ROBERT OGILVIE: I'm Robert Ogilvie, director of Planning for Healthy Places, a project of Public Health Law & Policy. This podcast, A Change in The Air, explores the link between redevelopment and public health in North Richmond.
North Richmond is a low-income community of color in west Contra Costa County, at the eastern edge of San Francisco Bay. It's sandwiched between a port, major freeways, rail lines, and heavy industrial sites — including an oil refinery. All of those things contribute to some of the worst air quality in the Bay Area.
WENDEL BRUNNER, DIRECTOR OF PUBLIC HEALTH, CONTRA COSTA HEALTH SERVICES: As the containers in China are shipped to Walmarts in Wichita, or wherever, they go through some of the lowest income and minority communities in our area. And the benefits of the ports are reaped by the nation as a whole, but the hazards, particularly the health hazards from the transportation, are disproportionately impacted on our low-income and minority communities.
ROBERT OGILVIE: Those health problems include high rates of cancer and respiratory illnesses, like asthma.
CEDRITA CLAIBORNE, ASTHMA PROGRAM MANAGER, CONTRA COSTA HEALTH SERVICES: We know that in west Contra Costa County, we're seeing that there's a high number of asthma hospitalization rates for children in the Richmond and the San Pablo areas, and we also know that African-American children are about four times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma.
ROBERT OGILVIE: Asthma's toll on the community also includes the economic burdens and the emotional challenges of dealing with a potentially life-threatening disease. Traditional asthma programs try to reduce lung irritants in the home—things like mold, tobacco smoke, and furry pets. But in Richmond, the county health department knew it also had to address the problem of air pollution. For years, residents had complained about black soot from diesel exhaust getting inside their homes.
CEDRITA CLAIBORNE: Because of the fact that we weren't able to say for certain how much diesel air pollution existed in the area, they were really concerned. They wanted to know exactly what was going on and how this was influencing their health.
ROBERT OGILVIE: The health department gave monitoring devices to community members so they could measure the exhaust. The residents found that the concentration of diesel pollution is six times higher in North Richmond than in the county as a whole — and more than 40 times higher than in the rest of California. They also pinpointed its source—diesel exhaust from trucks is the biggest factor in poor air quality, even inside people's homes. Claiborne realized that in order to tackle the problem, she would need help from other government agencies. So she reached out to an unlikely partner: the county redevelopment agency. D'Andre Wells is a redevelopment project manager.
D'ANDRE WELLS: We had trucks literally at people's doorsteps. Huge, 18—I don't even know how big they get—25-wheeler, whatever they may be, at people's doorsteps when they're leaving in the mornings. We had trucks getting lost, trying to navigate, and turn around, and backing up, and congestion.
ROBERT OGILVIE: Redevelopment agencies tend to focus on increasing tax revenue rather than health. This can make it difficult for redevelopment and health advocates to work together. But in this case, the county redevelopment agency and the health department shared a common interest: getting the trucks out of North Richmond neighborhoods. Once again, Claiborne and Wells turned to community members to document the problem.
D'ANDRE WELLS: They sat on the corners with their pens and papers and counted the number of trucks and license plates and where they thought they were coming from and where they left out of the neighborhood.
ROBERT OGILVIE: Involving residents early on was critical. Claiborne and Wells, who are themselves from Richmond, drew on their own connections to the community.
D'ANDRE WELLS: We could simply put the word out and get some of the major folks who would then turn around and tell a friend and tell another and before we knew it we had enough people engaged in the process.
ROBERT OGILVIE: Local residents mapped out a plan to reroute the trucks out of the neighborhoods, and onto major thoroughfares.
D'ANDRE WELLS: That gave them a sense of being a part of the process from the very beginning and it really kind of galvanized the community and mobilized folks to say, "Hey, you know, this is something that we all know is a problem, what can we do as citizens, to help our local government to try to come up with a solution."
CEDRITA CLAIBORNE: Policymakers really want to hear what their constituents have to say. And so when a resident comes into their meetings and shares with them what's going on with them, it really carries a lot more value and a lot more weight than a representative from the health department, for example.
ROBERT OGILVIE: After hearing from residents, the Board of Supervisors approved the new truck route. Now the redevelopment agency is raising money to improve roads, create new signs and traffic signals, and educate truckers about the new route. Building on this success, the health department and the redevelopment agency are taking a similar approach to other redevelopment projects. They're working on a plan to transform 200 acres of formerly industrial space into a new neighborhood for North Richmond. Improving health is an explicit goal in the process.
D'ANDRE WELLS: Part of that discussion has been, how do we have not just a new residential neighborhood that would have not just retail and parks and open space, but how do we have, as we're doing the development, a healthy community.
ROBERT OGILVIE: Both agencies realize that addressing health concerns in planning and getting the trucks out of residential neighborhoods are just the first steps to improving health. Residents, the health department, and the redevelopment agency have found health is a common ground as they rebuild the community together.
For Planning for Healthy Places, I'm Robert Ogilvie. For other podcasts in this series and more information on redevelopment and public health, visit www.healthyplanning.org.
ChangeLab Solutions, formerly Public Health Law & Policy
Robert Ogilvie and Hannah Burton Laurison
Lyssa Rome, Paul Lancour, and Geoff Triplett (GTrip Music and Sound Design)
This podcast was funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to Public Health Law & Policy and the Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative.
Lydia Daniller, Ha Huynh, Hannah Burton Laurison, Robert Ogilvie, and Puma Shooters/LPS Richmond
Flickr Creative Commons:
Mike Baird, Breathtaking Photos, Tom Hilton, kqedquest, misterken, Bryn Pinzgauer, Hassan Abdul Rahman, SP8254, Rennett Stowe
Contra Costa Health Services
Contra Costa County Redevelopment Agency
West County HEAL Project
Final music provided by Mevio's Music Alley: music.mevio.com