Equity Is Essential

Strategies to ensure historically neglected/under-resourced communities do not bear the brunt of climate change.

Throughout the twentieth century, American cities have frequently disrupted or endangered communities of color — homes and businesses demolished for highways and urban renewal projects; health and property values threatened by polluting factories and other industrial uses.

Kids looking at housing benefits poster

Courtesy of California Strategic Growth Council

Cities traditionally have been very slow to improve marginalized neighborhoods. In the first half of the twentieth century, amenities such as paved streets, streetlights, water and sewer service, and trash collection were often withheld.

In the coming decades, cities will spend tens, perhaps hundreds of billions on climate adaptation. The obvious and poignant question is: will we avoid the missteps of the past, perhaps even righting old wrongs via giant infrastructure? — or will it be more of the same uneven playing field?

Fortunately, several city, county and statewide agencies, as well as academics, are looking at resilient design through the lens of equity, inclusion and environmental justice.

Louisiana plans for greater climate impacts

Camille Manning-Broome — president & CEO of the Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX), a nonprofit organization that coordinates urban, rural and regional planning efforts in Louisiana — has been working on the front line of climate change the past 15 years.

“Rapid sea level rise, higher temperatures, loss of land, more frequent and more intense hurricanes — these climate impacts and climate disasters are unavoidable in Louisiana,” she said. “Climate vulnerability is compounded by economic vulnerability — across lines of race, income, health and physical ability.”

Manning-Broome said Louisiana must adapt because in addition to a high poverty rate, the state has a heavy economic reliance on oil and gas production — at a time when the focus is shifting to lower carbon fuel sources, to combat rapid climate change.

“You are literally trying to save your place, your home, your identity, your ability to survive and thrive in this world,” she said, noting Louisiana is the only southern state to have a climate action plan. Its goal is net zero by 2050. “Sixty percent of emissions come from oil and gas production and 20 percent from the transportation sector. We have to target those two main areas and shift to renewable energy.”

Manning-Broome said communities cannot grow by sprawl — they have to grow with a lighter footprint and be accessible to all via transit. She is well-aware that amenity-rich communities on higher ground are becoming too expensive for many people. She said green infrastructure, such as increased tree canopy and natural ways of retaining water, must be done with equity. Heat islands can disproportionately impact people who cannot afford high air conditioning bills. Many poor communities have been built in flood plains and that has to stop.

“When we build for resilience, when we harden infrastructure, it will drive our economy and town functions. That means we must address poverty, racial division and build with a sensitivity to cultural factors,” she said.

In its 2021 report “High Ground, High Prices,” CNN reported on Black families in New Orleans pushed out not by Hurricane Katrina, but by gentrification that followed in its wake.

“Irish Channel, once a largely working-class area on high ground near the Mississippi River, went from 75 percent Black in 2000 to 71 percent White by 2019, according to Census data — one of the most dramatic racial shifts in the city over the last two decades. Experts and local activists say the changes affecting the neighborhood are an example of climate gentrification — a process in which wealthier people fleeing from climate-risky areas spur higher housing prices and more aggressive gentrification in safer areas.” CNN reported.

“Across the globe, the highest-risk land and communities usually are inhabited by the lowest-empowered people,” Manning-Broome said. “A lot of climate gentrification is happening.”

Though they don’t quite touch, other than via the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana and Florida are siblings bound by the brutal one-two punch of sea level rise plus hurricanes that are more frequent, more intense and more devastating.

Miami equitably plans for climate change

“Our firm is dedicated to working on public climate adaptation projects that are open to all. What we are finding is that little funding has been invested in these areas, and as such, the spaces have been seriously deteriorated and are facing climatic-related challenges — cracked and uneven sidewalks generally resulting from lack of tree maintenance; neighborhoods where open spaces have been paved for ease of maintenance, rendering them unbearable on hot Miami days; and edges of waterfront parks being inundated due to tidal flooding,” said Miami-based landscape architect Aida Curtis, principal of Curtis+Rogers Design Studio. “On the forefront of our adaptation of these spaces is the issue of access, ensuring equal access for all to the newly adapted space, ensuring that the connections to the public areas are adequate, shaded and fully accessible so everyone has access to this public realm.”

A native of Honduras, Curtis and her firm have been working in Miami’s Little Havana area for the past three years developing an interconnected street tree master plan, which would make the streets more resilient to flooding and protected from the impact of urban heat created by too much pavement and too little shade.

“In Miami’s East Little Havana neighborhood, 20 percent of the population lives in poverty and 92 percent of the population is Hispanic. The area is plagued by 7 percent unemployment and lower education levels. This area has less trees, less shade and canopy coverage, with less resilient street conditions,” Curtis said, noting her work incorporates socioeconomic data when designing for resiliency. “The Little Havana neighborhood suffers from health problems including diagnosed diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, poor mental health, asthma prevalence and poor physical health — many of which can be directly connected to climate change. The area residents experience more barriers to health and equity and climate change impacts.”

A Curtis + Rogers design proposes to maximize the inclusion of trees to build resilience to the impacts of climate change.

Courtesy of Curtis + Rogers

The Curtis+Rogers plan proposes to maximize the inclusion of trees in the area to build resilience to the impacts of climate change through tree shading, and enhance the quality of the air, water and land through a mature tree canopy’s ability to sequester carbon, release oxygen, and filter storm water.

“Our plan also proposes to create pedestrian and cycling corridors fostering alternative modes of transportation. The plan proposes to create a series of ‘blue-green’ streets with permeable surfaces to develop enhanced storm water retention capabilities while allowing mature trees to grow,” Curtis explained. “Positive health, equity and climate change results will come from adding to and further connecting existing green spaces, improving urban biodiversity, reducing the city’s urban heat island effect, soaking up air pollutants, and sequestering a significant amount of carbon dioxide.”

Seattle’s Environmental Justice Fund

An Equity and Environment Initiative guides all of the city of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment’s efforts and advances key community-identified programmatic efforts. Community support includes grants to support initiatives led by and for the people most affected by environmental and climate inequities through the Environmental Justice Fund. The fund recently awarded $750,000 in grants for 14 projects. The fund focuses on delivering measurable community health and well-being outcomes in Seattle’s Duwamish Valley, where the impacts of climate change and sea level rise are disproportionately felt.

Elderly black woman holding a sign that reads "If the environment could speak to me, it would say..."

Photo courtesy of Seattle's Office of Sustainability & Environment

“In Seattle, we are confronting the intersecting crises of climate change, COVID-19, and systemic racism by leading alongside the community and working directly with the community. The Environmental Justice Fund is a critical tool to directly support community-based organizations led by communities of color that are bringing innovative, aggressive, and bold local solutions to achieving environmental and racial equity.” Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said.

Seattle’s Duwamish Valley is home to the greatest number of contaminated waste sites and the poorest built environment characteristics in the city. Residents of the South Park and Georgetown areas within the valley have a life expectancy of 73.3 years — eight years less than the average in Seattle and King County.

The city’s Duwamish Valley Program is a multi-departmental effort driven by environmental justice guiding principles, racial equity outcomes, community input, and community-led plans.

Since 2020, the city’s holistic approach to climate change adaptation planning addresses community priorities and promotes health equity by centering the voices and needs of people of color and lower-income individuals. “The Duwamish Valley community has been leading and working on these issues for decades, so it is really exciting to partner in ways that match the creativity and bold solutions being put forward by them,” said Alberto J. Rodríguez, the city’s strategic advisor for Duwamish Valley. “This approach will allow us to collaborate in transformational ways. What’s even more exciting is that we are rooting sea level rise adaptation in community resilience: power and wealth building today are as critical as engineered infrastructure to respond to climate change impacts tomorrow.”

With funding from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the city will work with community and other partners to develop a resilience district. It will feature a geographic strategy, inspired by global models, focused on adapting to flood risk and other climate change impacts.

Since 2017, Seattle has helped nearly 700 households convert from dirty, inefficient heating oil to clean, energy-efficient electric heat pumps. The city’s 2022 budget earmarks $1.7 million to support low- and middle-income households to transition from oil heat. The program provides no-cost heat pumps to income-qualified households and offers a $1,500 instant rebate for all others. Seattle’s goal is to eliminate heating oil use by 2028.

California focuses on equity as key to resilience

Louise Bedsworth, program director of Land Use at the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment at Berkeley Law, clearly stated “Equity is the key to resilience — three ways make it a priority” in her fall 2021 opinion piece in “The Hill.” The three key tactics include:

• Identify and prioritize protecting the most vulnerable to changing climate.

• Employ integrated approaches that connect investments across built infrastructure, natural, social and economic systems.

• Provide resources to increase access to funds and amplify the voices of communities and individuals in all phases of project development through technical assistance and capacity building

Prior to Berkeley, Bedsworth was on the front lines of California’s climate crisis, serving in state government for a decade including a stint as executive director of the California Strategic Growth Council. In an interview, she said government and community leaders must focus on building sustainable and resilient communities based on equity. That approach would be fairer and more holistic than in places where the sole priority is protecting the most valuable real estate.

“We are seeing the impact of climate on our most vulnerable in the United States and globally. Whether it is the disability community, the unhoused community, etc. — we have to understand and identify who those most vulnerable people are,” she said, noting that more government agencies must use data, mapping and other tools to correlate community vulnerability with race and any other factors that can be tracked so they can be better addressed.

With climate change impacts, California wildfires have grown more frequent and widespread. To protect the system, electric companies have shut down parts of the power grid in the line of advancing flames. These intentional blackouts can be devastating to people with disabilities that require power for charging wheelchair batteries, refrigerating medicine, operating ventilators and managing body temperature with air conditioning.

“We can’t just be thinking about putting up a sea wall, we have to think about the social issues of communities,” she said. “Cities will be getting a lot of federal infrastructure money. We must decide how we spend it on equity and this has to be led by community voices — it cannot be a top-down exercise.”

Bedsworth said California’s Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) program takes a holistic approach to neighborhood-scale investment in communities disproportionately burdened by pollution and with high concentrations of poverty. She praised the TCC for basing results not just on physical infrastructure investments, but also on the social and economic benefits of these projects.

The California Strategic Growth Council has awarded millions in grants and provided technical assistance to communities that have experienced pollution, disinvestment and other issues.

“We’ve seen place-based solutions tailored to the needs of the community,” she said. “Housing is a common need. “It also has created community gardens, mobility solutions, bikeways, walkways. It brings together community partners and stakeholders to match investments to what is needed in the community. It can guide anti-displacement policy — so when you bring in investment, residents and businesses are not pushed out.”

Equitable climate mitigation planning

Ivan Moreno, strategic communications manager at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an international nonprofit environmental advocacy group, said preparing for climate mitigation in a way that is equitable is a huge issue in the United States and around the globe. He lamented that a lot of politicians have learned to weave equity and inclusion into their rhetoric and promises, but “when the rubber hits the road, equity and inclusion don’t actually make it into the plans when they are executed.”

Aerial view of green area next to buildings and river

Courtesy of NRDC

The NRDC, backed with Bloomberg Philanthropies’ American Cities Climate Challenge funding, has workers in several cities supporting climate planning.

“Solutions include more public transportation, more bikes, more energy efficiency programs that target low-income families,” Moreno said, noting that fossil-fuel-powered, single-vehicle transportation is a big contributor to carbon pollution.

“Zoning laws have been used to create more segregation,” Moreno said, noting that many polluting factories are in communities of color and that highways almost always cut through low-income and marginalized communities — robbing wealth and creating noise and emissions from heavy traffic. “Now many mayors’ solution to reinvestment is to recruit more factories or giant distribution warehouses to underinvested communities. It’s very easy to locate a dirty industry or giant warehouse in a community.”

Boy riding scooter on bike lane

Courtesy of SDOT

Moreno noted that many marginalized communities oppose these mega developments, even if it comes with the promise of some jobs. He noted that a giant warehouse with acres of truck parking destroys the fabric of the neighborhood. Once a giant compound is introduced, it’s impossible to repair the small-scale fabric of the neighborhood.

Moreno said sustainability and resiliency goals are better met with incremental improvements that support neglected communities. These would include community kitchens, indoor farming and small-business incubators — woven in with green infrastructure.

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