Uneven Ground Part III: Chasing equity in a changing climate

This story was produced as part of a larger project for the 2019 California Fellowship, a program of USC Annenberg's Center for Health Journalism.

Other stories in this series include:

Uneven Ground: How unequal land use harms communities in southern San Mateo County

Uneven Ground Part II: Navigating Food Deserts and Swamps

East Palo Alto is a cut-through haven, observes Susan Barnes, who has spent the last year puzzling exclusively over how to solve the city’s traffic woes. For the former city of Palo Alto economic development and redevelopment manager, it’s a huge challenge, but one that excites her.

As an executive fellow with Fuse Corps, a nonprofit that positions professionals to tackle year-long projects in local governments, she’s been tasked with helping East Palo Alto, slammed by the rampant commercial growth of its neighbors - including the one she used to work for - make its roads work for its residents.

She’s leading a mobility study to try to figure out how to help residents get around a city where a staggering 84% of trips don’t start or end in city limits, and where residents themselves drive far less than people who live elsewhere in San Mateo County. According to county health data, East Palo Alto residents travel by car only three miles per day, substantially less than the city’s neighbors in more affluent areas: Menlo Park residents average nine miles per day; Portola Valley, 11 miles; Woodside, 13 miles; and Atherton, 19 miles.

“We have plenty of housing, but we don’t have jobs that are available to employable residents. People have to traverse out of East Palo Alto to go to their workplace,” Barnes said.

As one of the three primary routes to get to Bayfront Expressway and the Dumbarton Bridge, University Avenue is a critical artery for commuters from the East Bay. Those commuters have access to a few transbay buses but overall limited public transit options. At the peak evening traffic hour, drivers crossing the Dumbarton Bridge average speeds as low as 4 to 7 mph.

The congestion results in pollutants emitted into the air, which is likely part of the reason that East Palo Alto residents suffer three times the county asthma rate, and kids, in particular, are being impacted.

Sandra Nova, a pediatric nurse at the Ravenswood Family Health Clinic, told the Palo Alto Weekly earlier this year that asthma is the most common physical health problem among children in East Palo Alto.

The distances between where the Bay Area’s job centers are and where the housing units are have led to a regional problem many decades in the making, and East Palo Alto and Belle Haven are stuck in the middle. That locals are being impacted so severely, Barnes said, is part of the reason that she’s exploring some bold ideas in the city’s mobility study, like congestion pricing - tolls for drivers who use the road at peak traffic times - on University Avenue.

“This community has got a little bit of fatigue about people asking them questions and never getting solutions,” she said. “So let’s get some solutions.”

While East Palo Alto isn’t as threatened by toxic industrial chemical spills as it was during the days when Romic Environmental Technologies was operating there, it and the communities of Belle Haven and North Fair Oaks, which are made up of predominantly minority residents, are now being subjected to a different, chronic and devastating form of industrial pollution: a jobs-housing balance so skewed that it squeezes even middle-class renters out of their homes, makes children wheeze from the tailpipe exhaust of vehicles driven by people who can’t afford to live near their jobs, and leaves huge swaths of Bay Area residents - especially people of color - only two choices: a grueling commute or substandard housing.

A short history

So how did the jobs-housing balance get so bad in San Mateo County?

Alex Schafran, who wrote “The Road to Resegregation: Northern California and the Failure of Politics” and recently spoke at the Menlo Park Library, argues that it has to do with the fragmentation of the Bay Area’s political powers.

While Bay Area politicians lean blue and united on social issues, when it comes to questions around housing policy and infrastructure, there hasn’t been a regional, committed consensus that has aligned over the fundamental need for sufficient housing and functional transportation for decades, he asserts.

He chronicles how the initial post-war housing and transportation boom dramatically changed the Bay Area, cordoning communities of color into undesirable areas and promoting environmentally unsustainable suburban sprawl. White families took advantage of the federally-funded highways and single-family homes, which helped many achieve middle-class status and accumulate wealth they were able to pass on to later generations.

As Bay Area-wide growth accelerated, though, a growing environmentalist movement - one that was not particularly racially inclusive - pushed back against it, particularly in wealthier communities. 

The pushback, however, was one-sided, especially in Silicon Valley, Schafran argues. Communities didn’t oppose the growth of their cities into job centers, since more commercial activity meant more taxes to support public services. But they did oppose the addition of housing, especially affordable housing, and joined philanthropic efforts to preserve open space, especially near their homes, making housing growth in these areas increasingly difficult.

At one point during the 1990s, San Mateo County was adding 12 jobs for every new housing unit, he reports.

Developers took their housing construction across the Bay, such as to unincorporated areas in Contra Costa County and beyond. Ultimately, he argues, in the decades after formal segregation ended and communities of color got their shot at the suburban American dream, they were largely priced out of the exclusive Peninsula and, more broadly, the entire West Bay.

When many people of color in the Bay Area got access to the American ideal of suburban homeownership, they got it on worse terms than their white counterparts. The homes that were available were often in the far reaches of the East Bay, and came with destabilizing forces like bad commutes and subprime mortgages.

During the foreclosure crisis, in communities like Antioch, Schafran reports, the foreclosure rate was about 13 times that Redwood City and hundreds of times greater than many other parts of Silicon Valley.

Today, communities of color in southern San Mateo County like Belle Haven, East Palo Alto and North Fair Oaks not only bear exclusionary and environmental trauma from their past and barriers to accessing healthy lifestyles in the present, as explored in parts one and two of this series. They also face greater vulnerability to the threats created by increased climate change in the future.

Heightened threats

Research shows that communities defined as being “socially vulnerable” stand a greater risk of being more impacted by the adverse effects of climate change.

According to a 2012 report by the Pacific Institute, some of the factors that make people more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change are being low-income, a person of color, a woman, elderly, a child, someone with disabilities, a renter, geographically or linguistically isolated, and isolated from public agencies because one fears them. People are also more vulnerable if they lack a vehicle, health insurance or a high school diploma, or if they are or have been incarcerated.

The report found that about 22%, or 153,000 people in the county, faced high levels of social vulnerability to climate change.

Some of the greatest threats in the county stemming from a changing environment are air quality and flooding. 

Air quality

In southern San Mateo County, the nearest Bay Area Air Quality Management District air quality monitor is located in Redwood City, which precludes more precise readings on traffic-related air quality in other areas, such as Belle Haven and East Palo Alto.

According to Kate Hoag, assistant manager at BAAQMD, the air quality being monitored at the district’s Redwood City station is clean by federal and state standards. However, she added, “We do acknowledge that other localized, elevated air pollution can remain in some communities.”

While the BAAQMD’s jurisdiction doesn’t include vehicle-related air pollution, which is overseen by the California Air Resources Board, the district still supports efforts to reduce such pollution with grantmaking and incentives, district spokesperson Ralph Borrman noted.

The air quality district is also investing in strategies to take more detailed street-level air quality measurements. Its board in March approved a nearly $6 million contract with the hyperlocal air quality-monitoring company Aclima.

Under the contract terms, the company is expected to drive low-emissions vehicles repeatedly along every street in the district’s territory over the next two years. The vehicles are equipped with air-monitoring sensors that will measure baseline concentrations of various air pollutants throughout the Bay Area, and the results will be made public through a community online data portal.

On a more grassroots level, Sustainable Silicon Valley, a nonprofit that is pursuing community work in East Palo Alto to decrease the poor air quality from cut-through traffic, recently installed three air-quality monitors in East Palo Alto along University Drive.

The nonprofit is working on an initiative called “Smart TA” - that’s short for traffic analytics - to collect its own data to see how traffic is impacting air quality in East Palo Alto.

Ultimately, explained the organization’s board chair, Drew Clark, the goal is to bring together traffic and air quality data and look for correlations.

Having hyperlocal data about air quality will likely be of use to communities in the future, when air quality is expected to get even worse. According to the Pacific Institute report, an estimated 14 million residents live in census tracts that, by 2050, are projected to have levels of fine particulate matter in the air above the state standard. That’s about 39% of California’s population, compared with the 15% of residents now affected by high particulate matter levels.

So far, Sustainable Silicon Valley has installed monitors on top of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District’s East Palo Alto station and St. Francis of Assisi Church, which are roughly across the street from each other, and at the East Palo Alto YMCA to track both particulate matter and pollutant gases like carbon monoxide, nitrogen and sulfur oxides, and ozone. The two locations across from each other are intended to help Sustainable Silicon Valley get both upwind and downwind readings, Clark explained.

The organization has found that there’s a learning curve to understanding the data to get accurate and meaningful measurements. “You really have to understand the data and the placement of the sensors,” Executive Director Jennifer Thompson said in an interview. It’s working with the BAAQMD to learn how to use the air quality monitor readings, and is still in the process of collecting and interpreting data, Clark said.

Menlo Park’s City Council representative for Belle Haven, Mayor Pro Tem Cecilia Taylor, has expressed interest in getting air quality monitors in Belle Haven as well.

People interested in learning more about the Sustainable Silicon Valley initiative are invited to attend a community event about the program from 5 to 8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 4, at the East Palo Alto YMCA at 550 Bell St.


San Mateo County has been identified as the California county with the highest number of residents likely to be vulnerable to impacts during a flood.

During rainy seasons, communities have already been victims to dramatic flood impacts, particularly in a set of mobile home parks on Redwood City’s Bay side. As a 2017 Peninsula Press article pointed out, the area is in a FEMA-designated special flood zone, which is partly why land is more affordable. There are only two small areas along East Bayshore Road where mobile housing is permitted in the city’s zoning.

These households are particularly vulnerable because mobile homes and their residents are often not eligible for post-disaster assistance funds.

On a positive note, on Sept. 12, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB825, brought forward by state Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, which will permit San Mateo County to expand its flood protection district to incorporate a broader mission of sea level rise resiliency.

This is expected to help make projects more competitive for state and federal grants and change the governing and funding structure of the existing district to become a separate agency to make it easier to tackle sea level rise-related projects aimed at stemming local flooding risks.

Taking steps for a different future

As the threat of climate change impacts becomes a more imminent peril, several groups in the county are taking innovative steps to engage and develop leadership in these more threatened communities.

In North Fair Oaks and East Palo Alto, the county Health Department is working on an initiative called the Community Collaboration for Children’s Success. It works with youth and families to figure out how best to support youth using a “trauma-informed community building” model that promotes community empowerment and reflection.

When it comes to local governance in North Fair Oaks, the county’s track record on listening to local residents is mixed, says Community Council Chair Ever Rodriguez. 

“It is ironic that you have three of the richest cities in the U.S. right next to an area that is disenfranchised and lacking services,” he said.

Unlike the 20 cities of San Mateo County, with their well-structured government bodies and councils, he said, “we can only advise the county.”

Putting power lines underground can make a community look nicer, but in North Fair Oaks, residents are worried that doing so could worsen gentrification pressure in the neighborhood. They’d prefer to see funding spent elsewhere, according to Community Council Chair Ever Rodriguez. (Photo by Zeenat Dhillon.)

Putting power lines underground can make a community look nicer, but in North Fair Oaks, residents are worried that doing so could worsen gentrification pressure in the neighborhood. They’d prefer to see funding spent elsewhere, according to Community Council Chair Ever Rodriguez. (Photo by Zeenat Dhillon.)

The problem is compounded by low political participation among residents, he added. The community is made up of predominantly working families in the Latino community. 

“Our community particularly lacks resident participation because a lot of people have two or three jobs, because, you know, to make the rent they have to have more than one job. Often they have kids. These are really busy people.”

In addition, he added, some don’t have sufficient English skills or understanding of the political process to fully participate in council meetings.

As he sees it, recent rezoning efforts in North Fair Oaks, which in many ways were led by the county, have yielded mixed results.

On the positive side, there are now community standards in effect to push back against billboards that have constantly been advertising beer or tobacco in the neighborhood. On the negative side, he said, the county hasn’t heeded concerns voiced by community members that gentrification pressures will mount if the neighborhood is beautified too much. The county supports moving forward to underground power lines, an expensive step that would improve the appearance of the neighborhood, even though the community council favors using the funding in other ways to improve safety in the community, Rodriguez said.

North Fair Oaks has also been underrepresented in regional conversations about a revitalized Dumbarton rail line, he asserted. Residents could benefit from greater transit access, and from the added business its downtown area might get if a rail stop were to be added in the community.

In East Palo Alto, Nuestra Casa, a nonprofit that has been working in that city since 2002, uses a grassroots network of “promotoras,” people who are trained to be community leaders and disseminate information in the Latino community, which now represents a demographic majority in the communities of East Palo Alto, Belle Haven and North Fair Oaks.

To help bolster community capacity in East Palo Alto to adapt to climate change, Nuestra Casa has partnered with the county on a new initiative to develop leadership focused on that problem, funded by grant money from SB 1, a $54 billion 2017 transportation measure.

Violet Saena, resilient communities program manager at the nonprofit Acterra, explained that the initiative is aimed at supporting community leaders to work with community members to document how and why the community is vulnerable to climate change, and what can be done to make it less vulnerable.

Another significant community concern in East Palo Alto is water quality. Roxana Franco, family advocate at Nuestra Casa, said that the nonprofit is also working with YUCA, Youth United for Community Action, to start a water rights campaign. They worked with the promotoras and canvassers representing the African American and Pacific Islander communities to conduct about 730 surveys throughout the community asking people what they think about water in the city, whether they use tap water for food and drinking, and about their concerns about climate change and sea level rise.

While they’re still in the process of analyzing data, she said, “One big issue that came up is that our community wants education on flooding, climate change and sea level rise.”

Younger people in particular, she said, are passionate about environmental justice and climate change.

“They’re starting to be activists,” she said.

The sense that the youth in these communities are observing the environment closely and developing skills for resiliency was borne out through The Almanac’s own partnership for this project with students from Girls to Women, a summer program for middle school-aged girls in East Palo Alto. We provided six students with disposable cameras and asked them to take pictures of what was healthy or unhealthy in their community.

We interviewed four of them, and all commented that they noticed a lot of trash on the streets, but added that they felt their community was fairly healthy and had improved even in the duration of their childhoods.

Nathalia, 12, said the assignment made her realize that “there’s a lot of trash everywhere.”

“There are dead animals in the street sometimes,” said Sitara, 13.

Selijah, 11, said that while seeing missing person posters made her and others uncomfortable, there’s a lot about the community she likes - for example, that a new fire station was built nearby to fight the growing number of fires.

And when she was asked to take pictures of healthy things in the community, she captured rich images of the local animal shelter, a mural, flowers growing in the park, and the Ecumenical Hunger Program.

“Those things stood out because they made me feel like our city is getting better,” she said.

This is the last of a three-part series exploring why the communities of Belle Haven, North Fair Oaks and East Palo Alto experience greater environmental health burdens than neighboring jurisdictions. Kate Bradshaw reported this story as part of her University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Health Journalism 2019 California Fellowship, with engagement support from the center’s interim engagement editor, Danielle Fox. Three bilingual Sequoia High School students, Nataly Manzanero, Ashley Barraza and Mia Palacios, with the author, conducted more than 100 Spanish and English language interviews used in this report. Some of the photos are provided by middle school students who live in East Palo Alto and participated in a summer program of Girls to Women, an East Palo Alto nonprofit working to empower girls and women in the community.

The Almanac has partnered with Cafe Zoe and will be displaying some of the photographs from this project at the Menlo Park cafe throughout the month of October. We’ll share more information as details are finalized.

[This article was originally published by Palo Alto Online.]