Nothing captures the essence of San Diego quite like its beautiful beaches. It’s a main reason why many locals have lived here for decades, new people move to San Diego, and tourists flock each year.
However, beach time isn’t a part of everyday life for everyone in the region. For communities with limited financial resources, getting to and from the beach isn’t easy.
Breaking the Cycle: Increasing Beach Access
“In a place like City Heights, even for not only myself, but people that I grew up with, many of the youth live their entire lives in San Diego without ever actually being at the beach,” said Jair Cortez, a resident of City Heights. “One of the main challenges for people is that they don’t live nearby. They don’t have access to a car or transportation.”
In 2019, the Transportation & Planning team at City Heights Community Development Corporation (CDC) highlighted this inequity by taking a group of students from City Heights, a transit-dependent community, to the beach by bus. The nearly two-hour journey revealed the challenges faced by low-income residents in accessing one of nature’s most relaxing spaces.
“If someone from here in City Heights wants to go to the beach and they take the bus, they might have to take a couple buses; they might have to take the trolley and the bus, and it could take up to more than an hour,” said Jesse Ramirez, Senior Program Manager of Transportation & Planning at City Heights CDC. “Someone that has a car can get there in 10-15 minutes.”
Founded in 1981, City Heights CDC addresses neighborhood issues hit by decades of disinvestment, like affordable housing and transportation, by partnering with residents to enhance the quality of life in City Heights.
Making Strides with Silver Strand 4 All
In 2021, these advocates took a different approach to increase access for their residents. City Heights CDC coordinated an event where dozens could join together to bike from City Heights to Silver Strand State Beach. The inaugural event became a transformative experience that would later spark the Silver Strand 4 All campaign.
“One of the things that we really like to do is to show folks that yes, it’s hard to get to the beach, but it’s doable,” Ramirez said. “Folks feel really empowered in those bike rides. It’s one thing to take your bike to the beach by yourself. But going with 60 different people, It’s a totally different kind of setting and environment.”
The campaign’s primary goal is to establish a new campsite at the Silver Strand, exclusively dedicated to beach camping. Through this, they can create a space where communities, with improved transit access to the beach, can soak in the sights and scenery of the Silver Strand coastline in San Diego.
City Heights CDC received an Opening the Outdoors grant in 2022 to connect low-income communities with limited coastal access to outdoor experiences at Silver Strand State Beach through partnerships with California State Parks, Outdoor Outreach and San Diego County Bicycle Coalition.
Finding Balance in Biking
Through the Silver Strand 4 All campaign, City Heights residents have found new ways to better their mental health through access to nature. Maria Cortez, the Community Engagement Manager at City Heights CDC, notices a difference in cyclists as they arrive at the beach from the bustling sounds of the city.
“They are amazed because it’s so quiet,” Maria Cortez said. “To me, that brings joy. When you see the community thriving and you see the joy of the parents, grandparents, kids and all – that’s the payment. That’s what the CDC wants to leave because they do care about the community.”
For Jair Cortez, the beach is a place of respite and a place that he hopes has a similar impact on future generations.
“Having a connection to the environment is a great supporter of my mental health,” he said. “That one reason is why I strongly advocated for youth to be connected to not only the beach, but to parks or other green spaces. That connection to the environment is a great part of connecting them to the greater world, expanding that part of their childhood and gets them more associated with other parts of San Diego.”
The City Heights CDC’s Silver Strand 4 All efforts have not gone unnoticed. In June, the organization received three awards from the San Diego Chapter of the American Planning Association (SDAPA) during its annual award ceremony, including the 2023 Grassroots Initiative Excellence Award.