Equitable Adaptation Legal & Policy Toolkit

Governance & Budgeting


Two women sit at a table as a public listening session in a school gymnasium. They are reviewing a large poster paper titled "Summary of EAG Recommendations"
Ward 7 community engagement workshop in Washington, D.C.
(Source: Georgetown Climate Center)

As climate change impacts become more intense and more destructive, state and local governments will face a variety of challenges in preparing communities to withstand those impacts. The imperative to plan for resilience becomes even more urgent for communities that face existing social and economic challenges. Climate adaptation and resilience planning policies, processes, and programs that embrace an equity framework that reflects community preferences are more likely to achieve outcomes that benefit everyone.

There is also a need to reframe resilience to focus more on human well being as the initial priority, followed by disaster mitigation strategies, and property restoration when responding to climate-induced disasters. Adopting a targeted universalism approach that “all things matter” is a good principle to anchor this new approach. The Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) suggests the following steps for rethinking resilience:

  • Focus on human-centered stressors before focusing on shocks to nature and property loss; and
  • Prioritize human needs to create and build connectivity as the driving priority of resilience efforts over economic disruption.

Historically, many state and local government institutions and policies have excluded women, immigrants, and people of color, among other marginalized and underserved groups, and have often reinforced inequalities through established government policymaking.See footnote 1 Programs and policies that are top-down and exclude or overlook meaningful community engagement and feedback tend to create and reinforce systemic practices that contribute to disparities. By overlooking the needs of the underserved, policymakers have, intentionally and unintentionally, contributed to sizable racial and economic disparities in access to housing, education, jobs, and healthcare among other essential services. For example, government action and inaction have established zoning ordinances that enabled redlining practices by banks and realtors dating as far back as the 1930s.See footnote 2 These laws and policies, coupled with expulsive zoning practices, have driven frontline communities into areas with higher incidences of water contamination, air pollution, proximity to solid, hazardous, and radioactive waste landfills.See footnote 3 As a result, these communities face a greater likelihood of living within or near flood zones, and limited tree canopies and thus extended periods of extreme urban heat which will intensify in an era of climate change.See footnote 4 Rising sea levels and disruptive flooding as well as overrun solid and hazardous waste sites then worsen the existing challenges that impact these communities.

People sit around a table engaged in discussion. The wall behind them is filled with post-it notes organized into categories.
Participatory budgeting planning meeting in New York City
(Source: The Participatory Budgeting Project)

There are several key characteristics of equity-based policymaking for adaptation planning and implementation. First, once equity is embraced as a priority in the adaptation planning process, policymakers can begin by identifying the communities that are most likely to be burdened with the cumulative impacts of social, economic, and environmental challenges, among other challenges, that contribute to disparities in whether the community is sufficiently able to prepare, withstand, and rebuild in response to the increased likelihood of climate change-related weather and disaster events. State and local governments can also increase the likelihood of achieving adaptation planning outcomes that benefit the entire community by identifying, targeting, and prioritizing those segments of the community that experience cumulative social, environmental, and economic challenges. Planning professionals can use data, metrics, and mapping tools to pinpoint the geographical areas most likely to experience increased climate-related impacts and the neighborhoods with the greatest social and economic vulnerabilities to identify which communities to prioritize for ongoing outreach and resource allocation.

Equity-based policymaking also calls for planning professionals to identify the systemic causes of social vulnerabilities and disparities and directs policymakers to develop programs and policies, alongside the affected communities to overcome the structural conditions, policies, and practices that marginalize communities and isolate residents from essential services, economic opportunities, and access to healthcare and other services. This can best be achieved by assigning all government agency staff engaged in resilience planning to be tasked with public engagement, not only their community engagement staff. State and local governments have an opportunity to both develop adaptation planning programs that are inclusive and create outcomes that are beneficial for all while remedying the individual programs, policies, and institutional strategies that have contributed to historic inequities.

Effective community engagement is another element critical to successful adaptation planning. Planning initiatives are still disproportionately led by state and local agencies that typically engage in community outreach at the end of the decisionmaking process.See footnote 5 Government agencies that are committed to achieving equitable outcomes recognize the importance of inviting community participation at the earliest stages of the planning process when project priorities are developed to increase the likelihood that project design is aligned with the needs of the community. By engaging the community early in the planning process, state and local governments can cultivate partnerships that provide platforms for sharing and incorporating insights from the experiences of residents. When policymakers capitalize on the wealth of knowledge captured in a community engagement process, adaptation-planning processes may reveal perspectives that debunk preconceived assumptions about priorities and strategies. Implementing community perspectives in project planning and implementation can increase the likelihood that the proposed programmatic actions will achieve outcomes that align with community values.See footnote 6 

This chapter provides an overview of (1) the elements of an equity-based framework for state and local governments; (2) how state and local governments can build capacity among policymakers and community groups to deepen the understanding about cumulative social and economic challenges unique to frontline communities; (3) how community engagement strategies can inform planning considerations and foster equitable adaptation decisionmaking and implementation; and (4) how the participatory budgeting process is emerging as a tool for procedural equity where community and governmental partnerships can achieve outcomes that reflect the intentions of a community-led process.


Communities of color, immigrants, refugees, the homeless, and the disabled disproportionately experience social, economic, health, and environmental burdens that affect the likelihood that these communities can withstand the hazards, disruptions, and displacement caused by extreme weather and disaster events. Climate change is expected to cause more frequent and longer periods of extreme heat that will further diminish air quality in areas that already experience higher than average levels of toxic air pollution.See footnote 7 Low-income communities and those with disproportionately higher incidences of medical conditions, like asthma and heart disease, often attributed to existing air pollution, are more likely to suffer lethal consequences due to prolonged periods of exposure to heat events exacerbated by climate change.See footnote 8 

Social and economic disparities become injustices when decisionmaking and policy implementation by state and local governments reinforce the programmatic, systemic, and institutional causes of unequal access to goods and services.See footnote 9 State and local governments can use the opportunity to create climate adaptation plans to ensure the fair and just distribution of resources to achieve equitable outcomes for the entire community. All stages of the adaptation process can also inform an assessment of existing emergency management programs to determine whether these initiatives overlook and possibly worsen the circumstances for specific segments of the community. 

State and local governments that adopt equitable approaches for all governmental actions are well-positioned to adopt an equity framework for governing state and local responses to climate change. Organizations like the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), a national network of government professionals, work to support jurisdictions that are committed to achieving racial equity in communities.See footnote 10 GARE provides resources, tools, and issue papers that capture best practices for government employees interested in integrating racial equity into routine decisionmaking. Similarly, the Multnomah County Health Department of Portland, Oregon, developed an Equity Impact Review Tool, known as the Equity and Empowerment Lens (E&E Lens) to improve the quality of health services and policymaking by developing a process to ensure that decisionmaking is informed by inclusion and justice considerations.See footnote 11 In both instances, a racial equity framework provides a strategic approach to directing systemic, institutional, and programmatic change; builds organizational capacity to create experts equipped to collaborate with community-based organizations; and provides a process, informed by data and community input to set goals and measure project outcomes that benefit the community.

Equity-based approaches typically include three key commitments.See footnote 12 First, by creating processes that are transparent, fair, and inclusive, local governments can enhance procedural equity by increasing civic engagement opportunities with a goal of addressing the causes and effects of historic inequities. Second, when governments are engaged in fostering distributional equity, their agencies adopt processes that fairly distribute resources, benefits, and burdens and prioritize the allocation of those resources to those with the greatest needs. Lastly, when local governments make a commitment to structural equity, adaptation-planning initiatives can prioritize the need to correct past harms and prevent future unintended consequences.See footnote 13 Furthermore, the community engagement process ensures that neighborhood knowledge and lived experiences inform the decisionmaking and implementation processes throughout the adaptation planning process. 

Even with a commitment to incorporating an equity framework, decisionmakers can mitigate the negative impacts of policymaking in a vacuum by building collaborative partnerships with community-based organizations for ongoing engagement that informs desired results and performance measures. Planning tools that include a process for community-led assessments of the effectiveness of the project and its implementation holds governments accountable for ensuring outcomes that benefit the community. The Results-Based Accountability (RBA) tool, also offered by GARE, provides a seven-step framework that supports a community-led process by establishing indicators for a project’s performance to determine whether a project is having the intended impact once implemented.See footnote 14 Holding policymakers accountable in a transparent manner for the outcomes of a planning and implementation process increases the likelihood that governments are fully informed about whether a project works to either reinforce or dismantle systemic, programmatic, and institutional sources of inequality. Adopting these recommendations increases the likelihood that every member of the community has what is needed to be resilient and withstand the impacts of climate incidents regardless of race, gender, income level, age, primary language, or disability.

 Key Players 

  • Residents and Community Leaders: To ensure a diversity of perspectives, project participants should represent the neighborhood(s) and reflect the multicultural, multilingual, and multi-generational perspectives of residents while capturing a statistically significant representation of their social and economic experiences.
  • Government Agency: The state and/or local government agencies representing the initiative that has the authority to design, plan, and implement the projects or ideas developed in partnership with the community can provide oversight and technical expertise to the process throughout.
  • Subject Matter Experts: Subject matter experts can be included to educate project participants about the challenges and opportunities of proposed projects. Experts can refute or ensure the viability of proposed projects based on the likelihood that project ideas can achieve intended outcomes.
  • Community Knowledge Broker: An experienced community advocate, or knowledge broker, can serve as a resource to the project team and help identify organizations and community members that are best suited to inform the process.
  • Project Manager: An entity that can provide general third-party external support over the process can support both the community and the local agency throughout the process.
  • Facilitator: A professional with expertise in meeting facilitation can be retained to develop meeting agendas and lead and moderate discussions while providing a record of the process and its
  • Evaluator: An evaluator monitors the engagement process to identify relevant data, metrics, and tools to evaluate participation, project targets, and outcomes. The Evaluator typically establishes a framework for measuring, managing, and collecting information about project outcomes once implemented to produce a final report to the Project Team.
  • Elected Officials: Elected officials often provide leadership to direct the drafting of municipal ordinances or state law that allocates discretionary funding to engage in a participatory budgeting or governance process. Elected officials can remain engaged in the ongoing community visioning sessions, review proposed outcomes, and determine whether there are additional legislative or regulatory measures that can be adopted to best support the conclusions of the community and facilitate the successful implementation of the project.

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