By Paula White
Since the mid-March lockdown, I’ve been spending a lot more time at home, puttering in my garden, doing crossword puzzles, and yes, participating in zoom sessions. I’ve also been walking and biking more and am so grateful for the nearby parks and streetside gardens I encounter on my walks through the neighborhood. Yet for many this pandemic has been extraordinarily stressful, even deadly. Black and Latinx communities have been disproportionately burdened by COVID-19. Some are health care workers on the front lines, working long hours caring for infected people. Others work at groceries stores and pharmacies, hoping that they don’t encounter an unmasked person that day. Many are children trying to learn online without internet access. And communities of color lack parks and recreational facilities. COVID-19 has underscored what we already knew: equality in America is only an ideal — inequality is real.
What are we going to do about it? Back in 2018, The Watershed Project sat down with North Richmond residents, community leaders, representatives of governmental agencies, and graphic designers to come up with a vision for a better tomorrow as part of the Resilient by Design Challenge. Known as the Home Team, this group developed models for the community that included protection from flooding, trees to filter pollutants, new housing types and innovative home ownership models, enhanced recreational opportunities and new career opportunities in the green economy. Two years later, there are 50 more trees in North Richmond lining the streets. Plans are underway to build a horizontal levee to protect the West County Wastewater facility on the North Richmond shoreline. The County’s Flood Control District is also planning to upgrade the aging pump station to prevent future flooding as a result of sea level rise.
There’s still plenty of work ahead. North Richmond and similar Bay Area communities are at risk of gentrification. Investments in green infrastructure must be paired with a maintenance strategy and funding source. One possible model is a green benefit district that would raise revenue through taxes on polluters. The funds could be spent on developing an urban conservation corps comprised of community residents who maintain trees, bioswales, gardens, and parks. In addition, anti-gentrification policies that protect residents from being displaced need to be put in place. Tiny homes are one example of a strategy that would allow current and former displaced residents to live affordably in North Richmond. Princess Robinson, one of the participants in the 2018 Resilient by Design Challenge recently hosted a Tiny Homes demonstration event in North Richmond. In her words, “Community driven projects are essential to our neighborhoods going forward in our new world. I am the change I want to see in my community”.
Robinson, a mother and resident of North Richmond also conducted the Wildcat Creek Visioning Project . She asked North Richmond residents what they wanted to see along the Wildcat Creek Trail. They, like her, wanted more park-like amenities, benches, picnic tables, water fountains, play spaces for children, interpretive signs, even trash cans. These are the kinds of amenities Robinson had seen on many other Bay Area trails. Many of the older residents she spoke to told stories about the times they had spent playing in the creek as kids. These stories resonated with me too. I was always playing in the creek in the woods behind our house. Verde Elementary School is located across from Wildcat Creek. Every day (before COVID-19) students crossed the bridge over Wildcat Creek to get to school. Today, the creek is not a safe place to play, but it could be, with community support, a vision, and some funding—perhaps from the parks bond Prop. 68.
Spending time outdoors is a great way to relax, recharge, and reconnect. A student who participated in our Virtual Classroom for Kids lessons that were created in response to the pandemic commented, “My favorite part about this unit was how I got to go outside, a relief from the inside world of quarantine.” That is one of the goals of the Hope Gardens project, to create an inviting outdoor space in the community to make it more enjoyable for walking. With ten gardens in the ground and five more to come next year, North Richmond has a few more bright spots for residents to enjoy as they walk around the neighborhood. Community resilience isn’t measured by how many trees or gardens get planted—it’s about being connected to places we love and to each other, and for standing up and demanding that we get what we need.