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Earth Island News

Urban Biofilter

Environmental Justice Via Green Infrastructure

photo artwork showing construction workers around bamboo growing near a maze of freeway viaductscourtesy Urban BiofilterUrban Biofilter’s planned bamboo forest in West Oakland would filter the air and create green jobs.

According to a recent report from Prevention Institute, for every $12,500 in income difference between families in Alameda County, CA, people in the poorer family can expect to die a year sooner. This disparity holds true across the country, and in urban areas the effects are compounded as the poorest families typically have far higher incidences of cancer and respiratory problems due to their proximity to polluting highways, refineries, dumps, ports, and industrial activity.

To combat this injustice, Urban Biofilter designs, implements, and advocates for green infrastructure projects in environmentally degraded city neighborhoods. Green infrastructure, which may take the form of urban forests or wetlands, have many benefits: They can help create jobs and filter the air, soil, and water.

Urban forests remove numerous toxins, including particulate matter and metals, from the air. Bamboo biofilters are particularly effective, given that, unlike trees, bamboo grows very quickly. Within a few years, they can effectively improve air quality and reduce storm water runoff, and because bamboo is renewable, it also generates biomass that can be harvested each year.

On the west side of Oakland, CA – a community surrounded by freeways, train tracks, and one of the country’s busiest ports – Urban Biofilter is planning a bamboo greenbelt grown with wastewater on brownfields. The greenbelt requires little to no investment but will help clean the air and soil. The project will also help create green jobs in an area where unemployment is high. The first of the greenbelt’s bamboo shoots was planted at the central hub of independent West Oakland truckers, OT-411, which provides rest-stop facilities to truckers and houses the outreach and testing facilities for local nonprofits focused on air quality issues. The bamboo has already served as a backdrop for two press conferences with state agencies and city officials. The Port of Oakland is developing standards for reducing emissions, but the full benefit of those standards won’t be felt for years. Urban Biofilter’s project provides an opportunity for more immediate environmental remediation, while also stimulating the growth of green jobs in the area.

This summer, Urban Biofilter also joined the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve and Earth Island Institute’s Restoration Initiative on a binational project to restore the Tijuana River Estuary Watershed. 

Urban Biofilter hosted a 30-person workshop in the Tijuana neighborhood of San Bernardo to help restore the flow of water to the local river system. As is the case with many of the informal settlements in the area, San Bernardo does not have a centralized sewage treatment system. This means that wastewater from San Bernardo simply drains through the streets to the Tijuana River Estuary, one of the last 24 estuaries remaining in the country. Each side street becomes a tributary to the main street, Calle Amanecer, which eventually flows to the estuary, dramatically impacting the water quality and aquatic ecosystem. These open channels also pose a serious public health concern, as a vector for contamination.

In the course of the workshop, Urban Biofilter lined the channel with gravel to reduce human exposure to the water, and replanted the surrounding area with locally collected native willows to improve water quality, provide erosion control, and begin habitat restoration. The group also planted a small pilot crop of local bamboo. Now, Urban Biofilter is hoping to expand this pilot project to address the wastewater infrastructure of the additional 1.2 million Tijuana residents who live in informal communities.

– Brent Bucknum

   

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