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How Stockton and California are building resilience from the ground up

Freeway interchange in East San Francisco Bay Area; Signs towards Sacramento, Oakland, Stockton and other destinations, guiding drivers to the right lane

Photo by Sundry Photography on Shutterstoc.

California — as well as the rest of the United States and, in some cases, the rest of the world — is facing three major crises right now: the COVID-19 pandemic; the climate emergency; and racial injustice. 

"We've had this shock to our system from the pandemic that has exposed these fault lines and the basic lack of resilience in our system, in our economy," Kate Gordon, director at the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, said during a keynote panel last week at the VERGE 20 conference. "A priority for us at the state is to get a handle on the pandemic because, honestly, without getting a handle on the pandemic and the current fires, we can't move forward as a state."

So, how is California building resilience in both its rural and urban communities? Let’s start with a local approach.

Laying the groundwork for an equitable future

Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs was part of the conversation with Gordon during VERGE 20. "As mayor of Stockton, the focus is really on equity and understanding that everything we're talking about from the pandemic of COVID-19 to the issues with climate change and wildfires in this state ... [is] really about people," Tubbs said, adding that inequality and racism in the U.S. are not abstract notions.

We've had this shock to our system from the pandemic that has exposed these fault lines and the basic lack of resilience in our system in our economy.

It’s necessary, he said, to "understand that the most important investment we can make is an investment in all of our people to be able to live with dignity."

Stockton is an inland city in California's Central Valley, where the median income is $51,318, according to the U.S. Census. Of the estimated 312,000 residents, about 20 percent live below the poverty line.

Before the pandemic, Stockton had been running an 18-month pilot universal basic income program, which gave 125 residents who live at or below the median income line (around $46,000) $500 per month, with no strings attached, meaning they could spend it however they want. At the end of May, Tubbs announced that it would be extended until January.

"[And we] now have 30 other mayors throughout this country who are saying a guaranteed income or basic income is a part of a strategy for COVID-19 response, part of a strategy that's responsive to inequality and also a part of a strategy that's responsive to climate change," Tubbs said. 

Gordon also pointed to the need for a just transition, which she defined as the same thing as high-road economic development, which typically prioritizes well-paying jobs and environmental sustainability.

"We're talking about a transition to a more sustainable, resilient and equitable economy that provides pathways into that economy, for underserved communities. And for folks who have been left out, frankly, of the current economy," she said.

Greening the entire economy

Gordon noted that instead of embracing strategies that replace or displace jobs in the current economy with green jobs, there needs to be a more explicit focus on greening the entire economy.

"The entire economy needs to be powered by cleaner energy and cleaner technologies," she said. "That is a major opportunity across every sector and every region, of the state, of the country, of the world."

And as the economy goes green, people who make decisions need to engage communities in being part of the solutions because the needs of each community will vary, said Tubbs and Gordon.

It’s necessary to understand that the most important investment we can make is an investment in all of our people to be able to live with dignity.

"I really see this conversation about just transition, honestly, as an opening to a more bottom-up community-driven economic development approach here in California and everywhere, frankly," Gordon said.

California has a program called Transformative Climate Communities (TCC), in which communities most affected by pollution are able to choose their own goals, strategies and projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address local air pollution.

Tubbs said that during Stockton’s TCC planning process, one of the main issues that came up was the high cost of utility bills and the challenge of converting to solar. Renters can’t arbitrarily install solar panels on properties that they don’t own. And if residents did own a home, they might not be able to afford it.

He said Stockton is looking forward to working with the state to figure out what it can do to provide more community solar opportunities as an option.

Just like rooftop solar doesn't work for everybody, plugging in an electric vehicle in a home garage doesn't work for everybody.

Gordon said that Kern County, California's third largest county with about 900,000 residents, is a great example of a place struggling with EV infrastructure financing. Like Stockton, Kern County, known for agriculture and crude oil production, is inland and part of California's Central Valley. Banks don't think the county is a place where people will want EVs. But California is banning the sale of gas cars over the next 15 years, so every county needs a strategy.

"That's a place where we in government can step in and say, ‘Hey, can we derisk that? Can we provide some loan guarantees? Can we help you out there, because we need to expand these options throughout California?’" Gordon said. "These are not just options for our big coastal cities."

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