Groundbreaking New Report Details Economic and Environmental Challenges in West Contra Costa County

Pacific Institute Research Shows While Community Heath is Compromised by Current Conditions, Practical Solutions Exist

Oakland, Calif., June 15, 2009 –West Contra Costa County faces a set of preventable, interconnected environmental and economic problems that compromise residents’ health and well-being – and are both the result of and contribute to severe social inequities. These are the findings from a new research report published by the Pacific Institute and seven local partner organizations, which quantifies how serious, avoidable problems have become chronic and offers solutions for a better, more equitable way of life in West County.

Eleven “indicators” of community health are examined, with findings such as:

  • 50% of homes in North Richmond, Richmond, and San Pablo are at high risk for having lead paint, one of the largest environmental health hazards facing children;
  • one-in-five households are situated within 500 and 1,000 feet of freight transport areas, exposed to high levels of diesel pollution;
  • parks are in poor condition (including 40 of 52 parks missing restrooms, and only four restrooms well maintained);
  • youth programs are available for only 22% of West County 15-20-year-olds;
  • all of the creeks and bays in the county are polluted to the point of being impaired;
  • Richmond and San Pablo have 25% of Contra Costa County’s liquor stores, but less than 14% of its population, and almost 60% of West County liquor stores are within 1,000 feet of a school or park.

But there are solutions to improve these conditions and more, detailed in the new indicators report from the Pacific Institute: Measuring What Matters: Neighborhood Research for Economic and Environmental Health and Justice in Richmond, North Richmond, and San Pablo. The report, in both English and Spanish, can be downloaded for free at: http://pacinst.org/publication/measuring-what-matters/

The report will be distributed at a Community Forum attended by local officials and residents, with presentations by the partner organizations and a game show activity entitled, “Who Knows West County Best?” The event is open to the public on Monday, June 15, 6:00 – 7:30 p.m. at St. Mark’s Catholic Church, 159 Harbour Way in Richmond.

“While the research presented in this report may come as no surprise to the West County residents who have been living with these challenges for years, the concrete numbers put these issues into sharp focus at the neighborhood scale, and help point the way forward to practical solutions,” said Eli Moore, research associate at the Pacific Institute and lead author of Measuring What Matters.

If information is power, then the community-based organizations and leaders of West County have taken both into their own hands. Over one hundred people have been involved in the planning and research for the new report, including conducting participatory research and contributing oral histories to document the memories of members of the community and provide insight into how specific issues intersect and affect people.

“What is unique about this report is that it highlights a diverse range of issues that impact the health of our community and makes it easy for a lay person to connect the different issues,” said Barbara Becnel, director of Neighborhood House of North Richmond, one of the project’s partner organizations.

Measuring What Matters investigates 11 specific indicators of economic, environmental, and community health: lead contamination risk, access to shoreline open space, freight transport impacts, water contamination in creeks and bays, flaring at the Chevron refinery, liquor store concentrations, employment of formerly incarcerated residents, and Richmond’s tax revenue from Chevron, city park conditions, access to youth programs, and streetlights and community safety.

“Underlying this entire project was the idea that research owned and controlled by neighborhood residents can help build powerful movements for social change,” said Swati Prakash, program director at the Pacific Institute and coauthor of the report. “The report breaks down neighborhood challenges into specific indicators that can be changed through community action.”

Eric Roberts, M.D., Ph.D. of the Public Health Institute said, “Health is determined by more than biology; a person’s social and physical environment play a large role in shaping one’s health outcomes. This report illustrates the myriad factors that influence the health of West County residents, not only putting together a “snapshot” of community functioning (both good and bad), but showing us the underlying connections, and–most of all–the ways we can make things better.”

The West County Indicators Project was launched in 2006 to work with local residents and organizations to build power to achieve a vision for healthy communities in West Contra Costa County. The individuals and groups who have worked on the issues in the resulting report have produced action plans to identify and address the concerns they feel most impact their quality of life and health. The bottom line is that a healthy community requires environmental and economic justice.

Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said, “This report sheds light not only on specific challenges at a neighborhood level, but also highlights our assets and points the way to real solutions for a better Richmond.”

The westernmost communities of the county – including North Richmond, Parchester Village, Iron Triangle, Atchison Village, Santa Fe, Coronado, Belding Woods, Shields-Reid, and San Pablo – are home to a wide range of positive features from deep-rooted community social networks and small locally owned businesses to a beautiful natural environment with an extensive shoreline. But these neighborhoods also struggle with a disproportionate number of economic, social, and environmental challenges that affect the health and livelihood of people who call them home.

“If we want to try to arrest some of the situations that are plaguing our community, then we should try to start off with having better air quality for ourselves and not worsening what we already have,” said Reverend Kenneth Keith Davis of North Richmond, who contributed one of the six oral histories in the report.

Reverend Davis is referring to how residents of West County are exposed to higher levels of air pollution and face greater risk of suffering the health effects. Their community is at a crossroads of global trade, serviced by the Port of Richmond, dozens of warehouses and distribution centers, 15 miles of railway, two Interstate highways, and a system of local streets frequently used by trucks. Nearly one-in-five households, some 24,000 residents in Richmond, North Richmond, and San Pablo, are within 500 or 1000 feet of freight transport, and the population in homes near freight transport hazards is 82% people of color – versus 69% in the less-affected areas.

Zadia Saunders, another contributor of an oral history, said, “There are so many parks across Richmond, more than 50, but all I see is abandoned and wasted space. There is so much that could be done with these spaces and so many people that need it. We want to do something about our parks, but who is going to listen to us?”

The youth-driven parks survey illustrates her point, finding an average of 7.3 “bad conditions” per park in West County, from absence of a key park feature to gross disrepair. For example, only three out of 52 parks have soccer goals; only 18 have water fountains. Of 15 basketball courts, only two were “well maintained or in decent shape.” The neighborhoods with the worse park conditions are 17% more people of color than areas with better parks, a disproportionate effect seen across many of the issues researched for this indicators report.

The West County Indicators Project focused not just on identifying and quantifying underlying problems, but in determining what members of the community can do about them: each chapter has sections called “What Can We Do” and “Community Resources for Information and Change.” These sections identify sensible programs, policies, and practices; call for more avenues for meaningful community participation in policy and program development; and point toward additional research and better monitoring and reporting on community problems and solutions.

For example, for the parks survey, the youth analyzed the agencies and funding structure related to city park investment and maintenance, to bring forward their results and advocate for improvements with solid research in hand. To mitigate the impacts of freight transport in neighborhoods, residents identified solutions from working to require fencing and shrubbery and sound walls along freeways and railroad tracks to encouraging areas designated as high-risk to be zoned to attract green businesses that meet community needs while minimizing additional pollution.

Partner organizations who worked with the Pacific Institute on Measuring What Matters are: West County Toxics Coalition, Neighborhood House of North Richmond, Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization, Historic Triangle Neighborhood Council, Morada de Mujeres del Milenio, North Richmond Shoreline Open Space Alliance, and Richmond Progressive Alliance.

The West County Indicators Project was made possible thanks to the generous support of: The California Wellness Foundation, The San Francisco Foundation, East Bay Community Foundation, The Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation, Y & H Soda Foundation, Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment, California Environmental Protection Agency, Firedoll Foundation, Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization, Neighborhood House of North Richmond’s Healthy Eating, Active Living Program, Robert & Patricia Switzer Foundation, and The California Endowment.

Based in Oakland, California, the Pacific Institute is a nonpartisan research institute that works to create a healthier planet and sustainable communities. Through interdisciplinary research and partnering with stakeholders, the Institute produces solutions that advance environmental protection, economic development, and social equity – in California, nationally, and internationally. http://pacinst.org