Equitable Adaptation Legal & Policy Toolkit


Built Environment Public Health Tools

The built environment is an important source of some of the social determinants of health, including housing, clean air and water, and cooler temperatures.See footnote 1 Public health departments have a keen interest in those social determinants, but often relatively little authority over them. Some of the planning tools, above, can help with integrating public health priorities into housing, transportation, and other plans, but implementation is key for ensuring equitable distribution of resources among neighborhoods and residents.

This section focuses on implementation, particularly equitable implementation of built environment tools such as tree planting, stormwater harvesting, and cool roof incentives. Cities must figure out how to not only implement climate- and health-smart policies, but also ensure that the effects are equitably distributed. Particularly with incentive-based programs such as rebates or giveaways that are given out on a first-come, first-serve basis, low-income residents often are not the first to the table and are therefore less able to take advantage of those programs. Rebates can be particularly hard to make equitable because property owners must have the money for an upfront investment, making them sometimes inaccessible for low-income residents.See footnote 2 The case studies below describe several programs that devised strategies to reverse that usual trend and get more resources into the communities with the most need.

Considerations of Built Environment Tools


  • Tree planting, cool surfaces, and other built environment interventions often have energy efficiency benefits in addition to adaptation and health benefits.See footnote 3 
  • These cost savings can help to make the case for paying the cost of the interventions themselves.


  • Many built environment tools that cool cities, improve air quality, and manage stormwater have both health and environmental benefits.
  • While health departments tend to focus on the health benefits first and environmental second, other departments may think about the same strategies in the opposite order.
  • Partners may need to be willing to speak one another’s language in order to work together effectively.


  • Built environment tools that give incentives to private property owners to make changes must be carefully implemented to ensure that frontline communities know about the incentives and are fully able to participate.
  • These built environment improvements can also, of course, worsen gentrification and increase rents/property taxes.See footnote 4 


  • Health departments have little authority over these tools in most places and will need to find willing partners to work together, and should ensure that those partners keep a health and equity lens on the work instead of just focusing on the engineering pieces of it.


  • Local governments generally have authority over their own buildings and rights of way, including streets. In order to effect change on private property, they will need instead to require action (for example, through building or zoning code changes) or incentivize action through financial or other means.
  • Not all local governments have authority over their own building and zoning codes, and action can be politically tricky; many local governments start instead with voluntary, incentive-based programs.

Lessons Learned

  • Zero-interest loans and grants can be a good way to get capital for projects to low-income residents, especially when given according to community priorities following community engagement
  • Incentive-based programs can be targeted to areas of highest need, rather than being first-come, first-serve across the jurisdiction. Data is necessary ahead of time to identify those areas clearly.


Related Resources

Tucson AZ Rainwater Harvesting Rebates

The City of Tucson, Arizona is working to alleviate urban heat islands, which will be exacerbated by climate change, in lower-income neighborhoods through a Low-Income Rainwater Harvesting Program. While Tucson had previously promoted rainwater-harvesting programs through rebates, these were not affordable or accessible for its lower-income and Latinx communities, who are most vulnerable to heat stress and the effects of rising temperatures. Maps developed by the city and county showed that the lower-income neighborhoods, mostly on the south side of Tucson, had significantly less tree canopy than more affluent neighborhoods. As a result, south side neighborhoods can be up to five degrees hotter than the greener north side. To address this challenge, in 2016 the city provided a grant to the Sonora Environmental Research Institute (SERI) to administer a program to make funding available to lower-income Tucson citizens to install rainwater capture systems. Depending on household income, the program provides zero-interest loans of up to $2,000 and grants of up to $400 for the installation of the rainwater harvesting system to facilitate watering of trees and other landscaping to reduce heat islands.  As a result of this program, since 2018 over 100 harvesting systems have been successfully installed in low-income households.

Million Trees Miami - Miami-Dade County, Florida

Through its Million Trees Miami initiative, Miami-Dade County is prioritizing tree planting in low-income communities with low tree canopy which face the greatest threats from heat stress, as a result of increasing temperatures from climate change. The County’s 2006 Street Tree Master Plan set a goal to achieve 30% tree canopy in the county by 2020. Neat Streets Miami, a multi-jurisdictional county board, is working to implement this goal through the Million Trees Miami initiative. This initiative aims to plant 1 million trees in order to achieve the goal of 30% canopy cover to reduce urban heat islands in the County. Through a 2016 Urban Tree Canopy Assessment, the County found that higher-income areas had greater tree canopy and lower-income areas, including predominantly black and Latinx neighborhoods, had less tree canopy. As a result, the County is prioritizing tree planting in its most impoverished and low-canopy areas through initiatives like the Street Tree Matching Grant. 

Louisville, Kentucky Cool Roof Rebates

In 2016 the Louisville Office of Sustainability commissioned a study from Georgia Tech’s Urban Climate Lab to map the hottest areas of the city. The study revealed that not only was Louisville’s urban heat island one of the most severe in the nation, but the hottest areas of the city were, not surprisingly, also where the most vulnerable frontline communities were located. The study recommended a variety of interventions, including policies promoting cool surfaces, increased vegetation, and energy efficiency strategies, with each of the interventions combining to be greater than the sum of each when deployed in the same area. One of the interventions that Louisville implemented was a rebate for cool roofs that property owners installed on their buildings. In order to ensure that some of the voluntary funding was allocated for low-income, more vulnerable areas, the office designated 70% of the funding to go to neighborhoods identified in the study as having the most severe heat islands. While rebates can be difficult for low-income property owners, the techniques used to target the program to areas of the highest need can be replicated in other places for grants or no-interest loans. The program was funded through a partnership with Louisville’s energy utility.


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