big ideas or concerns that had been repeated, and gave a final overview at the end of the session.
The transportation session continued to go back to the need to better prioritize investments, to be sure that government money will be spent equally.
Eighty percent of the city’s transportation money is spent on existing highway infrastructure, leaving little for public transit and pedestrian and bike paths, said Catalina Garzon of the Pacific Institute.
As people focused on freight lines and infrastructure, Jkeitha Richardson said that safety in Richmond is a big concern for residents in terms of public transit and pedestrian and bike paths.
Richardson won’t park her car at the Richmond BART station because it isn’t safe, she said. People won’t get on AC transit buses, she said, if they don’t feel safe at the bus stop. While some participants suggested adding security to the AC transit buses, the problem remains unresolved.
Two sessions, “Spurring Job Creation in Richmond,” and “Green Jobs: From Federal Dollars to Local Energy Projects and Local Hires,” focused on employment in Richmond. Speakers discussed not only models for encouraging business to hire, but also ways to create local businesses.
Some of the job program ideas involved encouraging commercial facilities to use clean energy, training people in making solar insulation, and upgrading the skills of electricians so they can handle advanced lighting control, said Christine Chudd from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Representatives from nonprofit organizations including Rising Sun Energy Center also introduced their regional programs and their cooperation with RichmondBUILD.
It is tricky to find available green jobs, said Sal Vaca, director of Richmond’s Employment & Training Department. Only 50 percent of RichmondBUILD graduates end up with a job in “green industry” such as solar power and efficient construction.
Most speakers agreed that Richmond needed a regional approach to local issues. “When we come together, amazing things happen,” said Bobby Ram, the managing director of SunPower.
“Richmond is the right-size city to make a difference,” Vaca said.
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