Equitable Adaptation Legal & Policy Toolkit

Many local governments and community-based practitioners are incorporating principles of equity into their climate adaptation planning and implementation. This toolkit highlights best and emerging practice examples of how cities are addressing disproportionate socioeconomic risk to climate impacts and engaging overburdened communities. This toolkit will further explore how cities are moving beyond equitable adaptation planning and implementing policies that address both social equity and climate resilience. The toolkit is intended to aid local governments and community-based organizations nationwide that are centering equity in their adaptation initiatives. In comparing promising practices and case studies across cities, the toolkit draws lessons from different approaches and provides frameworks to help practitioners craft similar legal and policy options for their own jurisdictions in ways that will help them advance equitable responses to the impacts of climate change.


People from diverse backgrounds sit around a table at a public workshop talking
Public engagement session for RhodeMap RI.
(Credit: Rhode Island Statewide Planning Program)

Statement of the Problem: Implementing Equitable Adaptation 

Two of the biggest challenges facing the United States are the social inequalities that put the health and well being of marginalized populations at risk and climate change. The effects of climate change —including rising temperatures in urban areas, more polluted air, and the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme storms — will disproportionately affect overburdened and low-income people and communities who are already facing significant economic and social challenges. A community’s success or failure in preparing for the impacts of climate change will be measured by how it is able to address the needs of those on the frontlines of impacts and those already suffering from a range of challenges including lack of economic opportunity, racism, and pollution. Currently, many climate change adaptation plans and policies do not consider the specific needs of frontline communities and resilience does not take a holistic view of the challenges that communities face in implementing solutions that provide multiple benefits to people, the environment, and the economy. The following section highlights the key considerations in developing an equity framework to address the unique vulnerabilities that low-income communities face in developing equitable adaptation planning and implementation strategies.

Structural and Institutional Racism and Marginalization

Underlying the disproportionate risks faced by certain communities are long histories and deeply embedded patterns of structural and institutional racism. Social, economic, and political systems in the United States have routinely advantaged white and wealthy residents. For example, U.S. slavery and racial segregation that lead to education and job disparities, lack of investment in public transit and other services, and race-based housing segregation and exclusionary zoning practices are among the many policies that have contributed to landscapes in which low-income, black and brown people and immigrants live in places more susceptible to sustained exposure to air pollution and water contamination with limited access to healthcare. These systems lead to the marginalization of these communities, which is defined as “the process of according less importance to something or someone moved away from the inner workings of the group.”See footnote 1 Marginalized communities are "groups of people who face systemic disadvantages, exclusion, and barriers to opportunities, resources and power based on their identities," including but not limited to black, indigenous, and people of color, immigrants, persons with disabilities, and poor and/or low-income communities.See footnote 2

Marginalized communities, also referred to as disadvantaged communities, may also be affected disproportionately by actions to address the underlying causes and impacts of climate change, if they are not implemented through policies that consider existing inequalities.See footnote 3 Public policy has often reinforced rather than reversed these existing inequities as wealthy residents have more influence in the political process and have more power to combat undesirable policies and land uses in their neighborhoods.See footnote 4 Structural racism is directly related to existing city 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.

Climate Change and Disproportionate Impacts

Two women joyfully play colorful drums as part of an art installation in Little Haiti, Miami.
Community members play drums at an interactive art installation in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami. In 2018, the City of Miami passed a Resolution focused on studying and addressing climate gentrification and climate impacts on low-income communities.
(Source: Little Haiti Cultural Complex)

The effects of climate change — including rising temperatures in urban areas, more polluted air, and the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme storms — disproportionately affect overburdened and underserved people and communities who are already facing significant economic and social challenges. Climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth.See footnote 5 A community’s success or failure in preparing for the impacts of climate change will be measured by how it is able to address the needs of those on the frontlines of impacts and those already suffering from a range of challenges including lack of economic opportunity, racism, age, disability, and exposure to pollution, among other factors. Implementing adaptation equitably presents an opportunity to make social and economic equity a central driver of a city’s adaptation approach.

Climate change is often described as a threat multiplier, a concept particularly applicable to social inequities. For example, people already struggling to pay a high electric bill will find it more difficult to do so when they experience more frequent heat waves and/or snow storms. Finding safe and stable housing will be even more difficult if most of the affordable housing stock for low-income residents is located in flood-prone areas more frequented by extreme weather.

Low-income communities and communities of color tend to be located closer to major sources of pollution, such as congested highways, polluting power plants, and toxic oil refineries. Residents tend to breathe air with higher than normal levels of particulate matter, and consequently have higher rates of asthma. People of color also face greater exposure to toxins that can cause cognitive problems in children, including lead. Immigrants often share the same problems of exposure to environmental degradation as they tend to live in similarly underserved communities and also face limited access to political power. Frontline communities are typically made up of historically marginalized populations. 

Frontline Communities

Frontline communities include people who are both highly exposed to climate risks (because of the places they live and the projected changes expected to occur in those places) and have fewer resources, capacity, safety nets, or political power to respond to those risks (e.g. these people may lack insurance or savings, inflexible jobs, low levels of influence over elected officials, etc.).See footnote 6 Frontline communities are those that experience the “first and worst” consequences of climate change. These are often communities of color whose communities were placed in the least desirable areas of cities, often with high exposure to climate impacts like flooding. These can be low-income communities, whose neighborhoods often lack basic infrastructure to support them and who will be increasingly vulnerable as the climate changes. But these are also communities of people who immigrated to the United States, including legal immigrants, refugees, and undocumented immigrants who may or may not be native English speakers. Frontline communities include but are not limited to:

Children play in jets of water that spring up in a splash park in a city center in Philadelphia.
Children cool off playing in a splash park in Philadelphia. (Credit: Albert Lee @urphillypal, Source: City of Philadelphia)
  • People of color
  • Low income
  • Immigrants
  • Those at-risk of displacement
  • Senior citizens
  • Populations experiencing homelessness
  • Outdoor workers/climate-vulnerable labor 
  • Incarcerated populations
  • Renters/Subsidized housing tenant
  • Unemployed/Underemployed
  • Youth
  • Persons with disability and 
  • Chronically-ill/Hospitalized people.

Solutions: Centering Equity

Defining Equity in the Climate Adaptation Context

As a first key step, implementing equitable climate adaptation approaches involves strengthening community resilience while ensuring that equity is integrated into policies and practices. For the purposes of this toolkit, equity is defined as an approach based in fairness designed to ensure that everyone has access to the same opportunities and resources. In the climate context, to be truly resilient, communities must have the resources to prepare for the changes that are already being seen on the ground and increase community capacity to withstand impacts and recover quickly after extreme weather events that will happen with greater frequency and intensity with a changing climate. In practice, this means ensuring building equity into climate resilience planning and implementation, addressing the disproportionate impacts that affect frontline communities, and working to dismantle barriers that have prevented frontline communities from thriving. This involves both inclusive processes that give frontline communities opportunities to shape decisionmaking and a deep investment in implementing the programs and policies that frontline communities ask for and need. Importantly, these programs and policies should address not only climate risks but also pervasive stressors, such as lack of educational and economic opportunity and threats from displacement and gentrification. Therefore, in the context of this toolkit, equity will be broken down into two aspects:

  1. Procedural Equity addresses the commitment to communities having a voice in decisionmaking processes and that adaptation planning and implementation are done through diverse and inclusive engagement processes.
  2. Substantive Equitable Outcomes are sought through implementing policy solutions and programs that seek to more fairly distribute access to the benefits of programs and investments and seek to remedy historic underinvestment in communities.

City Roles and Efforts to Address Equity through Planning and Policy

Cities across the United States are increasingly focused on resilience, as climate impacts begin to occur more often. But time and time again, post-disaster recovery demonstrates that frontline communities are not benefitting from these efforts. Whether it be from policies and law that directly create negative outcomes for frontline communities like displacement in the eye of disaster or indirectly, like displacement caused by gentrification, it is time to ground resilience and adaptation work in equitable processes and strive for equitable outcomes for those most vulnerable to climate impacts.



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