Opportunities for Equitable Adaptation in Cities: A Workshop Summary Report

This summary report describes the conversations and discussions of participants during a two-day workshop help in April 2016 focusing on on city-level actions that would support social justice goals and better prepare communities for the effects of climate change. The workshop convened nearly 50 thought leaders on equity and climate adaptation, including city officials, representatives of environmental justice and social justice organizations, state and federal partners, and funders who support this work. 

Explore city-level equitable adaptation strategies that can inspire similar policies in your own community. 

Workshop participants were challenged to reflect on their own planning processes and identify ways that communities can address unequal risks; increase diversity, community participation, and leadership in adaptation planning; and ensure that climate change preparation efforts are benefiting and not negatively affecting those most at risk of impacts. Workshop participants discussed adaptation strategies, policies, and projects that could help cities achieve social justice, economic development, and climate adaptation goals. 

The summary report describes participants reflections on why certain residents face disproportionate impacts from climate change, the legacy of structural racism and how that impacts city planning today, and tools cities can use to plan for adaptation more equitably. In addition to a summary of the workshop, this report includes examples of cities and organizations that are pursuing equitable adaptation strategies, including efforts in New York City, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Washington, DC, and Seattle. The report also delves into equitable adaptation policy considerations specific to economic development, building social resilience, using open space, and affordable housing. 

Participants identified the following key lessons over the course of the workshop:

  • Achieving equitable adaptation outcomes will require an inclusive process that gives community members, especially low-income residents and people of color, the opportunity to envision and set adaptation priorities and influence investments, policies, and programs pursued in their communities.  
  • In many cities, a long history of mistrust between public agencies and community members will need to be addressed before and throughout the process for collaborative planning to be successful. This will require a long-term commitment to relationship building that is institutionalized and not project-specific. 
  • Cities can address inequity within their own agencies by hiring more inclusively and identifying ways that city agencies currently reinforce inequities (e.g. holding meetings at inconvenient times for working people or failing to include interpreters or notices in representative languages). 
  • Public agencies will benefit from partnering with others, including community-based organizations, community institutions, and foundations, to address climate and equity goals. 
  • Recognizing that climate change will affect some people and groups disproportionately, cities can address equity concerns by directing resources to those areas and groups facing the greatest risks.
  • Equitable adaptation asks city leaders and staff to think not only about how and where they direct resources, but also how certain policies might have negative consequences for particular groups or communities. For example, low-income homeowners in floodplains will face increasing economic strain from rising flood insurance rates; this may force some homeowners to drop insurance coverage, which is the last line of defense in the event that flood impacts occur.
  • Climate policies can address larger issues such as poverty, housing security, and racial equity. Likewise, policies and activities that are not traditionally seen as “climate adaptation,” such as workforce development and arts festivals, can be linked with adaptation initiatives to improve the economic and social resilience of residents.
  • Addressing climate change and equity will involve a long process of experimentation and creativity. Some cities and community-based organizations are already pushing boundaries and trying to identify best practices. Participants in the workshop shared ways that they are integrating equity considerations into their adaptation work; these examples are featured throughout this workshop summary.

This gathering was organized by the Georgetown Climate Center and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN).

Publication Date: February 15, 2017

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  • Best practice
  • Policy analysis/recommendations

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