Regenerative Communities

Build It Green was started with the mission of bringing sustainable building into the mainstream. Energy efficiency, water efficiency, sustainable building materials, and other green building practices remain critical, and we’re proud of our legacy. But today, communities everywhere face an unprecedented array of challenges—climate change, housing affordability, racial and social injustice, health inequities, and more. In order to address these interconnected crises, we need holistic thinking and systemic change that goes well beyond green building. We strongly believe that we can build on our foundation and use the built environment as an instrument to advance equity, resilience, and community health. We can aspire to homes and neighborhoods that evolve with the natural environment and allow everyone to thrive.

Regenerative Highlights

Creating healthy, resilient, just, and inclusive places is no easy feat—it takes intention, care, and some essential considerations.

Collaboration between building professionals and community stakeholders makes it possible to center community priorities, empower individuals, and build capacity and skills locally. Making an effort to truly understand the culture and ecology of a development’s location can result in unexpected opportunities to revitalize both natural systems and human communities. Considering both short- and long-term impacts can ensure that communities are adaptable to changing circumstances years and decades into the future. With these ideas in mind, the building and modernization of housing will result in so much more than new homes; housing development will become a way to address the full range of local and global challenges we face today.
The purpose of this series is to showcase projects that demonstrate this intentional, holistic approach to shaping the places where we live. It’s not just about project results, whether they be solar panels and green spaces or local jobs and permanently affordable housing. It’s about the processes, collaboration, community leadership, and care that go into achieving those results. Through this series, we hope to show that we can all aspire to something beyond ‘sustainable and affordable’—collectively, we can start to envision developments that revitalize communities, restore ecosystems, and give places the ability to evolve and adapt to whatever changes the future holds.

Watts Rising | Los Angeles, CA

Watts Rising is a community-driven initiative to revitalize a Black and Latinx neighborhood that has dealt with intense pollution and discriminatory policies for years. Funded through the Transformative Climate Communities Program (TCC) and leveraged money, it consists of 24 resident-led projects to address climate change. These efforts will bring major improvements to the area, including more affordable housing, easier access to fresh produce, expanded transit options, and opportunities for professional development and employment.

Photo Credit: Watts Rising Team

Project Background
Watts, a mostly Latinx and Black community south of downtown Los Angeles, has been subject to environmental injustices since the early 20th century. Decades of illegal hazardous waste dumping have contaminated the groundwater and soil, and the area’s close proximity to two major freeways and the Los Angeles International Airport continues to create air pollution issues. As a result, residents tend to suffer from high rates of cancer and asthma, and have an average life expectancy 12 years lower than those living in affluent areas nearby.

Watts residents have organized to address these issues and others for decades. Two years ago, with support from the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), they received substantial funding to do so. With $33 million from TCC and almost $170 million in leveraged funds, Watts Rising was born: 24 neighborhood improvement projects selected with the input of over 400 community members.
What Sets Watts Rising Apart?
By centering and engaging the community throughout the process, Watts Rising is already achieving something that most development projects never do. During the planning stage, hundreds of residents attended meetings and working groups to determine community priorities; now that projects are in progress, they’re extending opportunities to local residents that can tangibly improve their lives. More than 200 residents have already been hired for construction, and the labor for Watts’s urban greening efforts was also sourced locally.

In line with the project’s commitment to community prioritization, Watts Rising places a strong focus on displacement avoidance. Without foresight and well-designed programs, neighborhood development can result in increasing real estate values, rising rent prices, and the displacement of vulnerable residents. By offering assistance to those who want to stay in Watts, hosting anti-displacement workshops, and teaching residents skills in solar installation, tree care, and construction, Watts Rising is helping individuals build the capacity to remain in the community as it changes.

Each project within Watts Rising is designed to address multiple challenges identified by the community.  For example, Jordan Downs Phase S2 isn’t just an affordable housing project—it’s also creating jobs, adding greenery, and opening a community center that will offer bike education and safety trainings. These elements work in tandem and amplify each other, making it possible for each project to tackle issues of climate, equity, and health at once. Many of the projects within Watts Rising also complement one other—the impact of the bike paths improved through WalkBike Watts, for example, is enhanced by the cycling education offered at the community center. This interconnectedness allows the benefits of each project to increase exponentially.

Photo Credit: Watts Rising Team

Photo Credit: Watts Rising Team

The History of Watts
To fully appreciate how transformative Watts Rising is, it’s important to understand the area’s industrial roots, history of community organizing, and demographic changes over time.

Watts, built on the land of the Tongva people and located near the Huutnga village, was incorporated as a California city in 1907. Despite the area’s history of hunting-gathering and grazing, Watts’s early years were spent building an economy around the railroad. The community was initially integrated and enjoyed a shared, music-centric culture, but as more African Americans moved toward the city center, the prospect of a Black majority drove Watts’s white population to annex the city to Los Angeles in 1926.

Following the Great Depression, the 1940s marked the beginning of Watts’s heavy industrial period. As more and more housing developments emerged to match the influx of workers—many of whom were from segregated states—Watts became predominantly Black for the first time in its history. (Many industrial sites created during this time were built upon over the years, which has resulted in high levels of contaminants in the drinking water at schools and housing complexes today.)

Over time, most of Watts’s white residents fled to new suburbs, and the racial discrimination that remaining residents faced became increasingly significant. Community bitterness over decades of police brutality and insufficient public services boiled over, leading to the Watts Riots in 1965 and the rise of street gangs shortly after. Though these gangs quickly became violent, the cultural explosion that followed the riots served as a bright spot, resulting in events like the Watts Writers Workshop and Watts Summer Festival.

An increase in gang-related murders eventually led to community-instigated peace talks in 1988 and the signing of a peace treaty in 1992. Watts’s efforts for change have only continued since then, and many of the unfinished initiatives developed by Watts residents over the years will see completion through Watts Rising. And just as they have historically, these initiatives continue to include everyone through various means: a monthly forum open to all residents, monthly working group meetings between project staff and a community member group, and the Watts Rising Collaborative Street Team—six residents with ties to different Watts communities who ensure that everyone hears regular updates from trusted peers.

Photo Credit (for all history photos): Watts Neighborhood Council Website

Project Highlights
Below, you’ll find descriptions of Watts Rising projects that engage the community to bring multiple benefits to the neighborhood—in the process, they support natural restoration, community revitalization, and resident capacity-building.
WalkBike Watts
WalkBike Watts consists of walking and cycling improvements, including updates to miles of bike paths, trees, new crossing beacons, and safe routes to and from school overseen by community adults. The path will also incorporate a cultural trail that leads through some of Watts’s iconic historical sites, such as the train station built in 1904.

Though WalkBike Watts is a smaller-scale project, it is unique in its commitment to engaging the local artist community, honoring the area’s rich cultural history, and prioritizing transportation and community safety. The Department of Cultural Affairs plans to use their local artist directory to select participating artists.
Dash Bus Electrification Project
This project aims to partially electrify Watts’s bus fleet as part of a larger Los Angeles Department of Transportation initiative. Ten natural gas and propane buses will be replaced with battery electric ones, charging stations will be installed, and the bus schedule will change to service residents every fifteen minutes instead of twenty.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation has promised that the first buses introduced through this initiative will go to Watts, putting the community at the forefront of transportation electrification.
Watts Healing Tech Garden

One of four urban forestry projects within Watts Rising, this project will improve the water and energy efficiency of the Edwin Markham Middle School Garden. It has already played an active role in the community—between April 2019 and June 2020, the garden distributed over 6,000 pounds of food to support community members struggling with food insecurity.

The garden will offer paid internship opportunities for high schoolers, volunteer options for middle and high schoolers, and generally serve as an educational space for the entire Watts community. 100 shade trees will also be grown and distributed to community members on volunteer days throughout the year.

 

Jordan Downs Phase S2
Launched in April 2019, this project will bring 81 affordable homes and a new community center to Watts residents. It’s actually one part of a much larger (70-acre) redevelopment effort, which will result in 1,400 homes and the establishment of a retail center nearby. Residents living in the complex before redevelopment were guaranteed a spot, and 80% have chosen to stay.

Thanks to educational trainings hosted at the community center by the East Side Riders Bicycle Club, this project is projected to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by 21 million miles over its 30-year lifetime. 25 trees will also be planted to provide shade and sequester carbon near the complex. Overall, this development is estimated to produce 84 direct full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs in construction and tree care.

Photo Credit (for all project photos): Watts Rising Team

Watts Rising's Displacement Avoidance Plan
Watts Rising is committed to developing in a way that keeps the existing community in place. Its formal plan for displacement avoidance, led by the Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity and Watts Century Latino, has several goals: to help current residents stay, maintain and support the neighborhood’s small business community, and build more affordable housing while keeping existing units affordable.

The Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity has offered well-attended sessions around these goals, including workshops on small loan opportunities, business development training, and training sessions in English and Spanish to build financial literacy and teach tenants about their rights. Along with Watts Century Latino, the office is also working to secure funding for affordable housing and support local regulations related to it, such as Los Angeles’s ADU ordinance.
How Watts Rising is Building Long-Term Adaptability

The California Strategic Growth Council (SGC), which runs TCC, has calculated the quantitative benefits of Watts Rising’s TCC-funded projects. By the time all 17 TCC-funded projects reach the end of their respective lifetimes, the SGC estimates that they will avoid over 60,000 metric tons of GHG emissions, save residents more than $12 million in travel and energy costs, create the equivalent of nearly 350 full-time jobs, and greatly reduce stormwater runoff and VMT.

While these numbers are impressive, it is also important to look beyond them and consider how these benefits are helping residents build capacity. For example, 26 kilowatts of solar and installation trainings aren’t just producing clean energy—they’re also saving residents money, increasing their budget for essential items like healthier food, contributing to community resilience, and keeping skills and jobs within the community. By building knowledge and more sustainable systems locally, these benefits are shaping Watts into a neighborhood that can continue to evolve through the efforts and experience of its residents.

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