Environmental justice advocates push for San Leandro Creek site to be turned into greenway

Parks advocates have long seen the disparity in access to and availability of green space to communities in East Oakland as an environmental justice issue.
A woman is standing with two others picking up trash near a marsh.
Dee Rosario, director of the East Bay Regional Parks District and longtime environmentalist, uses a trash grabbing tool to pick up trash along the shoreline of an arrowhead marsh in East Bay. (Elena Shao/Peninsula Press)

Outfitted with trash grabbing tools and trash bags, dozens of East Oakland residents arrived at MLK Jr. Regional Park on Oct. 10 to help clean up the shoreline of the nearby San Leandro Creek in celebration of California’s fourth annual Clean Air Day.

The event, which began with a two-mile bike ride to the shoreline and ended in a creek clean up, was also an opportunity for event organizers at the nonprofit East Oakland Collective to bring awareness to a proposed bike and pedestrian greenway trail project that would increase access to the shoreline for neighborhoods like Sobrante Park and Columbia Gardens in deep East Oakland.

“The greenway would be a major boost to the quality of life for the communities adjacent to the Creek, which are mostly low-income and neighborhoods of color,” said Dee Rosario, director of the East Bay Regional Parks District, which maintains parks in Alameda County and Contra Costa County.

The greenway is housed under the city of Oakland’s Better Neighborhoods, Same Neighbors initiative, which received a $28.2 multi-year grant from the state in 2020 to pursue projects that would help revitalize parts of East Oakland to better serve its historically disadvantaged communities. Other projects include more affordable housing, the planting of 2,000 trees, a three-acre plant nursery and expanded bike share programming — all in the same five-square-mile area that’s currently surrounded by industrial and manufacturing facilities.

Map of the proposed San Leandro Creek urban greenway that will run 1.2 miles from Sobrante Park and ending at the MLK Jor. Shoreline Park. The greenway will increase access to the shoreline and serve as a safe bike and pedestrian trail through deep East Oakland. (Courtesy of David R. Brower, Ronald V. Dellums Institute for Sustainable Policy Studies)

The idea for the greenway has been in the works for a decade, said Michael Dyer, who oversees the Better Neighborhoods program. While the current plan was submitted over a year ago as a part of the proposal to receive the grant, no progress has been made on the build. Dyer said the delay is due in large part to reluctance on the part of Union Pacific Railroad to grant right-of-way where part of the greenway would intersect with the railroad.

Union Pacific spokesperson Robynn Tysver wrote in an email to The Peninsula Press that the company has “some engineering and safety concerns with the project as it is currently designed.”

But Dyer said that since there’s no crossing at the intersection, adding the pedestrian-only greenway trail under the railroad would be safer for the community, since school children would be able to use it every day to get to James Madison Elementary School.

“There’s money sitting there, ready to go, and we’re literally not able to do anything with it,” Dyer added.

A picture of a marsh in the foreground with the city of Oakland in the background.
An arrowhead marsh that lines San Leandro Creek will be one endpoint of a proposed urban greenway connecting neighborhoods in deep East Oakland to the MLK Jr. Shoreline Park. (Elena Shao/Peninsula Press)

Parks advocates have long seen the disparity in access to and availability of green space to communities in East Oakland as an environmental justice issue.

“If the hills can have trails, parks and beautifully landscaped medians, so should the neighborhoods in the flatlands,” said Audree Jones-Taylor, former director of Oakland Parks and Recreation. “Every resident regardless of zip code should have the opportunity to walk out their back door and have a space to roam and play.”

The East Oakland neighborhoods that line San Leandro Creek are currently surrounded on all sides by sources of air pollution — it’s bordered by a freeway to the west, an airport to the south and the Port of Oakland five miles to the north. The area adjacent to the shoreline is also zoned for heavy industrial usage.

Communities living and working near such sources of air pollution face disproportionate health risks, including reduced lung function, asthma and cardiovascular disease, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and those effects are not distributed equally across race. In Oakland, researchers studying the impacts of traffic-related pollution found that Black mothers were more at risk for preterm births, or delivering their babies early, than White mothers.

A photo of a cluster of bicycles
Participants of the Clean Air Day creek clean-up event parked their bikes at the Tern BBQ area in MLK Jr. Shoreline Park before they started cleaning up trash along the shore. (Elena Shao/Peninsula Press)

This is likely because on average, Black women live closer to sources of harmful pollution, and they also face other systemic stressors that could be compounded by air pollution, said Joan Casey, lead author of the study and an environmental health sciences professor at Columbia.

Besides being located near industrial sites where the infrastructure is more gray than green, the East Oakland “flatland” neighborhoods near the water’s edge are lower-lying, making them more at risk for sea level rise, severe flooding and groundwater contamination, Rosario said. Investing in green spaces, like greenways, parks and marshlands, can enhance urban flood resilience while also providing public health benefits.

Candice Elder, who founded the East Oakland Collective in 2016, affectionately calls East Oakland “the last frontier” — the last place in the Bay Area where you’ll find a good number of Black people who have not been displaced.

Giving people a beautiful place to live, play and take care of “empowers them to stay,” she said.

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