Equitable Adaptation Legal & Policy Toolkit


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. States can also enact requirements for local governments to integrate equity into various planning processes that affect how local governments plan and invest in green space. Each of these different planning processes comes with different constraints and flexibilities, and may involve a different mix of stakeholders. Some of the planning tools that could be used to integrate natural resilience and equity include comprehensive of general planning, local hazard mitigation planning, adaptation and resilience planning, and green infrastructure and urban forestry planning.

About 50 people in varying couples and family groups enjoy the sunshine on the shore of a lake, some sitting in camp chairs, some fishing.
Collierville, Tennessee (Source: Mid-South Regional Greenprint)

Comprehensive or General Planning

Typically completed at the county or city scale, comprehensive planning is a process typically mandated by the state legislature for units of local government (county and/or municipal), and the resulting comprehensive plan creates the framework for zoning codes and land use regulation.See footnote 1 For this reason, it is a powerful tool, as other regulatory tools and planning efforts must be consistent with the comprehensive plan. It is also typically a highly burdensome process to update a local comprehensive plan, and tangible outcomes in equitable natural resilience solutions may not be realized until after the policies and actions identified in the comprehensive plan are implemented through zoning code changes, further adding layers of administrative and political complexity.

Local Hazard Mitigation Planning

State, tribal, and local (county or city) governments are required to develop hazard mitigation plans in order to be able to access certain sources of federal disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).See footnote 2 Hazard mitigation plans identify vulnerabilities and risks relating to natural hazards, and strategies to mitigate these risks in the long-term; nature-based features and natural resilience are a logical category of strategies to include for mitigating risk from certain types of natural hazards (e.g., flooding, heat).

Adaptation and Resilience Planning

Often completed at citywide, individual agency, or even a neighborhood scale, climate adaptation and resilience planning is perhaps the most common way that cities are integrating natural resilience and equity into planning. Although some adaptation plans are developed by a single agency or to cover a single sector, most of these planning efforts cover multiple agencies and sectors city-wide, and are intended to provide a comprehensive framework for building resilience within communities and across the built and natural environments in urban settings.

Green Infrastructure and Urban Forestry Planning

Some local governments are opting to create plans specifically to coordinate green infrastructure approaches and investments (green infrastructure planning), or to provide an assessment of and strategy for preserving and enhancing their tree canopy (urban forestry planning). These plans can be utilized to identify target neighborhoods and/or categories of green infrastructure strategies. While some of the strategies may require changes in local zoning codes or other legislation to implement (e.g., passing a new tree ordinance if the city doesn’t already have one), green infrastructure and urban forestry plans can ultimately influence the uptake and implementation of greening on both public and private property, including existing development.See footnote 3

This list is not exhaustive, however, as there are numerous examples of sector- or agency-specific plans that may include goals and actions relating to equity and natural resilience. For example, in Philadelphia, the coalition Soil Generation is partnering with the Philadelphia Parks & Recreation department and a planning/design firm to lead a public process that will ultimately develop an Urban Agriculture Plan for the city.See footnote 4

Regardless of the scale or type of planning, the needs of frontline communities affected by (or within the scope and scale of the plan) should be a central component of the planning and decisionmaking processes. And in advance of, or in conjunction with, planning efforts, cities should also assess existing and future vulnerabilities to climate change. In order to effectively integrate equitable natural resilience solutions into planning efforts, cities should have an understanding of their climate-related risks (e.g., flooding — whether driven by rainfall/stormwater, riverine, or coastal geography, extreme heat, drought, etc.) and the overlap of high-exposure areas with frontline and disadvantaged communities and areas lacking greenspace; in many cities there is a high correlation and overlap between these three categories. This information can help cities ensure that plan components relating to natural resilience investments, and the planning process itself, target communities most likely to be affected first and worst by the impacts of climate change.

Considerations of Planning Tools for Natural Resilience


  • Costs of planning efforts may include vulnerability and risk assessments and other data initiatives to inform priorities, such as outreach and engagement costs (including compensation for community members’ time).


  • Planning efforts can lay the groundwork for implementation of projects that achieve environmental benefits ranging from carbon sequestration and air/water pollutant filtration to stormwater and flood mitigation.


  • City-led planning efforts should aim to meaningfully engage communities through trusted representatives to understand and integrate community priorities, and address community concerns related to greening.
  • Regardless of the planning scale or topic (e.g., comprehensive, hazard mitigation), plans should center equity in setting a vision, goals, and actions for building resilience.


  • Robust community outreach and engagement can be resource- and time-intensive, particularly for planning efforts at larger (city or county) scales.
  • Certain planning processes can be highly burdensome and time-consuming (e.g., comprehensive plan updates); cities should take advantage of planned update timelines to evaluate how equity is addressed in comprehensive plan chapters and policies relating to green infrastructure and natural resilience, and make changes needed, allowing time for adequate community engagement.


  • Cities must consider and comply with any federal and state planning requirements (e.g., incorporating climate change into hazard mitigation planning).
  • Comprehensive plans create an overarching framework with which local regulations and other planning efforts must be consistent; cities can use the process of updating comprehensive plans to center equity.

Lessons Learned

  • Build in adequate time and resources for meaningful community engagement throughout the planning process.
  • Utilize periodic plan update cycles (e.g., with comprehensive plans, hazard mitigation plans) to ensure that needs for developing and implementing equitable natural resilience solutions are fully integrated.


Related Resources

Greening in Place: Protecting Communities from Displacement

This Guide serves to assist public agencies and developers in pursuing equitable green development and combating the displacement impacts that green investments can invoke. It includes an assessment of the displacement risks associated with green investment, a framework for equitable green development, several case studies, and a range of policies and strategies that can be used in partnership with the affected communities. By pursuing these strategies, park agencies and community advocates can advance racial and economic equity and promote healthy, sustainable, and inclusive green development.

The Cleveland Tree Plan

In 2015, Cleveland, Ohio completed an assessment of the city’s urban forest and developed a strategy for enhancing and restoring it. The Cleveland Tree Plan emphasizes the importance of a healthy urban forest in an overall strategy for preparing for climate change, as trees can help manage stormwater and reduce urban heat, in addition to providing other benefits ranging from carbon sequestration to reduced energy costs and improved property values. The plan integrates equity considerations through a “Plant with a Purpose” strategy aimed at narrowing the neighborhood gaps in tree canopy, by prioritizing tree planting sites based on overall canopy, socioeconomic characteristics, stormwater management, energy savings, heat stress reduction, public health, economic development and neighborhood revitalization, and vacant land use. The plan includes a map indexing tree canopy need by neighborhood according to equity-based socioeconomic factors. A full “Plant with a Purpose” implementation strategy by neighborhood is included in Appendix B of the plan. As part of the planning process, the planning team also identified a need for the city to update its tree ordinance to better integrate environmental justice.

Memphis, Tennessee Mid-South Regional GreenPrint

The Mid-South Regional Greenprint plan identifies a vision for a regional interconnected network of greenspace — including existing parks and new greenway trails, bike lanes, etc. — in the greater Memphis area. The plan aims to ensure equitable distribution of access points to greenways, facilitate adaptive reuse of vacant lands, improve access to healthy food, and build capacity of community groups and leaders to participate and lead planning efforts, among other objectives. One of the objectives of implementing the plan is to ensure equitable participation and community ownership by increasing the capacity of groups and leaders in underserved communities, and forming a regional equity council to assess outreach and involve stakeholders in implementation. Greenprint was also created with funding sources in mind, identifying ways to effectively combine multiple sources of federal, state, and local funding — such as federal transportation funding, state wildlife and conservation funding, and more — to pay for this regional network.

South Ironbound Resiliency Action Plan - Newark, New Jersey

The South Ironbound Resiliency Action Plan lays out resiliency goals for a portion of the Ironbound neighborhood in the East Ward of Newark, New Jersey called South Ironbound, that will inform funding priorities and inform longer term climate mitigation and adaptation goals. The plan was developed by the Ironbound Community Corporation’s Community Development & Environmental Justice Program in partnership with the American Planning Association New Jersey Chapter’s Community Planning Assistance Program, and with input from community members. The neighborhood is prone to flooding due to sewer back-ups, heavy rain storms, and storm surge; it has historically had industrial operations mixed with residential and commercial uses, and is surrounded by rail, airport, and port infrastructure on three sides. Accordingly, residents identified air quality, contamination and vacant lots, lack of recreational space, and other public health and safety issues as priority concerns. In order to address many of these concerns, the plan includes green infrastructure and brownfield redevelopment/adaptive reuse as key components to build resilience. A proposed “Greening Vacant Lots” program would transform city-owned vacant lots into urban stormwater parks or other pocket parks/greenspace. The plan emphasizes projects and action items such as green infrastructure demonstration projects that will foster social cohesion while addressing key goals like crime prevention and flood mitigation.

Duwamish Valley Action Plan - Seattle, Washington

The Duwamish Valley Action Plan lays out a vision and short-, medium-, and long-term goals for guiding investments by the City of Seattle in Duwamish Valley neighborhoods in order to advance environmental justice and equitable development. The plan was developed as a partnership between multiple city agencies and communities in the southwest Seattle neighborhoods of Georgetown and South Park. The Duwamish River, a water body of cultural significance to four Native American tribes, as well as of economic importance for the region, flows through a highly polluted industrial area. Residents in the Duwamish Valley are disproportionately exposed to air and noise pollution and lack of access to open space and culturally appropriate food; as a result, many health indicators for these neighborhoods are far below city averages. Following the release of Seattle’s 2016 Equity and Environment Agenda, the city created a Duwamish Valley Program to coordinate multiple city departments and community outreach efforts in order to improve environmental justice and racial equity outcomes, and advance community-led planning for the neighborhoods. The plan is implementation-oriented, with specific racial equity outcomes and action items associated with each strategy, and with each action item, budget sources, city departments, and a timeline are identified. The plan includes many action items related to increasing tree canopy and green stormwater infrastructure in the South Park and Georgetown neighborhoods in order to meet multiple environmental and health goals.

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