Helping communities cope with climate change

Skyline of downtown Los Angeles on a smoggy day. (Photo0: EvijaF via Shutterstock)

Growing up in New Orleans, summertime brought mixed feelings. It meant the end of the school year and endless snow cones, but also the beginning of hurricane season. Here in California we experience extreme heat in the summer and floods and fires throughout the year, all made worse by climate change. Unless we take action now to prepare our communities, many will suffer, some more than others.

Low-income communities of color already suffer from historic racial and economic injustice and are now on the frontlines of climate change, feeling its impacts first and worst. As I began researching the field, I found little information on how to proactively protect people and communities from climate disasters, compared to the heaps of strategies focused on protecting natural systems like wetlands or infrastructure like roads.

A community that is protected from flooding but is under threat of displacement is not truly resilient.

Even fewer resources focus on building resilience in low income communities of color, which are well documented to be most at risk. If we continue to ignore people most impacted, we’re paving a future where these communities are left behind and unable to bounce back.

That’s why the Resilient by Design | Bay Area Challenge caught my eye. Resilient by Design challenged local residents, community organizations, public officials and experts from around the world to develop solutions to address climate change impacts in the Bay Area.Of the nine final design teams, the “People’s Plan (P+SET)” provided the most promising resilience planning strategies that put communities at the center of planning, creating a model  that California should consider using throughout the state to build resilience in heavily impacted communities.

The People’s Plan team works in Marin City, a community with many low income residents and people of color. Marin City faces serious flooding and has outdated infrastructure that impacts businesses, homeowners and results in transportation breakdowns during floods.

The Peoples Plan aims to not only make the physical environment more resilient, but to also increase socio-economic resilience of heavily impacted communities. It addresses issues such as displacement, environmental health challenges and disaster preparedness in addition to extreme flooding. Building resilience at multiple levels is absolutely necessary. After all, a community that is protected from flooding but is under threat of displacement is not truly resilient.

Second, the People’s Plan embraces the idea of being “grounded in community.”

The team challenged the paradigm that only experts can design solutions and “save” a community. Instead, they developed a “social design” process that views the community residents themselves as experts and planners, since they live with these issues every day. The team did not just engage the community, but partnered with the community by building on their existing strengths and generational knowledge of the issues to design solutions.

Climate change is here, and we have no choice but to prepare and cope. The People’s Plan has demonstrated a process that California must use to develop resilient strategies that protect communities on multiple levels, working with communities rather than dictating to them.

Of course, a plan is only as good as its implementation. We are cautiously hopeful about The People’s Plan, but hope that the implementation process continues to focus on equity and community involvement.

While the Resilient by Design competition only addresses Bay Area counties, it illustrates how we can prepare the entire state for climate threats. So far, California’s candidates for governor have barely addressed climate resilience, much less the specific issues faced by frontline communities around the state. We know that massive challenges are coming. We need our leaders to grasp the enormity of this issue and show us how they plan to address it.

Ed’s Note: Sona Mohnot is Environmental Equity Manager at The Greenlining Institute.

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