In the heart of the environmentally challenged Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood in southeastern San Francisco, a beacon of sustainability has emerged—Ecocenter at Heron’s Head Park. The area, burdened with a Superfund site, a landfill housing radiological waste, and numerous toxic sites, now hosts a 1,500-square-foot restorative building that stands as a testament to environmental resilience and community empowerment.
Owned by Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ), the Ecocenter is a living embodiment of the Living Building Challenge 2.0, operating entirely off the power grid. It goes beyond conventional sustainability by treating and reusing all rainwater, greywater, and blackwater onsite. This “living classroom” serves as an environmental education center for the local youth and residents, bridging the gap between sustainable practices and community development.
A Visionary Project Overcoming Challenges:
Building the Ecocenter at Heron’s Head Park proved to be a 12-year, $1.4 million odyssey for LEJ. The ambitious project faced challenges until project manager Laurie Schoeman took the reins four years ago, revitalizing the stalled initiative. Schoeman, with her background in food security and city planning, reshaped the design team, turning the project into a collaborative and holistic effort.
Empowering Through Environmental Education:
LEJ, a nonprofit developer, trains youth in environmental stewardship. The Ecocenter extends their mission by becoming a “living classroom,” imparting knowledge about solar power, wastewater treatment, and low-impact development design solutions. This educational approach aligns with state standards, offering a curriculum that integrates seamlessly with the built environment.
A Regenerative Effort in a Marginalized Community:
Choosing to erect a green building in an area marked by environmental challenges might seem counterintuitive, but for Schoeman and LEJ, it’s a strategic move. The green building movement traditionally thrives in affluent communities capable of front-end investments. However, the Ecocenter’s regenerative impact is profound in Bayview-Hunters Point—a community historically overlooked and marginalized.
By addressing the community’s needs, the Ecocenter aims to reverse the adverse effects of poor planning, creating a built environment that adds value rather than detracts from community health. The building serves as a beacon for change, challenging the status quo of construction practices in the area.
Off-Grid Sustainability with a Purpose:
Entirely off the grid and powered by solar energy, the Ecocenter stores its produced energy in a bank of deep-cycle batteries. Schoeman emphasizes the philosophical basis for this decision, highlighting the negative environmental impact of power companies like PG&E in the region. The standalone solar array signifies a deliberate move away from a system with a track record of adverse community impact.
The decision to store energy locally in batteries, while unconventional, aligns with a commitment to genuine sustainability. Schoeman argues that feeding excess energy back into the grid doesn’t guarantee clean energy, and by having an independent system, the Ecocenter ensures it utilizes the energy it produces, promoting a truly sustainable approach.
Looking Ahead: A Model for Clean Communities:
With the completion of the Ecocenter, LEJ has achieved a milestone in creating a space that models best practices for clean, sustainable communities. The organization envisions leveraging this success to elevate its programming and advocacy efforts, positioning itself as a leader in environmental justice. Schoeman expresses aspirations to replicate this model back on the East Coast, particularly in her hometown of New York, imagining a similar building in the South Bronx.
Discover more about the transformative journey of Ecocenter at Heron’s Head Park and the commitment to sustainability at CommonShare, where environmental advocacy and community development converge for a brighter, greener future.