2012-03 "EcoCenter Brings Environmental Justice to Bayview-Hunters Point; The Bay Area’s first environmental justice education facility, the EcoCenter at Heron’s Head Park in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, recently received a visit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency" by Bill Picture
The Bay Area’s first environmental justice education facility, the EcoCenter at Heron’s Head Park in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, recently received a visit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Government officials were excited to see with their own eyes how stimulus dollars helped reinvigorate a disadvantaged community by demonstrating to its residents the short- and long-term benefits of sustainability.
Nancy Stoner, the EPA’s acting assistant administrator for water, led the recent press tour and said she was "blown away" by what the lead organizers of the project—Literacy for Environmental Justice, the Port of San Francisco, the San Francisco Department of the Environment, and the State Coastal Conservancy—have accomplished.
Stimulus funding provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was signed into law by President Obama in 2009, covered the lion’s share of the totally green facility’s construction costs. "What I saw was a great amenity created with the best interests of the people who live and work in that part of the City in mind," Stoner said.
Location, location, location -
The EcoCenter’s location in one of the City’s most challenged neighborhoods is no coincidence. Over the last several decades, San Francisco’s southeast sector has been plagued by the still-lasting effects of its deindustrialization in the 1970s and 1980s—unemployment, poverty and a lack of needed infrastructure. Gang- and drug-related activity has also ravaged the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, the health of its residents (and the neighborhood’s overall environmental health) continues to be impacted by industrial pollution left over from its industrial heyday.
Bayview-Hunters Point’s most infamous polluters—the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard (whose high levels of radiological contamination earned it Superfund status) and a PG&E power plant—may be gone, but their presence continues to be felt. According to the group Hunters Point Family, Bayview-Hunters Point has the highest infant mortality rates in the City, and one of the highest rates of heart disease, breast cancer, strokes and asthma in the nation.
The EcoCenter overlooks the site of the former PG&E plant, from whose smokestacks toxic pollutants billowed for 75 years until community groups forced its closure in 2006. "The EcoCenter is valuable to this community in a lot of ways, and part of that value is symbolic," said Milton Reynolds, chair of Literacy for Environmental Justice’s (LEJ) Board of Directors. LEJ manages the EcoCenter.
"We fought so hard to shut that plant down," he said. "But tearing things down isn’t enough. To rebuild this community, we have to create new opportunities and build assets."
Build it green, and they will come -
For the most part, sustainable living has yet to permeate the psyches of Americans living below (or straddling) the poverty line. For them, being green has had to take a backseat to survival, and decisions continue to be made largely based on shortest-term benefits and outcomes, whereas sustainability relies more on bigger-picture thinking and longer-term investments.
Still, Reynolds believes that by simply exposing residents in underserved communities to the possibilities afforded by sustainable living—namely, the jobs created by evolving green technologies, as well as health benefits and long-run savings—they can be inspired to think and act greener.
"We want to engage them, particularly young people," he said. "I heard that Bayview-Hunters Point has more young people than any other part of the City. I see many opportunities there, one of them being to catalyze the next generation of environmentalists."
To that end, every aspect of the EcoCenter’s design and construction is intended to be a "wow" moment that opens young eyes (and older ones) to exciting innovations in sustainability, and hopefully inspires new ideas. In addition to a living roof that reduces heating and cooling needs, retains stormwater for reuse onsite and serves as a wildlife habitat, the facility also features reconstituted glass countertops and a foundation made of recycled concrete, which has been mixed with a byproduct of the steel-making process to create the strongest concrete known to man.
The EcoCenter is the "off-grid" building in an urban center, meaning it produces its own power and treats its own wastewater. The only resource that the facility pulls from municipal sources is water for the fire sprinkler system. Even toilets use collected rainwater for flushing.
Perhaps its biggest "wow" moment, however, is the EcoCenter’s "living machine." To put it in easy-to-understand terminology, the living machine employs a multi-step process involving ultraviolet sterilization lamps, matter-digesting microbes and various natural filtration methods to turn wastewater into usable water.
"And for the most part, it happens right there in front of you," said Reynolds. "It’s a tangible way for people to make a connection to the way they use water."
"And as a water person, that’s really exciting to me,’" said the EPA’s Stoner. Wastewater is a touchy subject for residents of the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. San Francisco has a combined sewer system that feeds wastewater and stormwater to treatment facilities via the same pipe system. Bayview-Hunters Point is home to a major treatment facility, and during heavy rains that overtax the outdated sewer system, partially treated sewage sometimes overflows from the treatment facility into surrounding streets. Furthermore, the facility is to blame for the putrid smell that permeates the air in neighboring blocks year-round.
"Some would point to that as another example of inequity," said Reynolds. And he sees the building of the EcoCenter at Heron’s Head Park as an attempt to balance that inequity.
"Bringing these resources into underserved communities is an affirmative step toward acknowledging some inequitable treatment in the past and bringing it up to par with the resources dedicated to other communities," he said. "Crissy Field is a fantastic facility, and a very important one. We needed something like that here."
Stoner agrees with Reynolds that easy access to facilities like Crissy Field and the EcoCenter is important for all Americans: "In fact, I’d say, if you don’t have a lot of money to spend, it’s even more important that you be able to step out your front door and enjoy the environment."
More jobs, happier Americans -
Since its soft-opening in 2010—some corrective action had to be made before the facility was officially issued its occupancy permits late last year—the EcoCenter has focused on connecting for visitors the dots between evolving green technologies and job creation. You might say the line between those dots was filled in with a permanent black marker when the EcoCenter joined forces recently with City College of San Francisco (CCSF) to offer courses at the EcoCenter as part of CCSF’s sustainability certification program.
"Job skills and training are an important piece of this project," said Stoner. "I think it’s important to take it out of the traditional classroom and let students see this technology in action."
"I’d compare it to learning a language," said Reynolds. "Sure, you can do it in isolation, from a textbook. But you learn so much more if you get out in the world and use it."
For more information on The EcoCenter at Heron’s Head Park, visit www.lejyouth.org/ecocenter/eco.html
Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently toured
the EcoCenter at Heron’s Head Park to see stimulus dollars in action.
The 1,500-square-foot facility showcases the latest innovations in green
building design and construction, and provides a variety of eco-focused
programs, including green jobs training. Rainwater collected by the
EcoCenter’s living roof is collected in large containers and reused for a
variety of purposes, including In the facility’s flush toilets. Photo
by Bill Picture