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December 6, 2022

Pursuing Equitable Climate Adaptation in Legacy Cities

Cityscape view of Providence, Rhode Island.Providence developed the Climate Justice Plan to focus climate adaptation resources on historically marginalized communities, where the legacy of pollutants from the city’s industrial past remains the most damaging.

Cities across the United States must adapt to a changing climate. Although each location will face different problems that require different solutions, smaller, older cities will face their own challenges; namely, adapting legacy infrastructure and an industrially degraded landscape to a changing environment in an equitable way while lacking the resources and capacities that larger cities have. In July 2022, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the Future of Small Cities Institute hosted a webinar to explore the experience of Providence, Rhode Island, which, along with Richmond, Virginia, and Cincinnati, Ohio, recently adopted a climate equity plan. Panelists included moderator Joe Schilling, senior policy and research associate at the Urban Institute; Leah Bamberger, executive director of Northeastern University’s Climate Justice and Sustainability Hub; Emily Koo, director of sustainability for the city of Providence; and Elder Gonzalez Trejo, climate justice policy associate for the city of Providence.

Schilling introduced the topic by describing how, in the absence of deliberate countervailing measures, a warming climate will exacerbate existing racial inequalities. He discussed how communities of color disproportionately face the worst effects of climate change because of the ongoing legacy of racism that both pushed these communities to more vulnerable areas and blocked the accumulation of resources that could help with climate adaptation. These negative effects include urban flooding, inadequate air and water quality, and other environmental and economic harms. To ensure that cities act equitably, planners who are developing and implementing adaptation plans must engage and empower marginalized communities at the front lines of climate change. Planners in smaller cities must further determine how to develop the institutional capacity to resolve racial inequalities in climate adaptation given their limited resources.

Building a Robust Equity Approach in Practice

The panelists recounted how Providence developed its Climate Justice Plan, which aims for a “just and equitable approach to transitioning the city away from fossil fuels” by focusing resources on communities where the legacy of pollutants from the city’s industrial past remains the most damaging. The plan’s goal is to decarbonize Providence by 2050 while making systems-level changes to local governance and the local economy.

Koo recalled that the city’s Department of Sustainability launched in 2011 thanks to federal energy-efficiency funds. At the time, the department’s goal was straightforward: reduce energy use and develop a comprehensive sustainability plan. The resulting Sustainable Providence Plan, released in 2014, outlined specific actions, overarching strategies, and concrete goals for the city, said Koo, but it was also notable for adopting a racial equity lens by establishing the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee. A partnership between the committee and the Department of Sustainability was the key development that would eventually result in the Climate Justice Plan, adopted in 2019.

At the core of the Climate Justice Plan is “targeted universalism,” an approach to design in which solutions developed to work for the most marginalized populations will yield better solutions for everyone. Gonzalez Trejo described the Green Justice Zones that emerged in Providence from this approach. These zones empower historically marginalized local groups to make planning and permitting decisions. The selected zones are those most in need of reparative action against accumulated environmental degradation, where action must be taken to address air, soil, and water pollution to improve the health, well-being, and climate resilience of frontline communities. One undertaking, the Greenport Initiative, is transforming two waterfront industrial areas into sites that not only offer recreational amenities but also help manage stormwater and protect native species and ecosystems.

The Changing Role of Planners

Bamberger asserted that overcoming persistent legacies of past environmental racism requires planners to adopt a fundamentally different approach to their work. For example, practitioners should reflect on their own position within historically discriminatory systems. This introspection includes focusing on issues most pressing for frontline communities and understanding that the class of professional planners often is not representative of the communities they serve. Meaningfully including voices from these communities when developing solutions to climate adaptation is crucial to ensuring that the programs that are implemented are equitable, said Bamberger, even at the expense of a maximally inclusive process, which may decenter marginalized communities. Professional trainings in this area, said Gonzalez Trejo, Koo, and Bamberger, are essential to the success of an equity approach. These efforts to incorporate resident knowledge also help ensure that the solutions generated are appropriately contextualized to the people and places they target.

Implementing Broad, Proactive Solutions

In Providence, equitable adaptation is underway in several areas. While it decarbonizes, Providence is also implementing a plan that incorporates affordable housing and antidisplacement measures, said Koo. Gonzalez Trejo reported that city efforts to help residents be proactive in the face of severe weather events include the development of a resiliency hub to connect residents in vulnerable areas to utility assistance, weatherization and home improvement resources, a food bank, and emergency preparedness kits, among other resources. By focusing climate change adaptation efforts on the city’s frontline communities, Providence is building resiliency for all while striving to undo the ongoing effects of historic marginalization and racism.

 
 
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