Climate Safe Neighborhoods

As climate change threatens to make cities hotter and wetter, not all cities or even neighborhoods within a city will be impacted equally. What do many of the most vulnerable urban communities have in common? During the 1930s and 1940s, these neighborhoods were intentionally segregated via federal redlining policies. Deemed “too risky” for investment because of the race or national origin of its residents, these neighborhoods were intentionally and systemically denied access to federally backed mortgages. Housing then, as now, is a primary means of generating family wealth as well as supplying the means for local government’s ability to construct and maintain public green spaces. Despite the passing of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, these historically segregated communities remain at greater risk for experiencing the social, health, and financial consequences of climate change.

In response to this challenge, Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) alumna, Cate Mingoya (MCP ‘15) is leading Groundwork USA’s ‘Climate Safe Neighborhood’ partnership to help expose the continuing effects of housing discrimination on climate vulnerability while also supporting local efforts to advocate for mitigation measures that improve climate resiliency where it’s needed most. Groundwork USA is a national nonprofit that promotes health and equity by empowering communities to transform neglected urban spaces into places of environmental, economic and social well-being. The Groundwork USA network includes 21 people-centered grassroots environmental organizations called Groundwork Trusts.

Q1 How did Climate Safe Neighborhoods get started and what are the long term objectives of the project?

In 2017, Groundwork Richmond, Virginia (Groundwork RVA), one of our local Trusts, partnered with the Science Museum of Virginia on a project called Throwing Shade in RVA. The project, directed by climate scientist Jeremy Hoffman, used citizen science-led data collection to examine the urban heat island effect in Richmond. The tremendous variation in heat documented across neighborhoods led us to ask a few questions. Why does this difference exist? Is there a relationship between historical redlining maps and current-day vulnerability to extreme heat and flooding in other cities in our network? If so, can we build the capacity of residents to self-advocate for equity-driven mitigation measures that are responsive to a history of state-sanctioned segregation and community needs? These are the questions at the heart of the Climate Safe Neighborhoods partnership.

If you’d asked me at the beginning of this project if I thought that there was a relationship between redlining and climate risk, I would have said yes, but I never thought it would be this striking.

The graph above shows the relationship between redlining grades and climate vulnerability. Neighborhoods with an A grade were white and wealthy with good housing stock, D - rated neighborhoods were primarily black with poor housing stock. As you move from A to D, neighborhoods today get hotter (red bar) wetter (grey bar, which shows impervious pavement as a proxy for flooding) and have less tree canopy cover (green bar).

Nationally, the majority of neighborhoods that were redlined in the 1940s are still, to this day, majority-minority and majority low-income. Not only are these communities more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, but they are also the least likely to be able to absorb the increased costs - utilities, medical, social- associated with extreme heat and flooding.

The goals of Climate Safe Neighborhoods are twofold: we want the communities most at risk of heat and flooding to become cooler and dryer, and we want that to happen via residents self-advocating for change by intervening in budget cycles, municipal planning processes, and other local and regional systems.

Q2 How and why were communities selected for this project? And what are some of the lessons you are learning?

The core of what we’re doing in the Climate Safe Neighborhoods partnership is data-driven community organizing. In building dozens of parks, playgrounds, commuter paths, urban farms and green infrastructure installations over the past 20 years, Groundwork Trusts have perfected the recipe for meaningful community organizing — deep community engagement, shared leadership and inclusive decision-making practices. The initial five partner Trusts were chosen because we wanted to see how this project would play out in communities with different local governance structures, cultures, climate concerns, geographic makeup and social pressures. In Denver, CO; Elizabeth, NJ; Metro-Providence, RI; Richmond, CA; and Richmond, VA we’re learning that community concerns are really similar but the paths to climate mitigation measures are — and should be — different.

By selecting cities with different histories, contexts and structures, we were able to learn a few striking insights that hold true across all communities. First, is how directly and intentionally the policies of the past impact the current urban landscape. Even in Richmond, CA, the one city in which we didn’t have redlining maps, we saw a link between housing policies and present-day climate vulnerability. In addressing a severe wartime housing shortage caused by arriving refinery and shipyard workers, the federal government issued contracts for private and public segregated housing for blacks that were intentionally built with lower quality materials and sandwiched between railroad tracks and petrochemical processing facilities. These communities are still feeling the pain of those decisions today as they suffer from poor air quality, high asthma rates, heat and flooding.

Another striking outcome of this work is how beautifully maps can serve as neutral platforms for conversations about equity. Race is a loaded topic in our culture and having explicit conversations about how institutionalized racism impacts climate risk or wealth building is really hard. Anchoring the conversations on data and maps creates a new framework for dialogue. Starting with a base map of the city, participants overlay transparencies depicting the neighborhood redlining grades, then heat, then tree canopy cover, then impervious pavement — the reactions to this exercise are exceptional. Even skeptics about the modern impacts of institutionalized racism are able to approach the issue neutrally and without blame. Conversations quickly focused on the needs of the community and how to do what’s right to correct the inequities, together.

Q3 What are the next steps for this project?

Our five partner Trusts have spent the last 18 months doing engagement, organizing and advocacy work to build a broad coalition of stakeholders who are informed about the history of their communities and are working together to identify opportunities for change. Over the coming year, they are focused on moving from ideation to community action. The short term goals in each city are very different: everything from reviving a municipal tree-planting program, to redirecting a newly created stream of tax funding to equitably distribute green infrastructure to formerly redlined, currently at-risk neighborhoods. In the long term, we hope to roll out this program to more cities and consolidate our lessons learned so that we can provide support and methods to anyone looking to do similar work in their communities. Our neighborhoods don’t look like this by accident and they aren’t going to improve by accident — efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change need to explicitly speak to a history of discrimination and center community priorities.

Join the movement to become part of the solution! Reach out your local CSN coordinator to learn how you can become involved.

National CSN Program: Cate Mingoya 
Metro Providence: Kufa Castro 
Elizabeth, NJ: Jackie Park Albaum 
Richmond, VA: Melissa Guevara
Denver, CO: Sam Villatoro 
Richmond, CA: Jen Fong