City of Fresno: On Health Outcomes, City Planning, & Environmental Injustice

Decades of poor planning and environmental injustices cannot be fixed in one year.

The decline of equity within our city has been increasingly noticeable and documented.  Last year, the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal-EPA), released a report that identified 93706 as the most disadvantaged zip code in our state.

More specifically, CalEnviroScreen 1.0 showed that families in South West Fresno live with higher health risks than anyone in the state just by living in South West Fresno.  This systemic mapping of illness correlates with the inequity that has become the face of Fresno.

Recently, CalEnviroScreen 2.0, the Cal-EPA updated version was released, providing improved rankings and variables.  For Fresno, the new details highlight more closely the conditions of specific neighborhoods.  According to the report, Fresno has 8 of the 10 most vulnerable census tracts in the state–most of those concentrated in downtown and South West Fresno.

As a city we have succumbed thousands of our neighbors to alarming conditions of health attainment.  On a daily basis, these Fresnans have to fight against decades of marginalization, poor city planning, and lack of healthcare access just by living in their neighborhood.

Perhaps for some residents and/or city leaders it is easy to forget these poor conditions, but for the families who care for a child with asthma, it is hard to forget.  It’s hard to forget if you live near the Darling Rendering Plant, which continues to operate in West Fresno without a conditional use permit. This plant has polluted the air for decades, and for decades the city’s preferred response has been inaction.  In other words, although our city leaders can forget about this plant, our neighborhoods cannot forget.

So here we are, one year later, two Cal-EPA reports later, and how much has really changed?  More so, how much could really change?  What actions can the city undertake to improve the conditions of the neighborhoods that are most disadvantaged?

At the core of health attainment, there exist several key sustainable city planning principles that our city can employ for the health of all of its residents.  Many of those principles are often clouded by poor political framing and incoherent rhetoric, but those principles still exist.  Communities need to be re-invested in, rather than sacrificed for outskirt development.  Sustainable economic development does not mean keep building out, but rather incentivize a diverse, locally owned business framework that can survive market mishaps.  Stop sprawl, just stop it—it dilutes city resources, causes stable neighborhoods to decay, and consumes prime farmland.  Investment in school districts reduces crime and yields a prosperous and civically engaged populous.  Furthermore, implementing health-in-all policies can advise representatives when forming CUP requirements, and push our transportation infrastructure towards a convenient, centralized, public transportation resonance that will improve our health and reduce CO2 emissions.

Central California Environmental Justice Network, along with other leaders and community groups represent a movement for environmental justice and sustainable change to our city.  Our advocacy focuses on sustainable strategies that will benefit all of Fresno and reinvest in those neighborhoods that we have forgotten along the way.

I believe that with better organization and invested leaders we can change everything.  2014 is another key year for city planning in Fresno, as we approach the 2035 General Plan update process later this year.  I hope that we learn from the mistakes that we’ve made for decades, and choose this year to make a commitment for change.  I hope that city staff, council, community advocates, developers, the mayor, and residents recognize we are playing for the same team as we draft a strategy that makes sense.

I start this piece with what we cannot fix in one year, but I want to end with what we can fix.  This year, we can fix the fragmented morale of this city.  We can choose to enter the council chambers ready to have difficult conversations but not as though our goal is to defeat each other.  Our representatives can choose to listen to their constituents rather than being distracted by self-interests.  And most importantly we can all hold ourselves and peers accountable for being honest and playing for team Fresno.