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Building Capacity in Communities

Karen Henry, US EPA Region 9

“An ancient Chinese proverb says, "If you give a man a fish, you have eased his hunger for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you have eased his hunger for a lifetime."

San Diego, California is composed of a mix of residential, commercial, and industrial sites.  During and after World War II, the San Diego area experienced remarkable development due to rapid population growth and a huge investment in the military and in industrial complexes.  This unexpected growth and development did not allow for proper residential planning for the development of communities.  So, residential areas and industrial zones were integrated.  As a result, some areas exhibit an unhealthy mixture of homes, schools, and environmentally hazardous facilities.  In the communities of Barrio Logan and Pacoima, the residents live in close proximity to chemical intensive industries which produce, store, and emit toxic chemicals and waste into the neighborhood.  Although these industries produce some of the largest quantities of hazardous waste in the city of San Diego, the community just recently, within the last twenty years, learned about the health-risk associated with living there. 

Once informed the community decided they wanted to “learn to fish rather than be given one fish”.  They came together and organized a group to address the many environmental health risks facing their community.   With EPA’s assistance, Barrio Logan and Pacoima developed the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) based on efforts intended to "build local capacity" to deal with environmental problems.  These "capacity building" efforts paid off in Pacoima and Barrio Logan last year.

In Pacoima, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, 200 Latino and African-American families took advantage of an EPA Collaborative Problem-Solving grant to make home improvements that reduced their risk of lead poisoning.   The community group involved, Pacoima Beautiful, also surveyed local physicians and found that only 28% of low-income children were being tested for blood lead levels because physicians mistakenly thought there was no danger. The group persuaded 25 doctors to get training on lead poisoning prevention and screening.

In Barrio Logan, the community along with EPA, California-EPA, and the Environmental Health Coalition began a pilot project collaborative in 2000, to address the concerns of the community regarding the health effects of large commercial trucks parked on neighborhood streets.  These big rigs not only posed a threat to the children crossing the streets walking back and forth to school but they would also lay idle for hours, pumping carcinogenic diesel exhaust into the air.   The Collaborative worked with city government staff to develop a simple but effective way to virtually eliminate truck idling:  they changed street parking to diagonal spaces too small for the big rigs, posted more "No Parking" and "No Idling" signs, and worked with traffic enforcement officers to ensure that the new rules were enforced. Trucks stopped parking in the residential area, allowing residents to breathe easier.  Further, they posted slow down and speed limit signs and installed speed bumps near the schools to help reduce the speed of the trucks traveling through the neighborhood near the school crossing routes.  For more information on this project, e-mail Karen Henry (henry.karen@epa.gov) or phone her at 415-972-3844.  More information is also available at EPA's Barrio Logan page (https://www.epa.gov/region9/features/barriologan) and at The Barrio Logan Partnership: A Case Study (PDF) (28pp, 84K, About PDF) (https://www.epa.gov/evaluate/barriologan.pdf).

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