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Gema Perez is walking the walk. Will Kern County?

Amanda Eaken

Posted July 18, 2013 in Solving Global Warming

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In urban planning circles, Jeff Speck is making waves with his book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. Speck has dedicated his career to determining what makes cities thrive. And he has boiled it down to one key factor: walkability. 

Community leaders across the country have come to the same conclusion—and are taking critical steps to transform their communities. Kern County lies at the southern end of California's agricultural heartland—the Central Valley—and is one of the fastest growing and most polluted regions in the country. Bakersfield, Kern’s largest city and the County seat, was ranked the 3rd most polluted city in America by the American Lung Association in their recent 2013 State of the Air report.  Fortunately, local community leaders understand the key link between walkability and air quality, and are at the forefront of making places safe and comfortable to walk.

A few weeks ago, we caught up with Gema Perez, the visionary leader of a local group called Greenfield Walking Group to learn about her experience improving walkability and quality of life in Bakersfield. Greenfield Walking Group is a volunteer group that works to make communities healthier and safer through partnerships and grassroots action.

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Courtesy Bakersfield Californian. Olga Zuniga and Gema Perez of Greenfield Walking Group

The following is paraphrased and translated from an interview in Spanish:

Your organization has engaged local community leaders and garnered attention in the media for its grassroots efforts. Tell us a little bit about Greenfield Walking Group, and what you are trying to accomplish. 

Well, we wanted to be active. We wanted to walk to be healthier. But there wasn’t a safe place to do so, because it wasn’t safe to cross the streets, and the park closer to us was full of gangs and drug dealers. So, we talked to the police and asked them to help us by parking there while we walked so we could feel safer. The police accepted and parked there for a while. Drug users became scarce because people began populating the park. We would talk to people and tell them we wanted to retake our park. Our group grew, and we saw that we had to report things like graffiti and loose dogs. We noticed the deficiencies of the park and since it lacked a sidewalk, we raised enough money and gathered sufficient qualified volunteers. With the assistance and support of the neighbors, families, and the City, we built a sidewalk.

Since then, we’ve started a community garden and Neighborhood Watch to make the community safer, and we are working with organizations such as Building Healthy Communities and The California Endowment.

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Greenfield Walking Group community garden

What are some of the challenges that Bakersfield’s residents face with regards to getting around on foot or bicycle?

Some streets lack sidewalks and traffic signals of any kind and stray dogs roam. At the moment, we’re working with a school, the parents, and the schoolchildren to push for traffic signals and signs around it. A little girl riding her bike was killed while crossing the street to that school some months ago.  We really need support to fix that problem. Many kids walk alone to school every day in streets without sidewalks, stop signs, or someone to help them cross the street to school. Some kids bike to school. If there were safer routes to school, I’m sure more would do so. I’m told that public transit is improving in the city: there are more routes and better schedules, but it’s not enough. Some areas are more neglected than others and many streets lack sidewalks, crosswalks, signs and traffic signals.

As you probably know, the Kern County Council of Governments (COG) is currently undergoing its planning process under the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act (SB 375) that will link land use and transportation planning to improve air quality and quality of life. Kern’s planners have the opportunity to increase the city’s investments in walking, biking and transit. Based on your experience improving your community, how do you think a good plan could improve lives in the city of Bakersfield?

We can create a good plan by working together: organizations, city leaders and agencies and the community. Polls and engaging the community in town hall meetings are needed to learn about what affects the community and what would help residents breathe clean air and be more active and healthy. We asked Kern COG to hold a workshop in Greenfield, and we were able to express ourselves and vote on which planned investments were most important to us: repair local roads; locate affordable housing near jobs; expand transit operations; protect clean water; and encourage walking, bicycling and safe routes to school. We need everyone involved in the planning process to engage the public and pay attention to the needs of the community. We have a lot of eagerness to work together - to help.

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Mayor Harvey Hall planting a tree with Greenfield Walking Group

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The good news is that there seems to be support amongst decision makers for Gema’s vision. At the most recent Kern County Regional Planning Advisory Committee meeting on July 3rd, Committee members Patty Poire of Grimmway Farms, Michael Bevins of California City, and Cindy Parra of Bike Bakersfield, clearly stated their support for investing in walkable neighborhoods. They even asserted that this goal be reprioritized in the draft Regional Transportation Plan /Sustainable Communities Strategy. Ms. Poire suggested that they make sidewalks a requirement for all new development.

This is a great start. But following Gema’s lead, we can’t stop there. The Sustainable Communities Strategy that Kern COG is drafting—due to be adopted March of next year—is a great opportunity to advance these goals. As far as we can tell, the draft plan dedicates just about 1% of its seven billion dollar capital budget to improving pedestrian safety. We feel more could be done.

In particular, we along with our partner group California Walks recommend that Kern COG include a designated Regional Safe Routes to Schools program. Many regions—including Kern’s neighbor to the north, the San Joaquin Council of Governments—have adopted similar programs. Through these Safe Routes to Schools programs, parents, schools, community members, and government leaders work together to make walking and bicycling to school safer and more appealing. Kern COG should prioritize funding for a Safe Routes to School program to improve walkability.

Gema has blazed a path towards healthier, safer communities in Kern County, and we look forward to working with the community and its leaders to ensure the SCS definitively advances these shared goals.

This post was co-written by Ella Wise. The authors wish to express their gratitude to Gema Perez for her leadership and to Evelyn Arevalo for assistance with the interview and its translation.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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