By Gabriela Estrada, Listening Circles Program Manager

February will mark the beginning of Sustainable Solano’s first Listening Circle sessions. For the next five months, I will be facilitating up to 10 Listening Circles in central Solano County (Fairfield, Vacaville and Suisun City). A Listening Circle is our attempt at finding community-guided solutions to community issues/problems. The goal is to not only strengthen community knowledge and participation, but to get active buy-in from community members into the solutions since no solution is sustainable without community input and interest. For the last few months, I’ve been busy analyzing and comparing data from the California Environmental Protection Agency’s CalEnviroScreen 3.0 and California Department of Public Health Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention map to learn about the different environmental hazards in central Solano County and the population characteristics and socioeconomic outcomes. The goal was simple: to understand the environmental pollution burdens and compare that to population characteristics to find neighborhoods that might have a need for green infrastructure support. But what is green infrastructure? Green infrastructure is a resilient approach to managing climate impacts that provides many community benefits, including reducing and treating storm water at its source while delivering environmental, social and economic benefits. 

This new project came about when we as an organization realized that the California Environmental Protection Agency’s CalEnviroScreen 3.0 does an excellent job mapping communities that are disproportionately burdened by pollution, but like any cumulative data source, this methodology has its limits. In Solano County, only South Vallejo received the Disadvantaged Community Designation, which gives this area the highest priority for all state green infrastructure funding such as from Prop 68 and for most private foundation grants. However, working on the ground, we saw a great need for green infrastructure programs in multiple neighborhoods and communities across the county. Prop 68 was approved in 2018 with the goal of three kinds of projects: conservation efforts, new parks for struggling communities and water needs. These funds currently fund a lot of these types of community greening projects.

Here are some examples of how we can use a deeper dive into the data to identify communities that would benefit from such projects:

Environmental Pollution Burdens

Exposure Indicators

In Vacaville, for example, the measurement for ozone is the highest in all of Solano County. Why this matters is because when inhaled, ozone reacts chemically with many biological molecules in the respiratory tract. Similarly, drinking water contamination in Vacaville and pesticide use is the highest in the county. Fairfield traffic density by far exceeds any other city in the county. Traffic density has been known to have an effect on respiratory health, especially for those in sensitive populations, such as those who have asthma or cardiovascular disease. Diesel particulate matter, which has known carcinogens, such as benzene and formaldehyde, is recorded in Fairfield at 25.18kg/day and in Suisun City at 24.1kg/day. This is important because very small particles of diesel particulate matter can contribute to health problems including heart and lung disease and lung cancer.

Effects Indicators

Additionally, groundwater threats are almost as high in Suisun City and Fairfield as they are in Vallejo. CalEnviroScreen 3.0 shows groundwater threats in Suisun City and Fairfield as a couple of the highest in the county. Shockingly, there are 20 cleanup sites in Fairfield and 19 in Vacaville, the second and third highest in the county respectfully. Cleanup sites are places contaminated with harmful chemicals and need to be cleaned up by property owners or government. These sites pose risks for nearby residents because the contaminants can move off-site and impact surrounding communities through groundwater plume migration or windblown dust. Some studies have shown that neighborhoods with cleanup sites are generally poorer and have more people of color than other neighborhoods. Fairfield has a high number of hazardous waste facilities and hazardous waste generators, such as recycling, treatment, storage or disposal facilities by registered hazardous waste transporters. When it comes to solid waste sites and facilities, such as landfills or composing facilities, there is a disproportionately higher number of facilities in Suisun City at 17 facilities — the highest number in the county.

Population Characteristics

Sensitive Populations

There are some population characteristics worthy of note in Central Solano. Fairfield has a high asthma rate, just below the rate of Vallejo. Low birth weight, which has been correlated with increased risk of later health problems and increased infant mortality, is the highest in the county in Fairfield.

Socioeconomic Factors

The census tract with the highest linguistic isolation, at 18.4% of households not speaking English, is in Fairfield. This lack of language makes it harder for members of these communities to participate in local decisions. Additionally, Fairfield shows a few tracts with poverty rates above 54%. The housing burden in Fairfield is at 35.5%, meaning that many low-income households are highly burdened by housing costs.

While each city has its own unique set of needs and challenges, doing work on the ground, you soon realize that there is a high need for green infrastructure projects that help address environmental issues in smaller neighborhoods within each city. We are excited to begin this work and hold sessions with community members to ensure that they are aware of this environmental health information. A clear goal is to not only provide information that will support their lived experiences, but to also provide tangible tools as well as projects that they might want to bring to their communities and would like to participate in and support on. This is a chance to have community members be at the center of proposed solutions that will lead to a healthier and more resilient community.

At the end of all the Listening Circles, we will then hold three presentations (one in each city) where I will present to the community the analysis and proposals that came out of the Listening Circles in an effort to create a feedback communication loop within the community to ensure that residents know the results and are aware of any next steps or projects.

Community engagement and community knowledge are at the center of this project. As someone who grew up in Solano County, it has been a real privilege to be able to work within my community to make it healthier, thriving and more resilient.

Be on the lookout for future updates!

The Listening Circles program is funded through Cal EPA. Learn more here!