Conversation Circles Program Creates New Opportunities and Environmental Resources

By Gabriela Estrada and Jonathan Erwin, Program Managers

While the Conversation Circles program in Central Solano (formerly the Listening Circles program) has come to the end of its grant term, our commitment to increase the understanding of environmental issues that affect Solano communities is ongoing. Using what we learned through the Conversation Circles program, we will continue to help residents access important environmental, health and other data that you can use to inform decision-making within your community.

Toward that end, we have created our Environmental Resources section of the website, where you can learn more about some of the environmental and health factors that affect our communities and see resources at the county and city level when it comes to addressing environmental concerns and preparing for disaster. The pages also list organizations that are working in our communities.

We have robust data for Fairfield, Suisun City and Vacaville out of the Conversation Circles program, and hope to build similar data for our other Solano County cities going forward.

As part of closing the Conversation Circles program, we created a Neighborhood Impact and Assessment Report where we documented the project, challenges and opportunities. Here are some of the newly created opportunities and lessons learned through this project: 

Connecting with Other Community Groups

Connecting with other organizations in each of the cities we worked with is key. These partnerships have opened the door for future collaboration efforts and further community engagement at a neighborhood level. Equally important, it also created an opportunity for us to combine efforts towards a common goal.

Building Trust and Showing Up

While we have a lot of partnerships with other organizations, this project brought us to a few neighborhoods that we’ve never worked in before. By collaborating with other organizations serving these areas, we were able to begin building trust and a sense of community. Sustainable Solano will continue to show up and create opportunities for engagement and will continue to work with community members in creating a happy, healthy and thriving community.

Connecting with Government Officials

Connecting with government officials gave the project manager a clear idea of the “lay of the land” to learn about the neighborhoods, the opportunities, the history and some of the potential challenges (both environmental and social) that a project might face. Connecting with government officials also created room for future collaboration efforts, including urban forestry efforts, community gardens and resiliency efforts through our other programs.

Increasing Reach with Support from Other Programs

We will continue to seek creative ways we can connect with community members through our other programs about the environmental data that affects their neighborhoods. 

For more details, read the complete Neighborhood Impact and Assessment Report

We plan on building on these lessons to inform the Environmental Resources pages and the rest of our programs, including the Resilient Neighborhoods program, now expanding to Suisun City, and the Youth Leadership program.

As we have continued to scale our Resilient Neighborhoods program and our research across Solano County, we realize that there is a disconnect in the information on environmental progress and the general public access to that information. City and county plans are often spread across many websites and buried with departments and commissions. Within this cacophony of public information, it can be difficult to find what is relevant and what is most up to date within the county and selected cities. As we found with last fire season, and potentially any upcoming disaster, knowledge is power and can mean the difference between safety and struggle. We will continue to find ways to make that information more easily accessible within Resilient Neighborhoods and beyond.

The Youth Environmental Leadership Fellowship now in development will encourage high school youth to examine CalEnviroScreen and other data, examine environmental justice issues within the county and their communities, participate in hands-on mitigation training, and present to city leaders and community members about the environmental information and possible solutions at the individual, community and policy level. This will continue to engage the wider community through the youth presentations and projects, and the data they collect will make our Environmental Resources pages more robust throughout the county. 

Through these pages, we seek to emphasize relevant local work and organizations that share our mission of nurturing initiatives for the good of the whole. See anything we missed? Let us know at info@sustainablesolano.org

 

The Conversation Circles program and Environmental Resources page development was generously funded through the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Small Grants Program.

The Future of the Resilient Neighborhoods Program and Suisun City

By Jonathan Erwin, Program Manager

We are excited to grow our Resilient Neighborhood program into Suisun City this year. Building on our previous work in Vallejo’s Resilient Hubs and looking at the Resilient Neighborhood model as a whole, the power of community continues to be the biggest asset in addressing environmental threats, but also encompassing true resilience. This past year has shown us that we all are inherently resilient towards unexpected change from climate events to a global pandemic. We all have the capacity to adapt to new threats in our daily lives. With the power of community, belonging and access to resources, we find ways to adapt and thrive.

Within Suisun City, the threat is pretty obvious for this marshside town, with its scenic water views and port history to its presently charming waterfront. Anticipated flooding from rising sea levels, heavy rain and tidal events are among the biggest climate threats to face the city. Suisun City is the most impacted town in the entire Bay region at a 24-inch water event, according to the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission’s Adapting to Rising Tides report. A series of aged levees and a robust water management strategy can manage current pressure within reason. But as the threat potential continues to increase in coming years, Suisun City is working towards action to collectively weather the storm.

With a coalition of the mayor, city leaders, SF BCDC and additional stakeholders, our plan with Suisun City is to start by organizing a Flood Resilience Action Plan — a living strategy that residents and leaders can use to educate, advocate and prepare for upcoming water events. Working on a slightly different scale from our Resilient Neighborhoods in Vallejo, we understand the power that comes with climate action when local government is involved. Through this plan a citywide strategy co-authored by the community will help build ownership and power amongst stakeholders. We hope that everyone’s voice is heard and validated in addressing the threats of flooding in a future Suisun City.

On the Ground

We are bringing our community-level experience from creating the Resilient Neighborhood hubs in Vallejo to bear on our work in Suisun City. Beneficial environmental and residential-scale installations addressing climate threats will continue to be a part of our work in Suisun City. Meeting people where they are at, we look forward to utilizing low-tech and high impact strategies for flood mitigation that are accessible and replicable across the entire city. Many of the strategies we used in Vallejo, like in-ground trenches for capturing rainwater, called swales, native plantings, and building up healthy soil, are universally beneficial in addressing many climate threats from urban heat islands to localized flooding and water management. We hope that a community-informed process will lead us to develop new techniques and strategies that we can build into our toolkit and provide hyperlocal solutions.

In addition we realize that the threat will impact portions of Suisun City differently. Our focus is to build organically a Resilient Neighborhood in the most environmentally and socially vulnerable communities of Seabreeze, Victorian Harbor and Old Town (in the outline on the map above). Our research has shown these communities will be the most impacted in regards to flooding, while also having the smallest means to implement change. Within Covid guidelines we hope to jumpstart initiatives in these local neighborhoods to build community, promote resources and foster local champions in accessible and transformative ways over the next year. 

As the Resilient Neighborhoods program has progressed in Vallejo under the incredible leadership and work of Gabriela Estrada, our new terrain in Suisun City introduces Jonathan Erwin as our newest Resilient Neighborhoods program manager. Jonathan comes to this project with a systems-thinking lens in community building, rooted in racial and environmental justice. In Baltimore his work with socially vulnerable communities in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy led to a resident-centered approach in addressing climate threats, rooted in holistic solutions. A designer by training, he loves co-building creative ways to meet the wants and needs of the community to equip people to be more resilient. 

If you are interested in our work Suisun City, have an idea on a possible site, or want to stay informed about the project, feel free to reach out to Jonathan at Jonathan@sustainablesolano.org 

The Resilient Neighborhoods program is generously funded through the PG&E Corporation Foundation.  

Resilient Neighborhoods: Lessons Learned in Vallejo

By Gabriela Estrada, Program Manager

The Vallejo Resilient Neighborhoods pilot program came to a successful conclusion at the end of December 2020 with the establishment of two Resilient Neighborhood hubs in Vallejo. The program focused on heat mitigation and looked to nature as a guide to better equip neighborhoods to adapt and thrive in the face of environmental, social and economic change. This pilot program in Vallejo successfully created hubs in Central Vallejo and South Vallejo that incorporated rainwater capture, laundry-to-landscape greywater systems, shade trees and structures and permaculture garden principles while bringing neighbors together to work on the projects. While this pilot project might have come to a close in Vallejo, the program will be expanding to Suisun City this month. While Vallejo and Suisun City each have their own challenges, opportunities and needs, the lessons learned in developing the first two Resilient hubs in Vallejo will help inform the next steps of the program. 

Here are some of the important lessons learned:

Lessons Learned and Future Considerations  

Organic Development of the Neighborhood Model

The organic development of interest and engagement that occurs once the installation process is underway at homes in a new Resilient Neighborhood now informs our approach to building additional Resilient Neighborhood Hubs across the county. While we initially thought that the only way to move forward was with a team of four neighbors at the same time, we discovered that sometimes it is OK to just find one or two neighbors who are initially interested. Working with them will build momentum and community interest and will create a more organic approach.

Expanded, Adaptable Offerings

Our initial site selection and program scope did not allow us to support a vast majority of the community interested in participating in the program. We are exploring how to create a more accessible, tiered offering system — installing just certain elements that fit a site, rather than looking for sites that can support all of those elements — that allows us to provide resources, support and continued engagement.  

Building Resilience Through Collaboration and Shared Goals

Community collaboration around shared goals and trust building was proven powerful and effective. It was inspiring to see the impact of the process of bringing neighborhoods together to work towards shared solutions, and in the valuable social network building it provides. We will continue to use this model to inform our approach in working with the community to support their vision and goals.

Fostering Community Ownership of this Model

Developing ways to encourage deeper relationship-building with our participating neighbor-teams, both in offering more support through the establishment period and in nurturing organic leadership within the Hubs to help drive expansion is key. As such, we will work to identify offerings and tools that can support community development beyond our initial partnership.

To read more about the lessons learned, see the full report here.  

Although it might seem like our work in Vallejo is done, we will continue to support members of the Resilient Neighborhood Hubs as best we can through our other programs. The Solano Gardens program, for example, will fund monthly gardening classes in the South Vallejo Neighborhood garden in collaboration with the Emmanuel Temple Apostolic Church. This church is a seven-minute walk from the South Vallejo Hub. Here, Sustainable Solano will be hosting monthly educational classes and seed giveaways in an effort to teach people about sustainable gardening techniques. Classes will be held from 9-11 am starting April 24 with a class about companion planting. These classes will be open to everyone. 

If you are interested in participating, be on the lookout for more information! 

 

The Resilient Neighborhoods program is generously funded through the PG&E Corporation Foundation.  

Get Back in the Garden: 2021 Garden Tour Reimagined!

By Nicole Newell, Sustainable Landscaping Program Manager

Time in any garden is well spent, and we invite you to spend time in a local garden on April 24 for our Annual Demonstration Food Forest Garden tour in Benicia and Vallejo.

We have reimagined the tour this year to safely open for private in-person, self-guided tours. In the past, our demonstration food forest tours have been a festive community event where many gather to tour. Last year, COVID precautions moved the event entirely online, but it was important for us to find a way this year to get people into the gardens. To do that, we invite you to choose an individual garden to tour for a 30-minute interval per household/family bubble. All participants will be asked to follow COVID safety rules, including wearing masks and staying at least 6 feet apart. You can select a garden and register here.

These diverse demonstration food forest gardens are on private and public sites and were installed by the community through educational workshops. They demonstrate how capturing secondary water, such as rainwater and laundry-to-landscape greywater, combined with healthy soil and waterwise drip irrigation can yield lush, food-producing gardens!

These gardens are so much more than examples of ecological features; they are a place to heal after a difficult day, a spot to watch seeds emerge, a place to grow food and pass on the excess, a place to gather to celebrate and to grieve, and a place where strangers become new friends. Each of these gardens has a name and a story and beautiful Food Forest Keepers.

A Food Forest Keeper is a caretaker of a demonstration food forest. Each year they agree to tour their food forest and to be an example on how to use space to create habitat, grow food and to educate and inspire others to do the same.

This is a rare opportunity to privately explore one garden within the safety of your family/friend bubble and to ask our Food Forest Keepers questions. Each garden is a unique experience: some are compact front yards, others are on a slope, some share space with animals and small children, some are allowed to grow without restriction, while others are more manicured. We hope you select a garden that interests you most and that you are inspired with ideas on how to work permaculture design principles into your own garden!

In 2022, we hope to go back to the tour being a community event where many can gather and we are looking for input from you. What would you like to see in the Demonstration Food Forest Tour in 2022? Please take this short survey.

The tour and Solano Sustainable Backyards program is made possible through the generous support of the Solano County Water Agency. The Resilient Neighborhoods program has been generously funded by the Pacific Gas & Electric Corporation Foundation.

Seeking Suisun City, Fairfield & Vacaville Residents Interested in Yard Transformation

By Gabriela Estrada & Nicole Newell, Program Managers

Do you live in Suisun City, Fairfield or Vacaville? Are you interested in working with your neighbors and community to install a demonstration food forest garden or other sustainable landscaping elements in the coming months at your home or a community site, like a place of worship or school?

Sustainable Solano is currently looking for private or public sites and residents that are interested in working with their neighbors to transform these properties to grow food, create habitat and build healthy soil, while using water efficiently. The search for these sites is targeted in specific neighborhoods that are vulnerable to flood and fire.

We envision neighborhoods better equipped to adapt and thrive in the face of environmental, social and economic changes. The need for strong communities where people know and care for their neighbors is more apparent than ever, and projects such as these through our Resilient Neighborhoods and Solano Sustainable Backyards programs can help to build resilience in our neighborhoods as we connect with one another.

Suisun City and Fairfield

We are looking for residents in Suisun City and Fairfield (in the areas outlined in red in the map below) that are interested in working collaboratively to transform their neighborhoods into robust regenerative urban ecosystems that mimic nature in performing valuable functions like producing food, filtering air and cycling water. We are looking for sites to create beautiful and productive gardens that build healthy soil while using water wisely.

Vacaville

In August 2020, the LNU Lightning Complex Fire affected many Vacaville residents. We are looking to identify a private property in Vacaville that was damaged by the fires to begin to restore the ecological health of the land through the installation of a demonstration garden that would incorporate best practices for designing in a fire zone.

All of these projects will be done through public, educational installations that share knowledge and techniques used to address flooding or fire risk as well as sustainable landscaping principles. If you live within the highlighted areas of the map of Fairfield and Suisun City or your yard was damaged in the LNU Fire and you are interested in creating waterwise, edible food forest gardens, please fill out the Sustainable Landscape Interest Form or contact nicole@sustainablesolano.org. Once we receive the form, we will be looking to schedule site assessments for properties that suit the programs. By February, we hope to select multiple sites for yard transformations.

We are looking forward to hearing about your vision for your neighborhood!

Grant Expands Resilient Neighborhoods Program to Suisun City & Helps Address Flood Risk

By Sustainable Solano

Community members and volunteers came together to create Vallejo’s first Resilient Neighborhood hub in 2019. The program will expand to Suisun City in 2021.

Sustainable Solano is excited to announce that we have received a grant through PG&E Corporation Foundation that will support helping Suisun City residents learn about and address the challenges of increased flooding and bring together city leaders and community members as they work on larger plans to address flood risks from sea-level rise and more severe rain events.

The funding through the Better Together Resilient Communities Grant will grow Sustainable Solano’s Resilient Neighborhoods program, which began in Vallejo last year as a pilot project to bring neighbors together through sustainable landscaping projects and build community capacity and resilience. That pilot program was funded through a previous grant from PG&E and supported the creation of two neighborhood Resilient Hubs in Vallejo, Morningside Botanical Bounty and Growing Together.

We will use the insights and lessons learned from the Vallejo pilot as well as other Sustainable Solano programs to support the development of the new Suisun City project. We have learned that community strengths reside in people’s hearts, in their ability to work together toward common goals and to consider the good of the whole. One of the key goals of the project is wide community outreach and meetings that will shape the city’s Suisun City Flood Resiliency Action Plan.

We will create a Resilient Neighborhood in a Suisun City community at high risk for flooding that also has environmental and socioeconomic factors that create more vulnerability and less resiliency when faced with natural disasters. Various green infrastructure elements, such as stormwater-capturing in-ground swales, trees for shade and soil stabilization, rainwater-capturing edible landscapes, or other community-selected solutions, will be installed throughout the neighborhood through hands-on workshops. These workshops will provide information and get community input on flood risk.

As part of the project, a Youth Environmental Leadership internship will create the opportunity to work with our team learning about flooding risks, mitigation strategies, community outreach and Resilient Neighborhoods. Their experience also will help shape future youth fellowships.

Finally, we hope this project will serve as a catalyst for bringing together cities with shared and similar vulnerabilities. With the help of our partners, we want to support Solano County governments that face flooding risks in initiating multijurisdictional efforts to address those risks. Partners for the project include the city of Suisun City and the Suisun City Environment and Climate Committee, and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. BCDC has studied flood risk in the county and the need for more equitable planning that involves the community. It will help foster collaboration between different municipalities and organizations.

An important part of this expansion will be hiring a new Resilient Neighborhoods program manager at Sustainable Solano. The program manager in this part-time position will be charged with bringing together community members to discuss community-driven approaches to flooding challenges, coordinating with city leaders as they create their own strategies to address flood risk and cooperate with other Solano County city leaders who face similar or shared risks, and overseeing the work of the Youth Environmental Leadership interns. Find out more about the position here. We hope to fill it by mid-January with a candidate who is comfortable both working closely with community members as well as elected officials and city staff.

We are so excited about bringing the Resilient Neighborhoods program to Suisun City through this project and look forward to sharing more with you in the months to come!