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Oakland adopts environmental plan that misses many resident concerns

on October 15, 2023

Oakland City Council recently approved the city’s first Environment Justice Element to address pollution, health food access and other health risks over the next two decades. But many of the recommendations Oakland residents put forth were ignored, some community leaders say.  

City Council approved the 222-page Environmental Justice Element last month as part of the city’s 2045 General Plan. While the city invited feedback from residents in low-income areas and communities of color — those most impacted by environmental pollution — many of their recommendations were not incorporated.

“The community is excited about it, but they’re also very dubious about it too. They don’t have a lot of trust in this process,” David De La Gran, a program manager for the Deeply Rooted Collaborative, told the council.

In 2021, the city selected Deeply Rooted Collaborative, a consortium of 13 Oakland organizations, to gather input about the General Plan from residents. According to a public memo, Deeply Rooted has engaged over 9,000 housed and unhoused residents through live events and online outreach since November 2021. 

Of the 75 recommendations Deeply Rooted submitted to the city, De La Gran said only 39 were adopted. 

Unincorporated recommendations include providing culturally relevant nutritional classes, funding for residents to acquire solar panels, conducting a study on grocery store closures, and providing unhoused residents access to clean water. 

“When you invite us to the table and don’t listen to what we say, that’s tokenism,” said Needa Bee, a Deeply Rooted member and interim executive director at the Village in Oakland, a nonprofit that advocates for unhoused people. She said no environmental justice or safety recommendations from unhoused residents made it into the General Plan.

A map showing purple sections of the city in east and west Oakland where pollution is high; blue by the port, greens around downtown and yellow (less pollution) north. of Lake Merritt to the Berkeley border.
Map showing low-income areas in Oakland disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution. (Courtesy City of Oakland)

Oakland’s environmental justice efforts are mandatory. Former Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1000 in 2016, creating a law requiring all California municipalities with “disadvantaged communities” to develop environmental justice policies when updating two or more elements of their General Plan. Oakland updated its Housing Element earlier this year, followed by Environmental Justice and Safety Elements in September.  

Despite some community pushback, the state Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office cited Oakland’s Environmental Justice Element draft 14 times in a recently published summary of Senate Bill 1000 best practices. As one example, Oakland’s updated zoning code allows for more residential density in less polluted neighborhoods.

Khalilha Haynes, a planner in Oakland’s Planning and Building Department, told the City Council that some recommendations received through Deeply Rooted Collaborative fall outside the scope of the city’s responsibility.

Aminah Luqman, Capacity Building Program manager at the Greenlining Institute, a statewide racial justice and policy nonprofit based in Oakland, criticized the city’s lack of a plan for intentional community engagement after the planning process.

“Without meaningful engagement, we’re not going to create meaningful policies that actually bring direct benefits to the communities that they mapped out through this process,” Luqman said. “It’s not environmental justice work if community is not included.”

Sharifa Taylor, a researcher for Communities for a Better Environment and member of Deeply Rooted, is concerned that residents wanting to participate lack the necessary information. She’s calling on the city to provide Spanish, Mandarin, and Farsi translations of the Environmental Justice Element and an accessible file format for people with visual disabilities.

Haynes said in an email that the city is working on translating the General Plan, “starting with the goals, policies, and actions in each Element.”

People power

Implementation of the Environmental Justice Element is already underway. As recommended by Deeply Rooted, the city will create an “online reporting framework that will be accessible to the public and regularly updated,” according to Haynes. “We will also provide a biennial progress report on the EJ Element and climate actions identified in the 2030 Equitable Climate Action Plan.”

Before City Council approved the Environmental Justice Element, Councilmember Dan Kalb added more accountability by requiring the city administrator to develop an “interagency working group of people from within and outside the City of Oakland, including the Port of Oakland” to address air pollution. The city administrator has six months to report back.

Some community leaders are still skeptical about who will be at the table — and who will be heard — as plans move forward. 

Taylor and her co-worker Adele Watts, a community organizer at Communities for a Better Environment, said all Oaklanders should read the improvements and programs section of the Environmental Justice Element and the maps and tables to understand how policies will shape different neighborhoods. 

“A lot of times, people of color are not taught or raised up to believe that our voice matters, and so we don’t engage in these processes,” Watts said. “But when we do, we can definitely make an impact. People power changes things.”

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