The RAND Corporation has partnered with Groundwork USA, a national network of trusts that build more-sustainable and environmentally equitable communities, to show how collaborative community engagement can contribute to environmental justice for residents who have been unfairly affected by neighborhood disinvestment in the communities within Elizabeth, New Jersey, and San Diego, California.

A long history of policies dating back to the 1930s that graded predominantly Black and immigrant neighborhoods as high risk for home lending, a practice known as redlining, has contributed to neighborhood disadvantage, and caused them to struggle with environmental inequity. Redlined communities tend to be hotter, exist in food deserts, have worse health outcomes, and are exposed to poorer air quality. Organizations like Groundwork USA help address and plan for future conditions, policies, and developments that could have an adverse environmental impact on these communities.

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Video 1 Chollas: A Story of Community Partnership

Julie Corrales

This place is so amazing. There's so much culture here. There's so much art. I wake up in the morning and I go for a walk and there's danzantes (dancers) at the park and you smell copal and you go get your coffee, and they put cinnamon in it, and there's always music and there's always art and there's always struggle, there's always politica (politics) in everything that we do.

And I'm so inspired by all of it, and I love it so much. It's like we have to preserve it, we have to hold on to it.

Jiapsi Gomez

My name's Jiapsi Gomez. I am Yoeme-Cora, I am Indigenous from the Southwest region and I grew up in Logan Heights. My community is full of life and character and lots of artists and people very passionate about caring for our community. But it's also, there's a lot of presence of industry and there's the freeway. And, you know, as beautiful as the community is, there's a lot of environmental problems that we face.

Benjamin Preston

The Chollas Creek Watershed is a 32 square mile natural waterway and drainage system in San Diego that traverses eight different neighborhoods.

Sameera Rao

The Chollas Creek area, along with the adjacent neighborhoods, has seen several years of disinvestment, meaning there is lack of public spaces and a lack of access to quality green spaces, which kind of impacts the air quality of the neighborhoods along the creek.

Heidi Vonblum

So, some of the things that we hear is that there's a lot of litter, there's a lot of trash. My neighborhood floods. We have limited resources to be able to address this.

Julie Corrales

The diesel particulate matter that impacts our health so heavily is also causing climate change, it also warms the planet. So two birds, one stone, you need to start here.

Heidi Vonblum

We need more parks and open spaces. We need places to gather that have access to shade.

Jiapsi Gomez

I have stories of my uncles swimming in this water, but none recently.

Heidi Vonblum

We know that the areas that this watershed is located within have unique needs.

Patrice Baker

If we take ownership, if we are responsible, if we speak up, not just putting something there now for a temporary fix, but what's it going to do further down the road?

Benjamin Preston

I'm Ben Preston, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. Chollas Creek has been one recent focus of San Diego's climate and parks planning. Our goal with this project is to partner with community organizers to capture on film the ways effective planning for environmental justice involves deep collaboration between local decisionmakers, nonprofits, and community groups.

Carlos Calvo-Hernandez

We saw how Groundwork USA was using historical maps of their trusts to make people more aware of the link between systemic discrimination and environmental injustice. We knew that other communities around the country would also benefit from a way to see those connections using data. Hi, I'm Carlos Calvo. I'm an assistant policy researcher at RAND and I'm part of the research team that created the tool to explore the enduring legacy of redlining in urban environments. These areas, neighborhoods, communities are extremely heterogeneous. They're very different from each other. But one thing the redlined areas have in common is they're closer to environmental hazards, they're closer to pollutants. Their populations are more susceptible to climate effects, to disease, to cancer risk.

Benjamin Preston

Users can select the city they're interested in and explore environmental metrics like health hazards, tree cover and flood risk within redline districts. These effects are not coincidental, or even accidental, they're a result of a long history of racist policies that date back to the 1930s when the federal government's Home Owners' Loan Corporation, or HOLC, began grading neighborhoods based on their perceived risk for home loan lending.

Benjamin Preston

The neighborhoods that were deemed the most risky tended to be those with predominantly Black and immigrant populations. This practice became known as redlining.

Julie Corrales

That map. You know that redlining map? Yes, 100 percent. It overlays where the freeways are, where the industry is, where the asthma rates are, where unemployment is, where overpolicing is, I mean, it's just that same map over and over and over. And we have to contend with that.

Benjamin Preston

Data can help policymakers zero in on injustices in their communities, like persistent poverty, racial and ethnic segregation, disproportionate environmental stressor burden, as well as the impacts from climate change.

Heidi Vonblum

Climate change affects the communities surrounding this watershed in very unique ways. The populations in this area have been identified as being particularly vulnerable to climate change conditions, especially with respect to extreme heat.

Jiapsi Gomez

The fact that Logan Heights in itself only has one major park, or two major parks, but very few green spaces is a very large concern, especially with rising temperatures and heat.

Heidi Vonblum

We've done heat studies and heat mapping studies that show that the extreme heat conditions on the ground can vary by up to 20 degrees depending on the development conditions. So, when there's more paving and less greenspace and trees, those areas can be significantly hotter. And this affects populations that have less capacity to adapt to that change, which means that they may live in homes that lack air conditioning or insulation, and it makes it much harder to adapt to the extreme heat conditions.

Clayton Tschudy

It's really very fraught and climate change increases all of those risks. So what used to be a 50-year storm is now a 25-year storm, and what used to be a 100-year storm, like cataclysmic, now can happen every 50. And the average intensity of storms that comes through Southern California has peaked dramatically. So, we have longer periods of drought with the water coming in and more of a deluge. So, big storms and then long periods of water insecurity.

Heidi Vonblum

A lot of the stakeholders that have been involved in the Chollas Creek planning effort have been involved for over 20 years.

Leslie Reynolds

Groundwork San Diego Chollas Creek was formed in 2007 in partnership up with the EPA, National Park Service, and Groundwork USA. And Groundwork San Diego Chollas Creek was formed specifically to serve as the watershed manager for the communities in the Chollas Creek Watershed. The most important part of the work is to engender the trust of the communities which have not really been heard from by city leaders for decades.

Jiapsi Gomez

There has been a lot of obstacles engaging community. On one hand, the pandemic really slowed down that process, but also the lack of trust between the city and any like official organizations and the people, you know, any grassroots organization. Because it's not like we've never done this before. It's not like we haven't tried before. So that's definitely a big part of it.

Jiapsi Gomez

And also trying to survive, people trying to maintain their jobs, trying to take care of their children. You know, it's hard to find the time and the energy to participate in stuff like this.

Patrice Baker

We can say that we know there wasn't trust before. We're going to speak to that because it's important. And we need you to understand that it's important to us.

Julie Corrales

If we've been historically divested, if we've been ignored, then this is where you start. You don't start elsewhere.

Patrice Baker

When you're in an underserved group already and they're not getting funds to come to that group to make things happen differently, or to build around it or to build for your children, then that's a part of, it takes energy out of you. It takes the ability to even speak up. And so, if that gets wider, then what you have is fewer people coming to the table.

Clayton Tschudy

You need the community to care about the space. You need them to be involved on some level, and you need to focus foundation and government money on maintaining these spaces. And luckily, the state of California has become much more aware and focused on funneling money to underserved communities. So, habitats like this that are embedded in a community that has less or fewer resources to devote to it, the state really makes that a priority.

Heidi Vonblum

At the end of the day, we do not want to have any planning initiatives brought forward that don't bring real positive change to people that are actually living in the community in ways that they need and in ways that they want and would be most beneficial to them.

Patrice Baker

What we want to do is to help these residents understand they're vital, they're important. We need them. They are the experts in their own community.

Benjamin Preston

Including residents throughout every step of the process, whether it's long-term planning, boundary defining, or grant making, can help make the community engagement process procedurally just and meaningful. Anticipating and addressing concerns about how potential developments might cause issues like green gentrification or displacement can help ensure the change pursued is change wanted by residents. Community education efforts, for instance, communicating the ways grantmaking and planning directly influence neighborhood conditions, could go a long way.

Clayton Tschudy

The city has really changed its focus. It really wants to redress park deficiency, it really wants to increase equitable access to nature.

Heidi Vonblum

So, in 2021, the Mayor's "Parks for All of Us" initiative included a parks master plan that was the first Parks Master Plan adopted in 50 years, and that included a long overdue formal designation and recognition of the Chollas Creek Watershed as a regional park.

Clayton Tschudy

There's really a strong push to do effective climate action planning here, so we are able to bring in money to do big projects here; streambed restorations, brush management to remove fire risk from the neighbors. So, it is possible for us to fund projects in these spaces that keeps my team in these spaces, which means that we can do maintenance in these spaces, and that's the key to long-term success.

Heidi Vonblum

This master planning effort will be very community-driven based on feedback from the residents that live not just within the community, but across the city, because this really is intended to be a regional resource that brings increased economic activity into the oftentimes and mostly disadvantaged communities surrounding the watershed. But also, as I had mentioned before, really focusing on other opportunities for pedestrian connections, as well as improved environmental conditions as well.

Sameera Rao

We're very excited to be working with seven community partners. It's a great opportunity for the city to be able to collaborate with the Chollas Creek Foundation, with Canyonlands, and several other organizations that have been doing a lot of work.

Patrice Baker

Now that the city has reached out, if you will, we have a coalition of nonprofits and organizations and planning group members who are concerned about the Chollas Creek and all the elements to it. So, we meet and give our input and the relationship is working pretty well.

Julie Corrales

We've been working on a community plan update for the last 20 years that would essentially guide future growth in Barrio Logan, removing industry from residences and creating that barrier where, right now, there isn't any. That plan was just passed in 2021.

Leslie Reynolds

This idea of collaborating across the watershed with planning groups, and NGOs, and resident groups, and others who care about this EJ work and about climate justice, all coming together as opposed to competing against each other for limited funds and attention is the thing that has really made the difference. So, the advice I would give is collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.

Heidi Vonblum

I would say that the only reason why this formal designation came to be was because of the tireless advocacy from the community groups located around the watershed. They truly understand the issues of the people that live and work in these communities, and they worked very hard to convey that to city leadership, and really bring forward solutions so that we can continue to work together as we move forward.

Benjamin Preston

So, this work really demonstrates that better policy and better policy outcomes can really happen when all stakeholders involved in a policy decision come together and collaborate. That includes government, nonprofit organizations, community organizers, individual residents, as well as the private sector.

Julie Corrales

I'm inspired by my children. I have this vision of my grandchildren playing in a green Logan and getting to see those danzantes and getting the culture and breathing clean air. We deserve all of that. And I think that we're in this really great space in the movement where it's starting to come to fruition.

Patrice Baker

We're always looking for ways to make the way of life, the quality of life, better. We ought to be able to live in an environment where we feel safe, where we can breathe. Where, you know, we don't have to have all the issues that we have today. We can clean it up a little bit. We know there's a lot of damage been done. However, we know that now it's time to start cleaning it up.

Video 2 From the Ground Up: Environmental Justice in Elizabeth, New Jersey

Raymond Graham

I never thought I'd see a farm in the city.

Raymond Graham

Just like I never thought I'd see a forest in the city. My name is Raymond Graham, and I've been with Groundwork Elizabeth for about the last eight years and I started off as just a planter. You know, going throughout the town, planting flowers to beautify the city and somewhere along the line, we got some grants to create these urban farms.

Jonathan Phillips

My name is Jonathan Phillips. I'm the executive director of Groundwork Elizabeth and I've been the executive director here since 2003. So, Groundwork is part of a national network of trusts we call ourselves, and we build more sustainable communities that are equitable as well. That means work in youth programs, urban agriculture, and green infrastructure.

Jonathan Phillips

Elizabeth, like many urban communities, is only 11 square miles. We have 135,000 people in 11 square miles. That's 12,000 people per square mile, that's a lot of people. So, when you have that many people, you need places for them to live. If you build places for them to live, you're going to take away the trees and the green cover.

Jonathan Phillips

It's five to seven degrees hotter, especially on hotter days. It's really a difficult situation.

Benjamin Preston

My name is Ben Preston. I'm a policy researcher with the RAND Corporation, where we're partnering with community organizations and activists in neighborhoods like Elizabeth to highlight the ways meaningful and truly collaborative community engagement can create environmental justice for residents who have been unfairly affected by neighborhood disinvestment. These effects are not coincidental or even accidental. They're the result of a long history of racist policies that date back to the 1930s when the federal government's Homeowner's Loan Corporation, or HOLC, began grading neighborhoods based on their perceived risk for home loan lending. The neighborhoods that were deemed the most risky tended to be those with predominantly black and immigrant populations.

Benjamin Preston

This practice became known as redlining. Today, redlined neighborhoods like Elizabeth are more likely to be home to hazardous waste facilities, have poorer air quality, and to be impacted by climate change.

Jackie Park Albaum

What we have found is that redlined communities are usually hotter. They often flood, often exist in food deserts, we see lower health outcomes. For instance, in Elizabeth, they say if you live down in the housing authority, you're 30 percent more likely to have asthma by the age of 30.

Benjamin Preston

Air pollution is a major issue in Elizabeth where trucks, the port, and railroad operations, as well as toxic sites, have all contributed to an influx of diesel particulate matter contamination, a significant health hazard for the people who call the port home.

Jonathan Phillips

Diesel particulate matter is definitely a problem in Elizabeth. We're right on the New Jersey Turnpike and we're in the port of New York, and New Jersey, and Port Elizabeth. So, a lot of diesel trucks come out of here.

Darian Griffin

I knew some youth who had asthma, including me. I was born with it. And then, you know, I've always had to deal with the low air quality since I live right next to port.

Raymond Graham

I did some reading and studying with some of my coworkers at Groundwork, and they showed me where the government made these redlines for certain areas where poor people live and blacktopped it instead of putting trees in the neighborhood and causing us to have asthma, strokes, high blood pressure.

Benjamin Preston

The lack of tree cover in Elizabeth combined with the extent of asphalt and other paved surfaces in the city exacerbates the urban heat island, particularly during summer months. And that heat island contributes to exacerbating the problems of air quality, which ultimately affect human health, asthma, and health outcomes. Communities experiencing vulnerability due to existing factors like intergenerational poverty, neighborhood disinvestment, and high unemployment rates have been more likely to experience the negative impacts of climate change.

Benjamin Preston

Decades of disinvestment have also left these communities with fewer resources to adapt to the effects of climate change.

John Evangelista

We've found that a lot of the heat islands and the problems were based in these redlined areas and we've focused our efforts to change these areas and do what we can do to reverse that a little bit. There's a bunch of different options that can be used to fix that; white roofs, green roofs. We do a lot of reforesting and tree plantings in these areas to help cool them down.

Benjamin Preston

So, a major effort underway in cities around the world is to address the urban heat islands that contribute to extreme heat. One major tactic for doing that is through the use of white roofs and green roofs, both of which are designed to reflect more solar energy back into the atmosphere and have a cooling effect, absorbing heat through vegetation which has a cooling effect, and overall, cooling down the temperatures, particularly in the densest urban areas, and trying to counter the effects of climate change and rising temperatures.

John Evangelista

Behind me is a microforest that we planted; a small area 30 feet by 50 feet. What this microforest does is it sequesters carbon, it produces oxygen, it's a dense planting that grows at a faster rate than a normal forest would grow. It provides habitat, it provides shade, it'll cool heat island effect, it'll help with erosion, it'll help with flooding issues.

John Evangelista

And then behind that, you've created an outdoor classroom that can provide education on what this is doing, how this is doing it, and all the things that come along with it. And just by informing the community and the people around you, the change will start happening on its own.

Benjamin Preston

So, one of the things we're focused on right now at the RAND Corporation is undertaking research at the intersection of issues like equity and the environment. And a key goal of this research is to generate evidence and build data that policymakers can use to make evidence-based decisions that address environmental justice challenges and identify useful, effective pathways forward on policy. Data can help policymakers zero in on injustices in their communities, like persistent poverty, racial and ethnic segregation, disproportionate environmental stressor burden, as well as the impacts from climate change.

John Evangelista

We collect data on everything we do here from the amount of bees we have, to what plants we put in the ground, to how much food goes out of here yearly. So, in a year or two or three, we'll be able to say, we took this land and it was, you know, a potential brownfield and this is what happened when we did it over time and these are the results that we get.

Jackie Park Albaum

Earlier today, I had a little tiny thing in my pocket and I walked around Trenton to see air quality. That little thing then goes straight up to a cloud, which then went straight into my email and I shared with the five other kids and next thing you knew, we had a snapshot of five blocks of Camden over a one-hour period. And the coolest part, I think, is that everyone can participate.

Benjamin Preston

The RAND Corporation has developed an interactive tool that allows users to explore some of these environmental indicators within historical redlining map boundaries. Users can select the city they're interested in and explore environmental metrics like health hazards, tree cover, and flood risk within redlined districts. What excites me about this project is that we're trying to make data and tools available to everyone.

Benjamin Preston

This project is about pulling back the curtain and allowing people out there in the world, whoever they might be, to explore some of these data, explore some of these relationships, to look at communities that are interested in themselves.

Jonathan Phillips

So we've got this great program. It was initiated through a climate resilience program through Groundwork USA, and we call it Climate Safe Elizabeth. And what we do is we engage the community in informational meetings. We've got these incredible maps which have layers on them showing you impervious surfaces, lack of tree cover, a lot of flooding issues. The redlining is part of it, as well.

Jonathan Phillips

And we take these bits and we show it to the community and they become so aware that they realize something's got to be done.

Sarah Sosa

I'm the youth coordinator for Groundwork Elizabeth. I have a range of 15- to 18-year olds. They all grew up living like in the urban area of Elizabeth, going to the Elizabeth high schools. And all the areas in Elizabeth aren't too safe, a lot of the schools aren't too safe, so. Their transition from school to the summertime, like doing the work that we do, is just a lot different than what they're used to.

Sarah Sosa

We do some maintenance at this micro farm here. They get the chance to not only learn about policies, but learn about the Earth.

John Evangelista

We come to the farm here and we're able to, as well as taking them outside, train them right here at the microfarm as to how to grow your own food, how to cook your own food, how to do different things with agriculture. And it's just amazing.

Darian Griffin

We've been doing like all these cleanups in different parts. We've done cleanups in Elizabeth Port. There was one guy who was like, oh my God, like, I'm just so glad that, you know, we're keeping this area clean. Like, this place needs to be clean because that's what this town deserves.

Jackie Park Albaum

You know, I think the biggest takeaway that we want them to have, you know, the young people involved in environmental programming, is that they can see themselves there. Very often as careers are advertised to these young people, they don't show people like them. So, I think the biggest takeaway from my program is that these opportunities are available to everyone.

Sarah Sosa

I'm the youth leader for one of our youth programs, the Mayor's Youth Council. We get one hour of the mayor's time, once a month, to have an agenda and to propose any ideas we might have.

Darian Griffin

I feel like it's important for our youth to know that this is their home, too; that they're able to mold it in any way, shape or form they feel like is right.

Jonathan Phillips

Everything that we do is focused on equity. We want to make sure everyone's got their voices heard. Everyone has the opportunity for environmental justice and we want to hear from them what they need.

Benjamin Preston

Overcoming the impact of historical policy decisions requires not only grassroots environmental justice efforts, but also thinking about decisionmaking bodies that are making policy moving forward. In 2022, the federal government launched the Justice 40 Initiative, which sets a goal that 40 percent of the overall benefits across hundreds of government programs flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution. At the state level, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection developed a youth inclusion initiative to inspire interest in environmental careers while promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Jackie Park Albaum

Can change happen? Absolutely. Change can always happen. That is the beauty of who we are and what we do as people, but we need to provide the opportunity.

Benjamin Preston

Organizations like Groundwork Elizabeth, as well as the state of New Jersey, have an important role to play in addressing historical inequities and environmental injustices. But they also have a big role to play in addressing and planning for future policy and future developments that could have an adverse environmental impact on communities.

Jackie Park Albaum

Governor Murphy has passed E.O. 23. So now in the state of New Jersey, every single action taken by the New Jersey government has to weigh the environmental benefit or deficit. That is such a game changer.

Jonathan Phillips

We're actually engaged right now with an EPA environmental justice grant where we're looking to reduce diesel particulates by using different types of biofuels. We're studying that right now, starting on it, and we hope to have some pretty good answers shortly.

John Evangelista

My advice for other communities would be to just jump into this and do it. There's many different things. Planting a small garden in a community and educating people around there as to what you're planting and how you're planting it can make a world of difference.

Raymond Graham

What I would like to see before I leave this Earth is that people take better care of the planet, you know? And I would like to see dozens of these mini farms, you know?

Jonathan Phillips

Working within our community, we have to make sure we hear the voices that we need to hear, work with the people we need to work with, and actually make a better community more equitable and more sustainable for all.

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