Under the morning clouds, the Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland was chilly as organizers got ready for the 20th Annual Oakland Earthexpo Environmental Sustainability Fair. At 9 am on Wednesday, around 100 tables were in place to start the fair, but most of them were empty. Slowly, vendors began to drift in, setting up their signs, merchandising and sign-up forms, as the sun started to warm the place and curious people began to visit the stands.
But by noon, the fair was crowded. Young and old, families and children, flocked to the plaza to grab some lunch and stop by the fair, which is organized by the City of Oakland. The dynamic was the same in every table: people would approach timidly; vendors would notice their interest and offer some information to catch their attention. What happened next was usually a conversation full of questions and answers about the environment: recycling, waste reduction, water, energy, wildlife and contamination.
For-profits companies, non-profits and government agencies participated in this sort of “showcase for Oakland environmental organizations,” said Becky Dowdakin, the environmental services manager for the City of Oakland. “With this particular event, we are reaching out to people who live in Oakland downtown,” Dowdakin said, adding that the fair is a way to show people “what the city is doing to engage the community in environmental sustainability.”
“The most important thing for us is to reach everybody in the city, not just the self-selective environmentalist, but everybody,” she added.
For Nora Dye, this was her fourth time behind the stand of Cycles of Change in the fair, where they promote their programs and where people can sign-up to participate. The non-profit based in East Oakland works to “connect youth and adults with the world around them” through different bike programs, said Dye, who is a board member. The non-profit tries to create healthier communities by giving people tools for more sustainable living through school-based bicycle education, watershed education, job training and a community earn-a-bike program. Oakland Upcycle, which provides over 200 low-income East Bay residents with free bikes, and The Bikery, a not-for-profit bike shop in Oakland, are some of Cycles of Change’s programs.
At another table, Richard Bailey, founder of the Lake Merritt Institute, was promoting the volunteer-based Clean Lake program. Over the years, the problem of contamination at Lake Merritt is “getting better,” Bailey said, but “there’s a lot to be done.” Volunteers have found balls, hats, cellphones and even a couple kilograms of cocaine in the lake, he added.
Meanwhile, the East Bay Regional Park District had brought its “mobile visitor center,” a van with educational purposes. On a table next to the van, naturalist Leanne Grossman had displayed a bunch of pelts and matching skulls so people could guess which ones belonged to the same animal, and learn the differences between them. Native species like raccoons and coyotes, and exotic species like the red fox were among the wildlife pelts on display so people can learn about ecology, said Grossman.
Dowdakin said that the community is “very aware” of environmental problems. “I can say that the city [of Oakland] is a leader in sustainability,” she said. She was wearing a light blue t-shirt that read: “Ask me about Adopt A Storm Drain,” a reference to a city program through which people can chose a drain close to where they live, and clean it out after it rains. That way, the trash that accumulates on top of the drains doesn’t end up in the watercourses.
There are 527 drain adopters and close to 10,000 drains adopted, according to data provided by Jennifer Stern, the city’s environmental stewardship analyst. Almost half of the adopters signed up within the last five months.
“The City of Oakland has been doing sustainability programs formally since the mid-‘90s,” said Daniel Hamilton, the sustainability program manager for the city. He was also wearing the same light blue t-shirt and a green hardhat with the word “Sustainability” on it. Hamilton said that one of the most successful environmental improvements has been at the Port of Oakland, where a program that makes large ships turn off their diesel engines and run electricity from the docks has allowed them to significantly reduce pollution.
The City of Oakland organizes the expo in the beginning of April, so people keep thinking about it when the Earth Day takes place on April 22, said Mike Perlmutter, who was in charge of the logistics for the Earthexpo.
A mother who was attending the fair for the first time with her 6-year-old son said they were particularly interested in learning how to recycle. “He always forgets what goes in each trashcan,” she said, “so we came here to teach him.”