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Can U.S. cities use climate plans to 'undo' racist legacies?

A woman and her son plant a sapling in the Southside area of Richmond, Virginia. Southside ReLeaf / Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

A woman and her son plant a sapling in the Southside area of Richmond, Virginia. Southside ReLeaf / Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

What’s the context?

To help minority communities hit hardest by climate change, Richmond, Austin and others bake equity into their climate policies

  • Black and minority areas suffer most from climate impacts
  • Cities tap into climate plans to address historical inequities
  • Efforts driven by federal funding, racial justice movements

RICHMOND, Virginia - The Southside area of Richmond is home to industrial lots, racially diverse neighborhoods, an enormous tobacco facility – and little public greenery.

"The closest park I can think of from here is beautiful, with old-growth trees – but that's … in an area with a more affluent population, several miles away," said Ashley Moulton, a land conservation specialist with the nonprofit Capital Region Land Conservancy (CRLC).

That is why the group, which works to protect land in and around Virginia's capital, is helping transfer a patch of ground to the city to create a new park, she explained as she stood under an enormous beech tree growing on the property.

Comprising 13 acres (5.3 hectares), with several fern-filled wetland areas and a stream running through it, the park will not only offer an urban sanctuary to around 2,300 nearby residents, but also help cool surrounding communities, improve air quality and connect neighborhoods otherwise cut off from each other, Moulton said in an interview.

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It is one of five parks Richmond is creating in Southside as part of a pioneering focus on climate equity, which aims to ease the unbalanced burdens created or worsened by climate change and ensure the benefits of climate actions are shared equally.

As mounting research shows lower-income communities are harder hit by climate effects such as rising heat and flooding, a handful of cities around the United States are working to make sure they are not left behind in efforts to combat climate risks.

Richmond is now consolidating its efforts into a climate equity plan officials hope to introduce for adoption by the end of the year.

The plan offers a way to address the effects of marginalization that have built up over centuries – and that pose new dangers with the changing climate, said Amy Wentz, co-founder of Southside ReLeaf, a nonprofit working with local communities to design the new parks.

Life expectancy is up to 20 years lower in parts of Southside compared with elsewhere in the city, Wentz said, noting the area's high levels of asthma and heat-related hospital visits.

"My daughter could have 20 years wiped off her life just because of where she lives," she said, referring to the new plan as "accountability" for past failures to address such inequities.

A creek cuts through a 13-acre property in August 2020 that is now being converted into a public park in the Southside area of Richmond, Virginia. Parker C. Agelasto/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

A creek cuts through a 13-acre property in August 2020 that is now being converted into a public park in the Southside area of Richmond, Virginia. Parker C. Agelasto/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

A creek cuts through a 13-acre property in August 2020 that is now being converted into a public park in the Southside area of Richmond, Virginia. Parker C. Agelasto/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

The Texas city of Austin had that goal in mind as it designed its new climate equity plan, which seeks to make the city a net-zero emitter of greenhouse gases by 2040, said Zach Baumer, Austin's climate program manager.

"When talking about climate change, we're talking about new sources of energy, new sources of transportation, investing in things to make a change," he said.

"Who's going to benefit from that change?"

Adopted last year, the plan prioritizes low-income households and communities of color to ensure the gains from climate action accrue to residents who need that help the most, Baumer explained.

That includes lowering heating and air conditioning bills by making homes more energy efficient, boosting electric vehicle-charging infrastructure to make it easier for low-income residents to save on fuel costs, and cooling neighborhoods by adding more trees, he said.

A neighborhood backs up against a 13-acre property in August 2020 that is now being converted into a public park in the Southside area of Richmond, Virginia. Parker C. Agelasto/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

A neighborhood backs up against a 13-acre property in August 2020 that is now being converted into a public park in the Southside area of Richmond, Virginia. Parker C. Agelasto/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

A neighborhood backs up against a 13-acre property in August 2020 that is now being converted into a public park in the Southside area of Richmond, Virginia. Parker C. Agelasto/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

'Undo the damage'

While many cities have been including climate action in their planning for years, the explicit focus on equity is new for most, said Joan Fitzgerald, an urban affairs professor at Northeastern University in Boston.

It is motivated, she said, by the COVID-19 pandemic's racial health disparities and outrage over the 2020 murder of George Floyd, alongside President Joe Biden's Justice40 Initiative, which pledges 40% of climate-related investments to benefit the poor and those disproportionately impacted by pollution.

"When you talk about climate justice at the city level … the idea is to undo the damage," said Fitzgerald, who published a five-city study on climate equity in April.

That damage, she said, stems from the lingering effects of redlining – racist bank policies that decades ago deemed it too risky to give housing loans to people living in mainly Black or minority areas.

Also to blame are so-called "urban renewal" projects that rammed environmentally disastrous highways and other major infrastructure through low-income neighborhoods.

"Time and again, the poorest people in America are the ones getting the biggest impacts of the climate crisis," said Naomi Hollard, chapter organizer with the climate advocacy group Sunrise Movement.

"If we want to stop the climate crisis in its tracks, we need to adapt the country with those people in mind."

Fitzgerald acknowledged that baking equity into climate strategy could mean it takes longer for some cities to adopt new renewable energy resources and other green infrastructure.

In some places, local climate equity efforts are also threatened by state-level "preemption" laws that bar cities from certain policy actions – and other equity plans will not make it past hard calculations by city planners.

"Often the equity agenda will finally come up against a big decision – typically economic development," she said. "And that tradeoff doesn't go in (equity's) favor."

Environmental justice

But despite the potential roadblocks, new federal infrastructure investments and pandemic relief are offering "unprecedented, once-in-a-generation" funding opportunities, said Peyton Siler Jones, sustainability program director with the National League of Cities, an umbrella group.

"A lot of cities, towns and villages are having this discussion about who's been left behind in terms of these investments in the past" – and how to address those gaps moving forward, she said.

Richmond's new plan marks a major expansion from the city's previous climate framework, said Parker C. Agelasto, executive director of the CRLC, who previously served on the city council.

That earlier plan focused only on greening the city's own buildings and fleet, he said.

"Now it's thinking, 'How can we help the community reach these goals?'"

The Minnesota city of Minneapolis is currently bringing equity into the climate action agenda it has had in place since 2013, aiming to launch its updated plan early next year, said Kim Havey, the city's sustainability director.

The city looked at heat islands, flooding and air quality, along with race, income and other demographic information, to define what officials are calling "environmental justice communities," which tend to be poor, high-density and have the least green space, Havey said.

Now an extensive public discussion will come up with goals and metrics, he said – for example, potentially finding a way to make sure no one spends more than 6% of their income on heating and electricity.

And Oakland, in California, recently sharpened its climate action plan to address "a community that has been heavily impacted by previous decisions that were heavily biased," said Daniel Hamilton, the city's sustainability and resilience director.

This time, it is not about how the city can get to a climate-friendly future, Hamilton said, "but how do we get to a better future for people in climate-friendly ways?"

(Reporting by Carey L. Biron; Editing by Jumana Farouky and Laurie Goering)


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