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San Diego—A Green(Er) City: Six Decades Of Environmental Activism In A Biodiversity Hotspot

San Diego's city-wide mission to promote sustainability, combat climate change, and reduce environmental health disparities.

Environmental Justice

In the same moment, the unequal landscapes of Southeast San Diego sparked new movements for environmental equality. Historically, the region’s big money interests in maritime trade and national defense had sunk roots around San Diego Bay. Adjoining communities, such as Logan Heights, Barrio Logan, and National City, attracted growing communities of color, even as a divided housing market locked African American, Latino, and Asian American families out of other neighborhoods and redlining strangled investment. Local activists mobilized for jobs and housing in these neighborhoods in the 1960s. By the early 1970s, these politics took an increasingly environmental turn.

One emblematic protest erupted on Earth Day 1970, when Chicano activists seized land beneath the newly constructed Coronado Bay Bridge in Barrio Logan. Home movie footage shows residents with picks and shovels turning the land into a self-declared “Chicano Park.” Artists famously appropriated the towering bridge supports, creating one of the largest collections of community murals in the world. Through the 1970s, the park evolved as a space for neighborhood celebrations and protest, including efforts to expand the park “All the Way to the Bay” and shut down polluting businesses. Several dozen junkyards—or “Yonkes”—that operated cheek by jowl with local homes were a point of particular contention.

These mobilizations set the stage for a coming environmental justice movement. In 1981, reports that waste haulers were dumping toxic chemicals in the barrio spurred the formation of a new group, the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC), which became one of the first and most influential environmental justice groups in California. For cofounder Diane Takvorian, a social worker who had recently established the “Coalition against Cancer,” reports of toxic dumping sparked an insight that Robert Bullard would later conceptualize as “environmental racism.” “It occurred to me,” Takvorian said, “that people were essentially being discriminated against with the use of these hazardous materials.”

EHC grew rapidly in the 1980s. The group was among the founders of the statewide Toxics Coordinating Project. Its fearless advocacy for “Healthy Communities,” toxic disclosure laws, and a “Clean Bay,” put it at odds with some of the city’s most powerful players—the Navy, Port District, and bayfront employers. EHC documented local health disparities and “chemical hotspots,” shining a light on environmental injustice that contrasted with the booster image of “America’s Finest City.” These efforts led the group to develop a more holistic sense of the “environment” than conservation-oriented environmental groups, a vision that included the urban landscapes where people lived, worked, and played.