By Emi Wang and Dora Frietze-Armenta
CalMatters

Something remarkable is happening in the Northeast San Fernando Valley communities of Pacoima and Sun Valley – something that shows how the U.S. can fight climate change while building healthier, more livable and more prosperous communities for all.

That something is a little-known state program called Transformative Climate Communities.

The Northeast San Fernando Valley is a working-class area whose residents are predominantly Latino, Black and Asian – the essential workers who’ve helped keep California running during the pandemic. But it’s been held back by decades of redlining, disinvestment and neglect. With multiple, polluting industrial facilities and surrounded by three freeways, this community carries a heavy pollution burden, with high rates of asthma and other respiratory issues.

And in one of the hottest corners of Los Angeles County, working class families struggle with mounting utility bills to keep the air conditioning running in triple-digit heat.

California created Transformative Climate Communities exactly for communities like this. The program empowers the communities most impacted by poverty and pollution to define their own goals and solutions to reduce pollution, fight climate change and address community economic needs – and provides the funding to make those dreams real.

Under Transformative Climate Communities, government plays a role but doesn’t necessarily run the show. Indeed, the Northeast San Fernando Valley Transformative Climate Communities project was conceived by local community groups and residents, and has been led by them from initial planning to implementation that started mid-2020. These residents know best what their neighborhoods need.

Pacoima Beautiful, a community organization that has been fighting for a quarter century to reduce environmental injustices, pulled together a neighborhood coalition called the Green Together Collaborative that conceived the plan, then applied for and received $23 million in state funding. Following Transformative Climate Communities’ guidelines, which require in-depth community involvement and leadership, residents themselves put together a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet urgent community needs.

Residents identified a holistic vision centered on clean transportation, pedestrian safety, street improvements, greening and climate resilience. With state Transformative Climate Communities’ funding plus other moneys leveraged in connection with the project (using the program’s grants to leverage additional sources of money is a key strategy), the Green Together Collaborative has begun a series of projects that will clean the air, cut CO2 emissions, create a greener, healthier community and create good jobs.

Altogether the project will plant and maintain 2,000 street trees to reduce urban “heat island” effects while taking CO2 out of the air, rejuvenate a community park, improve local transit with clean, electric buses and new light rail stops, provide free solar power systems for 175 homes, and make improvements to make neighborhood streets safer and more inviting for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Already completed is the Bradley Green Alley in Pacoima, which turned a neglected alley into a landscaped and inviting public space, linked with the freshly-reinvigorated Bradley Plaza to create a green, healthy place to gather, play and exercise.

As the project moves forward, Pacoima Beautiful organizers continue to work with project leads to do door-to-door outreach to keep residents involved, and the project also includes an anti-displacement strategy to help address overcrowded housing conditions, protect residents and support small business owners.

Now imagine projects like this unfolding in dozens more communities around California and thousands more around the U.S. It can happen if we want.

When The Greenlining Institute did an in-depth analysis of Transformative Climate Communities’ implementation thus far, we found that it’s been funded too sparsely and inconsistently to achieve anything like its full potential. So far only eight communities have received the sort of implementation grants already doing so much good in Pacoima. That’s a problem that Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Legislature can fix.

Meanwhile, as Congress wrestles with how to address climate change, California has presented it with a template – a model rooted in equity for how to cut CO2 emissions and build thriving, healthy neighborhoods.