Equitable Adaptation Legal & Policy Toolkit

 

Natural Resilience & Green Space Access

Introduction

In the process of planning and preparing for climate change, many cities are capitalizing on the abilities of nature-based features in urban landscapes to mitigate flooding, reduce urban heat, and otherwise contribute to a comprehensive climate change adaptation strategy. Investments in “natural resilience,” referring to the ability of ecosystems and the natural environment to absorb and recover quickly from stresses or disturbances, can also bring many other environmental, social, economic, and health-related co-benefits to surrounding communities.See footnote 1 Strategies often used to promote natural resilience in an urban setting may include urban forestry (tree planting), rain gardens, bioswales, green roofs, community gardens and urban agriculture, habitat initiatives, nature-based flood mitigation, complete/green streets initiatives, and other green infrastructure investments.See footnote 2  

Three men pose with shovels and smile at the camera, in the process of planting a juvenile tree in a Cleveland neighborhood.
(Credit: Cleveland Tree Coalition)

When considering nature-based approaches to adapt to climate change, it is important for cities to do so in a way that centers equity in decisionmaking and project implementation. Communities of color and low-income communities are often among those disproportionately burdened by the impacts of climate change due to historic disinvestment in their communities and structural and institutionalized racism in governmental policies and planning.See footnote 3 As a result of decades of marginalization and institutionalized racism in policymaking affecting land use and housing, many of these communities experience disproportionate burdens of environmental pollution and higher exposure to climate-related stressors like flooding and extreme heat. In addition, frontline communities typically have less access to green space that could help mitigate these environmental impacts and simultaneously provide public health, social, and recreational benefits.See footnote 4 Historically, public investments in greening have been concentrated in wealthier neighborhoods, creating significant “greenspace gaps” from neighborhood to neighborhood.See footnote 5

As cities make a more concerted effort to integrate equity into planning and policymaking, equitable natural resilience solutions will be an important component of an overall adaptation strategy. In addition to implementing plans and policies that result in more equitable distribution of greenspace and other nature-based adaptation solutions, it is important that cities make every effort to adhere to principles of procedural equity throughout these processes. This includes centering equity in planning and implementation, supporting and working in partnership with communities to make decisions about natural resilience solutions, engaging effectively with community members throughout the entire greening process about priorities for natural resilience in their neighborhoods, being accountable to and transparent with communities throughout the decisionmaking processes, and building social cohesion and relationships throughout these processes.  

Goals for Equity-Centered Natural Resilience

  • Reduce greenspace gaps: Cities should aim to improve natural resilience and reduce existing greenspace gaps by targeting planning, initiatives, and investments to frontline communities and neighborhoods as much as possible.
  • Maximize co-benefits for communities: Whenever possible, identify and adopt natural resilience solutions that will maximize environmental, social, and health benefits for frontline communities in their neighborhoods. These include improved air quality, flooding and stormwater mitigation, reduced urban heat, recreational opportunities, social cohesion, economic revitalization, workforce development opportunities, and more.
  • Community co-design: Cities should meaningfully engage communities from early stages and throughout when planning and designing greenspace initiatives. Community members should be leaders in setting priorities for neighborhood greening and should be given opportunities to co-design greenspace in their neighborhoods. Cities should engage communities in discussions about concerns related to greening investments, including gentrification and ongoing maintenance needs for greening, and in designing solutions that can avoid unintended consequences, provide tools and resources needed to create greenspace stewards, and meet community needs and provide multiple benefits.  

Background

Key Players

In order to plan and design equity-centered solutions that will foster natural and community resilience, cities should carefully consider the key players that may need to be involved in decisionmaking. In particular, frontline communities who are most affected by climate change and environmental and social injustices must be involved in decisionmaking, from early planning stages and through implementation. Active community involvement and leadership in decisionmaking related to greenspace is critical to reverse long-standing power imbalances and result in solutions that meet the needs of the community, as well as to build relationships and goodwill between city agencies and communities. Depending on the tool or approach being considered, key players for planning, designing, and implementing natural resilience solutions may include: 

  • Community-based organizations: CBOs that are established in the community will have expertise and trust of the community to represent and advocate for the best interests of the community. 
  • Community members: In addition to CBOs, members of the community should also be engaged and involved in decisionmaking, as they are the ones experiencing firsthand the localized climate, health, and environmental impacts and will be directly affected by any decisions regarding natural resilience planning or solutions in their community. 
  • Local small businesses: Community businesses may also be trusted messengers and important voices in natural resilience planning and investment solutions. Additionally, it is important for small businesses to be prepared for disaster events to ensure business continuity and a thriving economy in the community; participation from the local business community can therefore help ensure that planned solutions will help them be resilient as well as the community as a whole.
  • Local environmental and conservation organizations: Environmental or conservation-focused organizations working in the community can be key partners in community-based natural resilience efforts by assisting with education and training as well as planning and design of solutions. 
  • Conservation land trusts: When communities are considering the need to preserve vacant land that is being or could be utilized for shared community green space (e.g., parks, gardens), local land trusts should be involved; these organizations provide the legal means for communities to permanently preserve land for green space and ensure the community leads in management and maintenance of the space.
  • City agencies and utilities: Depending on the solution or planning effort under consideration, different city agencies (e.g., parks and recreation, public works, environment/sustainability, and transportation departments; stormwater utilities; etc.) will need to be involved and actively engaged with the community or communities affected. For example, public works and/or transportation departments should work with communities when considering investments in greening of public right-of-ways in their neighborhoods. 

Overview of Tools for Natural Resilience

Cities and other units of government have a wide range of tools and approaches to help advance equity-centered natural resilience. As every city’s makeup of neighborhoods and communities is distinct, no two cities will utilize the same combination of tools for natural resilience; there is no one-size-fits-all approach and cities will need to evaluate needs and priorities in close partnership with their communities and other stakeholders. Furthermore, depending on the scale of intervention desired (e.g., neighborhood-level or even property-level at the smaller end, to city-wide, or even county-wide or regional at the larger end), cities might want to consider different tools and the various tradeoffs involved. In general, the tools discussed in this chapter fall within several categories as follows:

  • Planning Tools such as local comprehensive/general planning, adaptation/resilience planning, green infrastructure planning, and hazard mitigation planning;
  • Regulatory Tools such as zoning code requirements and stormwater ordinances;
  • Government Operations and City Programs including street greening programs, parks and recreation programs, and utility-led programs for managing stormwater;
  • Partnerships for Adaptive Reuse, which facilitate the transformation of vacant land into community greenspace assets such as pocket parks, community gardens, or even larger-scale flood mitigation strategies; and
  • Funding Tools including federal and state grant programs, local funding tools, and partnership opportunities to implement natural resilience solutions. 

Overview of Tradeoffs and Considerations

Depending on the policy option, tool, or strategy being considered, there may be a different range of tradeoffs and considerations to evaluate — including economic, environmental, and social and equity related costs and benefits, as well as administrative and legal barriers and challenges. These tradeoffs and considerations are outlined in more detail in the context of each category of tools and approaches, but a broad overview follows.

  • Benefits of natural resilience include: improved public health (e.g., lower asthma rates due to improved air quality; mental health benefits resulting from access to nature; lower heat stress; recreational opportunities, etc.), social and equitable outcomes (including reducing greenspace gaps, fostering social cohesion, community visioning and ownership of greenspace, lower energy costs, educational, training, and workforce opportunities, economic revitalization, access to local and healthy food, and more), and environmental benefits (e.g., carbon sequestration, air and water pollutant filtration, which can help meet federal regulatory requirements, soil health, habitat provision, stormwater management and flood mitigation, which can be lower-cost in the long-term compared to grey infrastructure, and more).See footnote 6 
  • Costs of implementing natural resilience may include: costs of land acquisition or easements, costs of installing and maintaining green space (including any new utility needs; education and/or compensation for maintenance and stewardship of greenspace, etc.), and administrative costs of community engagement (e.g., hiring translators, providing compensation to community members for time, etc.), planning efforts, public hearings, etc.See footnote 7 
  • Legal and administrative considerations may include: challenges of determining and securing land ownership or legal authority, zoning and land use regulations in place (and potential barriers), standards and design requirements for rights-of-way, liability and insurance issues for parks and gardens, potential environmental challenges with vacant lots (e.g., contamination and cleanup needs), administrative burdens to administer certain programs (e.g., regulatory oversight), and more. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, collaboration and engagement needs must be evaluated and acted on when considering and implementing natural resilience solutions, and the appropriate combination of key players should be actively involved.See footnote 8  

 

Tools

Planning Tools for Natural Resilience

Planning can create an important framework for implementing natural resilience solutions. It is important to initiate planning processes with a strategy for actively and meaningfully engaging frontline communities in order to help ensure that underrepresented groups have a leading role in the process and that planning processes result in equitable outcomes. Natural resilience solutions can be integrated into a wide range of planning efforts at different scales, from city- or county-wide scales, to agency-specific plans, to neighborhood-level plans, including local comprehensive or general planning, adaptation and resilience planning, green infrastructure planning, and hazard mitigation planning, among others.

Regulatory Tools for Natural Resilience

Regulatory tools such as zoning codes and tree and stormwater ordinances are another way that cities can enhance natural resilience. In contrast to government operations and programs, these tools can be used to create requirements for how private land is used; several regulatory approaches that have been used to improve and target greening in frontline communities include zoning codes, amendments, and overlays; tree ordinances; and stormwater ordinances.

Government Operations & City Programs

Cities have wide flexibility with programs and operations affecting how public lands are used, providing opportunities to integrate greening and natural resilience initiatives with a particular focus on targeting frontline communities in neighborhoods lacking greenspace. Investments can fund targeted tree planting, bioswales, rain gardens, permeable pavements, and more in public rights-of-way and other public spaces. In many cases, these investments can help cities meet federal requirements to manage stormwater and mitigate pollution of waterways. Common programmatic approaches include street greening initiatives, parks and recreation programs, and utility-led programs for managing stormwater.

Partnerships for Adaptive Reuse

Cities can better enable the establishment and preservation of parks, recreational spaces, and areas for community gardening and urban agriculture through adaptive reuse of vacant lands. Adaptive reuse refers to repurposing property for a use other than the one originally intended, and in the context of reusing vacant lots to create new greenspace, it can be an effective way to enhance natural resilience, reduce urban heat island impacts, create new community assets, and reduce practical and fiscal challenges with city oversight of vacant properties. Vacant properties can be transformed into community assets that improve natural resilience such as pocket parks or community gardens, and cities can expand access to park and recreational land through development of shared use policies.

Funding Tools for Natural Resilience

There are a wide variety of federal, state, and local funding tools available to cities to implement equitable natural resilience solutions. As many local governments have limited budgets and capacity — particularly in this time of economic recession resulting from COVID-19 — it is important to understand the many environmental, public health, economic, and other social co-benefits of natural resilience projects and initiatives.

  Community Land Ownership: Community Land Trusts Planning Tools for Natural Resilience