Equitable Adaptation Legal & Policy Toolkit

Community-Driven Engagement Processes


People sit around a table looking at maps of their community.
Jerome Ave Community Workshop, Bronx, NY 
(Credit: NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development)

Many climate change adaptation plans and related policies do not currently consider the specific needs of frontline communities.See footnote 1 Approaches to resilience have not traditionally taken a holistic view of the social, economic, and cumulative environmental challenges that communities face. As a result, governments often overlook the needs of the marginalized and underrepresented communities when planning and implementing climate adaptation solutions even though these communities are the most vulnerable to climate impacts. In recent years, an increasing number of governments have recognized the value of community engagement but unfortunately, when governments and decisionmakers do engage communities, it is typically at the end of the decisionmaking process.See footnote 2 Rather than investing in robust and authentic community engagement at the earliest stages of project design and planning, decisionmakers often engage in community consultation as an afterthought by simply “checking the box” once the planning process is substantially completed. When decisionmakers engage in such cursory “checkbox” community engagement, projects are often finalized without incorporating any community input and may not reflect the preferences or values of the affected community and may even reinforce systemic inequalities.See footnote 3 

Many governments have now begun to recognize the need to work with communities to remedy these inequities. A plan’s success or failure in preparing for the impacts of climate change will be measured by how well it is able to address the needs of those on the frontlines of impacts and those already suffering from a range of social and economic challenges including lack of economic opportunity, racism, and cumulative exposure to pollution. Therefore, to effectively build equity into climate resilience planning and implementation, policymakers can prioritize the disproportionate impacts that affect frontline communities and work to dismantle barriers that have prevented frontline communities from thriving.

Underlying the disproportionate risks faced by certain communities and the under-representation of those communities in decisionmaking processes are long histories and deeply embedded policies and practices that reinforce structural and institutional racism. Structural racism is a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often-reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial inequality.See footnote 4 Institutional racism refers to the policies and practices within and across institutions that, intentionally or not, produce outcomes that chronically favor, or put a racial group at a disadvantage.See footnote 5 Social, economic, and political systems in the United States have routinely allowed privileges to be associated with “whiteness” and wealthy residents.See footnote 6 For example, the legacy of U.S. slavery and racial segregation has led to disparities in the quality of education and access to job opportunities.See footnote 7 The policies and practices that have reinforced systemic and institutional racism have in turn contributed to barriers to the right to vote that have led to the underrepresentation of communities of color in decisionmaking.See footnote 8 

Three women sit on one side of a table with a blue table cloth and an array of pictures on the table. A woman stands on the other side of the table pointing to an informational poster and talking as the other women listen to her.
Our Voice, Our County: Environmental Community Fair in Wilmington, California
(Source: OurCounty, Los Angeles County Chief Sustainability Office)

Before policymakers can create adaptation policies that address the needs of marginalized communities, efforts must be made to recognize the policies, patterns, and practices that have contributed to and reinforced racial disparities. The systemic marginalization of communities is rooted in fundamental perceptions of the importance of communities of color that are reflected in how policymaking is developed and the resulting outcomes. Marginalized communities, also referred to as disadvantaged communities, are groups of people who face systemic disadvantages, exclusion, and barriers to opportunities, resources and power based on their identities, that includes, but is not limited to black, indigenous, and people of color, immigrants, persons with disabilities, poor and/or low-income communities.See footnote 9 The very definition of marginalization, “the process of according less importance to something or someone moved away from the inner workings of the group, highlights the fact that policymakers make a choice to regard the needs of marginalized communities as secondary considerations.”See footnote 10 Structural racism is directly related to existing institutional processes that can be changed by publicly recognizing the roles policymakers play in creating and reinforcing structural racism and by policymakers actively seeking to implement policies that reduce inequities.See footnote 11 

An equity-driven approach to developing solutions to climate impacts should seek to disrupt and reform unequal power dynamics that reinforce social, economic, and political disparities. By engaging stakeholders who typically have been overlooked and discounted in policymaking due to existing systemic barriers, adaptation planning can reflect the cultural values and preferences of the community.See footnote 12 Community engagement processes may also help policymakers identify and dismantle existing patterns in policymaking and increase the likelihood that policies will benefit those most in need of policy interventions. When policymakers commit to practicing Procedural Equity, planning and implementation efforts are executed with ongoing and inclusive community engagement to give a diverse group of community voices a role in decisionmaking.See footnote 13 Executing this commitment includes giving frontline communities opportunities to shape decisionmaking while making significant investment in implementing the programs and policies that frontline communities ask for and need. This includes adopting measures that encourage inclusive community engagement. For example, policymakers can invite trusted leaders in the community to participate and provide a sense of comfort for others who do not have a traditional decisionmaking role. Other efforts include offering translators or translated materials that reflect the demographic make-up of the community to overcome language barriers. These are all meaningful steps in achieving effective community engagement.See footnote 14

A meaningful community engagement process that involves affected frontline communities at the earliest stages of decisionmaking can increase the effectiveness of governmental planning processes and improve the likelihood that proposed projects are implemented. By engaging the community at an early stage and throughout the planning process, policymakers can gain significant insights from public input while decreasing the likelihood that a project will face negative opposition from a community. Ultimately, a meaningful engagement process will also build social cohesion within the community that improves relationships among neighbors.See footnote 15 Bottom-up approaches ensure that government plans and implementation strategies for climate adaptation solutions are working towards the greater good of the communities affected. 


Local governments are increasingly incorporating principles of equity, environmental justice, and social vulnerability into climate adaptation planning and solutions. Currently, local procedural laws may at best require local legislators to merely inform or consult with the public about a policy decision rather than adopting more robust forms of public participation at the earliest stages of planning.See footnote 16 As a result, the public’s ownership and control over decisions are kept to a minimum. Legislative bodies at the local level, such as county boards of supervisors and municipal city councils, pass laws and policies on a wide range of issues. Local legislation has a huge influence on all sectors relevant to climate adaptation planning. Local legislative bodies make decisions on budgeting, and decisions that affect the quality, affordability, and accessibility of public transportation, housing, parks, and open space, waste management services, and water and energy utilities.See footnote 17 Local policymakers can use a number of strategies and tools around budgeting, public participation laws, and planning to ensure more equitable engagement and representation of all residents in the policymaking process.

A woman signs up for participatory voting in Chicago. She kneels on the floor in front of a table, leaning on the table to fill out a form, while another woman on the other side of the table helps instruct her. A blue banner with white text hangs on the wall and reads, "Vote Here. It's time for you to decide how your tax dollars will be spent in your community!"
Participatory budgeting vote in Chicago 
(Credit: Participatory Budgeting Chicago)

Budgeting is one of the most important responsibilities performed by local governments because it involves allocating limited financial resources to support the delivery of key public services.See footnote 18 A community engagement strategy should also be considered a key public service and included in local government budgets at the outset of climate adaptation initiatives. The participatory budgeting process has emerged as one strategy for encouraging community engagement at each stage of the project development process. The process is collaborative at every stage and provides residents a platform for direct input to weigh in on decisions about how public funds should be spent to strengthen neighborhoods. When local governments allocate funds for participatory budgeting, the annual budget is more likely to reflect the values of the community and the shared vision, strategies, and priorities for the future. 

Local governments can also revise their public participation laws to authorize and support more meaningful forms of community engagement.See footnote 19 Local governments can also look to adopt more successful and participatory formats for public meetings, including meetings of the city/town/county council, school board, planning and zoning boards, and other elected or appointed bodies. Policymakers can also delegate decisionmaking power to government-designated groups like commissions and other programs to co-design policies and services in direct partnership with local residents. Local governments can also adopt guides, principles, and protocols that direct staff about how and when varying methods of engagement should be used and in which situations. Face-to-face meetings between policymakers and residents and neighborhood online forums are examples of Innovative practices that can and should be used to facilitate deliberative engagement.

Local governments can also assess existing plans to determine whether there are additional opportunities to include mechanisms to foster community engagement. Governments can use a number of existing plans, programs, and laws to provide communities a seat at the table and a voice in the earliest stages of the process. State and federal laws often mandate how often localities must update their comprehensive plans, master plans, and hazard mitigation plans.See footnote 20 In many instances, certain provisions of those laws require some level of public participation in the planning process. Plans include policies, strategies, and actions to meet a jurisdiction’s future goals for their community, touching on a wide range of issues like housing, transportation, land use, economic and community development, parks and open space, environmental quality, and public safety.See footnote 21 

Community engagement efforts can provide key information to policymakers to help understand the priorities, needs, and concerns of communities to ensure policy strategies are designed with those concerns in mind.See footnote 22 Community engagement also increases the likelihood that proposed projects achieve their intended benefits. In addition, when policymakers take steps to mandate community engagement processes, the community is more likely to support proposed projects because they have a stake in project outcomes.See footnote 23 

Policymakers have an opportunity to address the inclusion of community engagement strategies in the assessment of comprehensive plans to inform land use and development decisions and in the development of hazard mitigation plans. Hazard mitigation plans are required for state and local governments to receive disaster recovery aid from the federal government in the aftermath of a presidential disaster declaration.See footnote 24 By incorporating community engagement into local hazard mitigation planning, a local government can create opportunities for community input around cross-sector decisionmaking processes.

Key Players 

Key players in effective community engagement will vary with every process because no two communities are alike, and solutions will not look the same. That said, meaningful community engagement will generally require collaboration among community members and organizations, businesses, and multiple levels of government. These different stakeholders will have roles to play in advancing equitable solutions to climate impacts through meaningful community engagement and will be affected by these outcomes as noted below.

  • Community membersCommunity members are those who directly experience impacts of climate change in their own neighborhoods and have firsthand knowledge of how potential solutions will address those impacts. Community members who will be directly impacted by a project should be involved in all aspects of decisionmaking, planning, and implementation of solutions.
  • Community-based organizations Existing community-based organizations that are already engaging in equity-based activism or are likely to be leaders in the community, regardless of area of work, are critical partners in decisionmaking. Community-based organizations provide local expertise and, as known entities in the community, are likely to garner the trust of residents to represent community interests.
  • Community businessesBusinesses located within communities or looking to come to communities may have similar and different resilience challenges when compared to residents in frontline communities. Businesses may experience vulnerabilities due to property ownership and may face business continuity challenges caused by climate-related impacts. Businesses should also be involved in climate impact solutions, as they may need to make necessary changes in order to adapt to impacts and align those changes in a way that does not undermine the effectiveness of policy interventions.
  • City AgenciesCity agencies (including, for example, environment, sustainability, and public works agencies) will also have roles to play in advancing community engagement as a mandate for planning and implementing specific adaptation strategies including energy resilience. The scope of responsibilities for city agencies will vary by city depending on the enabling statutes, regulations, and existing programs. City agencies often administer funding programs or offer incentives that support investments in climate adaptation (among other things) that can be used to enhance community engagement.See footnote 25Elected officials (mayors and city councilmembers) often also have some authority to appoint leadership to direct the allocation of resources in achieving resilience goals. For example, appointed commissioners can pass regulations governing how commissions regulate the local water utility.See footnote 26
  • Facilitators Facilitators can help bridge the gap between government policymakers and community members by effectively creating channels for communication throughout engagement processes. Facilitators provide and protect a space for community representatives to share their input and experiences by listening to and referencing their input. 
  • Resource Partners Resource partners help to build the capacity of communities and practitioners in various fields. Comprehensive adaptation strategies benefit from the input and resources of multiple agencies. Cross collaboration across sectors and government agencies can support their respective parts of the projects to foster climate impact solutions.

Procedural Equity Principles and Action Items

There are a number of procedural equity principles that influence decisionmaking and include discrete tasks that should be implemented to ensure that community engagement mechanisms are included in adaptation planning processes.

Principle #1: Center Equity

Local governments can center equity when beginning planning processes and implementing resilience initiatives.

Principle #2: Support Empowered Communities 

By including the insights and first-hand knowledge of community members, policymakers can incorporate community insights into decisionmaking about project objectives and outcomes while building capacity and knowledge about climate impacts and potential adaptation solutions. 

Principle #3: Engage Effectively

When local governments hold effective engagement convenings and processes to collect input from all valued experts, including community members, the project is more likely to achieve desired outcomes and communities are more likely to benefit from the outcomes. 

Principle #4: Be Accountable and Transparent 

Be accountable and transparent about promises and outcomes of engagement. 

Principle #5: Build Social Cohesion

Design engagement processes with a goal of building a socially cohesive society that is one that works toward the well-being of all members, promotes trust and belonging, and provides opportunities for upward social mobility.

Principle #1: Center Equity

Local governments can center equity when beginning planning processes and implementing resilience initiatives. Points of action may include:

  • Assess and acknowledge existing barriers to equitable outcomes including the marginalization of certain communities and examples structural and institutional racism; 
  • Work with community groups to co-define the vision and scope of a community-driven engagement process;See footnote 27 
  • Build flexibility into the process because effective community engagement requires a variety of approaches for different communities to accomplish a variety of community goals and objectives; 
  • Respect racial and cultural diversity and work with existing community networks and partnerships rather than drawing solely from the perspectives of agency staff;
  • Design a process with the goal of building true and authentic trust in relationships with communities; and 
  • Dedicate funding for all activities to ensure that engagement processes are equitable and inclusive of different voices.See footnote 28

Principle #2: Support Empowered Communities 

By including the insights and first-hand knowledge of community members, policymakers can incorporate community insights into decisionmaking about project objectives and outcomes while building capacity and knowledge about climate impacts and potential adaptation solutions. Points of action may include:

  • Begin community engagement processes with activities designed to share knowledge about the relevant issues in play with broad-based community participation; 
  • Use planning processes to empower communities by building collective knowledge with a goal of identifying and dismantling institutional barriers;
  • Utilize innovative methods to engage with community members like community committees or commissions;
  • Provide opportunities to hear from a diversity of perspectives to build consensus around resilience and sustainability initiatives;
  • Facilitate community committees to provide an opportunity for the government to come to the table to listen and learn, rather than convince and persuade; and
  • Facilitate partnerships with community committees to support government agencies with co-design recommendations to reflect community expertise and the realities of government.

Principle #3: Engage Effectively

When local governments hold effective engagement convenings and processes to collect input from all valued experts, the project is more likely to achieve desired outcomes and communities are more likely to benefit from the outcomes. Points of action may include:

  • Treat community members as authentic partners and value their expertise in collaborations;
  • Create open spaces for dialogue throughout processes to allow a diversity of voices to be heard and actively considered;
  • Convene all affected and necessary parties in effective communication methods where all have time to be heard;
  • Make community convenings convenient to encourage the engagement of all affected and necessary parties through diverse and innovative methods of outreach including:
    • Making accommodations around alternative means of advertisement, hosting workshops and convenings outside of standard work hours, hosting gatherings in an easily accessible location or providing transportation to attendees, serving food, and providing childcare to those interested.
  • Come to the table ready to listen and learn from the community, rather than convince and persuade.

Principle #4: Be Accountable and Transparent 

Be accountable and transparent about promises and outcomes of engagement. Points of action may include:

  • Design planning and implementation processes to solicit community input early and throughout, rather than asking for input after a plan is already developed;
  • Include community outreach at the outset of the processes;
  • Keep communities engaged throughout all levels of planning and implementation to demonstrate that they too have an instrumental role in the process and outcome;
  • Evaluate the process of engagement by outlining potential or agreed-upon next steps and share the findings and conclusions of the evaluation and next steps with the community; and
  • Design next steps to address community concerns and take into consideration that those concerns may not align with the initial ask.

Principle #5: Build Social Cohesion

Design engagement processes with a goal of building a socially cohesive society that is one that works toward the well-being of all members, promotes trust and belonging, and provides opportunities for upward social mobility. Points of action may include: 

  • Understand the characteristics of the community and build personal relationships with community members; 
  • Identify existing or potential areas for growth and build on communities current strengths;
  • Ensure that all voices of the community are heard by being representative and inclusive;
  • Exchange experiences and skills with community leaders;
  • Build partnerships between key stakeholders and focus on maintaining partnerships in the long term; and
  • Incorporate cultural and social activities into community engagement processes.

Ends vs. Means Goals: The Path to an Equitable Community Engagement Process Around Climate Adaptation

End goals define outcomes where you are unwilling to compromise — they describe exactly what you want. In this instance, the end goal is to create an equitable and community engagement process around climate change adaptation. Means goals, on the other hand, create value in the processes along existing paths to reach your end goal. 

This chapter analyzes four means goals that are accompanied by case studies that capture methods for: 

  1. Utilizing general frameworks and guidance;
  2. Making community engagement law;
  3. Accounting for the costs of equitable community engagement; and
  4. Creating environmental benefits via community engagement. 



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