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How Cities Are Working Toward a More Inclusive Approach to Sustainability and Resilience

Rodrigo Leal
May 14, 2019

Smart Cities

City government approaches to climate action and adaptation are rapidly evolving. What was once primarily a municipally driven movement for more renewable energy, green buildings, and clean technologies has taken on grassroots social equity components that have long been missing in city planning and sustainability efforts. 

At the 2019 National Adaptation Forum in Madison, Wisconsin, climate activists, city government officials, sustainability professionals, and local leaders and advocates came together to discuss challenges around climate equity and environmental justice, community engagement and empowerment, and cross-sector climate action. Over the course of 4 days, attendees—including Guidehouse's own Rodrigo Leal, Sarah Hendel-Blackford, Josh Arnold, and Nils Frenkel—participated in a series of workshops, panel discussions, and small group activities to exchange lessons learned and highlight the key climate issues facing communities across the country. 

Climate Equity 

Climate change will have the greatest effect on groups facing a multitude of systemic barriers. These barriers include racial and ethnic discrimination, poor housing conditions, lack of public investment, underrepresentation, and other disparities contributing to the disproportionate impacts of climate change. Groups most at risk include frontline communities, such as indigenous groups and low income people of color, who experience the first—and often worst—effects of a changing climate. Disasters like Hurricane Harvey exacerbate existing structural inequities and have lasting generational impacts on communities of color, highlighting the urgency of equity-centered approaches to adaptation and resilience planning. The Climate Equity Screening Mechanism, a screening tool developed for the San Antonio Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, is one example of how cities can incorporate local equity priorities—including affordability, access, cultural preservation, public health, and safety—into climate programs, policies, and investments. 

Community Engagement 

Inclusive and targeted community engagement is fundamental to equitable adaptation planning, especially when it actively seeks and lifts the voices of frontline communities. Cities across the country, including San Antonio, Texas; Washington, DC; and Portland, Oregon are experimenting with community-driven approaches to climate resilience. These approaches strive to move engagement from the traditional models of informing and consulting to more collaborative models that foster co-development and co-ownership of climate action. The US Climate Resilience Toolkit, Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange, and Adaptation Clearinghouse contain case studies, guides, and tools to help city governments take a more equitable approach to engaging with stakeholders and working with local communities. 

Partnerships and Coalitions 

Climate adaptation requires concerted cross-sector efforts that use the knowledge, resources, and social and political capital of partner organizations. Cities are engaging and forming partnerships with corporations, small businesses, non-profits, community-based organizations, academic institutions, and other government entities to address complex adaptation issues that cross jurisdictional boundaries, such as the resilience of the local food system. Partnerships between Guidehouse and C40, the Covenant of Mayors, and other stakeholder networks (public, private, and non-profit) have deepened our understanding of adaptation challenges facing cities worldwide and enriched our perspective on climate equity issues affecting local communities.