By Rachel Dovey.
National City, California, which sits just 11 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego County, is characterized more by industrial brownfield sites and sky-high asthma rates than the region’s iconic palm trees and sandy beaches. With demographics that skew low-income and high-minority, two freeways that slice through the metro within several thousand feet of each other, more fast food restaurants than grocery stores, and a port of entry cutting residents off from their waterfront, it’s a textbook example of how land use policies can cement historic health inequities and stymie civil rights.
But National City was also the first city in California to pioneer an innovative environmental justice policy recently mandated for all municipalities throughout the state. SB 1000, approved by Governor Jerry Brown last September, requires that cities consider environmental justice in their planning process — formally, that they create environmental justice “elements,” much like housing elements — as part of their general plan. Spurred in part by childhood asthma rates nearly 60 percent higher than the county average, as well as high numbers of diabetes- and coronary heart disease-related deaths, National City residents began pushing for such an element in 2005. Their success is laid out in a toolkit and guide of best practices released this month by the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA), which co-sponsored SB 1000.
The city adopted its environmental justice element in 2012, five years before Brown signed anything into law. Carolina Martínez is associate director of policy at the National City-based Environmental Health Coalition, and she says that the idea originated among community members, not elected officials, and that, in fact, it was the grassroots nature of the process that made it possible in the first place.