Opportunities for Equitable Adaptation in Cities

February 2, 2017

In April 2016, the Georgetown Climate Center and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) convened a workshop bringing together nearly 50 thought leaders on equity and climate adaptation. The workshop focused on city-level actions that would support social justice goals and better prepare communities for the effects of climate change.

This workshop summary describes the conversations and discussions of participants during this two-day workshop. Participants included city officials, representatives of environmental justice and social justice organizations, state and federal partners, and funders who support this work.

Workshop participants were challenged to reflect on their own planning processes and identify ways that communities can address unequal risks; increase diversity, community participation, and leadership in adaptation planning; and ensure that climate change preparation efforts are benefiting and not negatively affecting those most at risk of impacts. Workshop participants discussed adaptation strategies, policies, and projects that could help cities achieve social justice, economic development, and climate adaptation goals. 

Participants identified the following key lessons over the course of the workshop:

  • Achieving equitable adaptation outcomes will require an inclusive process that gives community members, especially low-income residents and people of color, the opportunity to envision and set adaptation priorities and influence investments, policies, and programs pursued in their communities.  
  • In many cities, a long history of mistrust between public agencies and community members will need to be addressed before and throughout the process for collaborative planning to be successful. This will require a long-term commitment to relationship building that is institutionalized and not project-specific. 
  • Cities can address inequity within their own agencies by hiring more inclusively and identifying ways that city agencies currently reinforce inequities (e.g. holding meetings at inconvenient times for working people or failing to include interpreters or notices in representative languages). 
  • Public agencies will benefit from partnering with others, including community-based organizations, community institutions, and foundations, to address climate and equity goals. 
  • Recognizing that climate change will affect some people and groups disproportionately, cities can address equity concerns by directing resources to those areas and groups facing the greatest risks.
  • Equitable adaptation asks city leaders and staff to think not only about how and where they direct resources, but also how certain policies might have negative consequences for particular groups or communities. For example, low-income homeowners in floodplains will face increasing economic strain from rising flood insurance rates; this may force some homeowners to drop insurance coverage, which is the last line of defense in the event that flood impacts occur.
  • Climate policies can address larger issues such as poverty, housing security, and racial equity. Likewise, policies and activities that are not traditionally seen as “climate adaptation,” such as workforce development and arts festivals, can be linked with adaptation initiatives to improve the economic and social resilience of residents.
  • Addressing climate change and equity will involve a long process of experimentation and creativity. Some cities and community-based organizations are already pushing boundaries and trying to identify best practices. Participants in the workshop shared ways that they are integrating equity considerations into their adaptation work; these examples are featured throughout this workshop summary.

Recommendations described in this report are those of the workshop participants, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Georgetown Climate Center or USDN.