A woman pushes a child in a wheelbarrow along the Industrial Canal levee in the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

And what cities can do to promote equity and sustainability.

Hurricane Katrina was rushed into New Orleans by winds traveling 127 mph—a major Category 3 storm. The flooding it caused may well have been worsened by climate change’s rising sea levels. But the disaster it left in its wake was not primarily “natural”—it was human-made. A legacy of racially biased land-use planning, ineffective flood protection, and poor evacuation strategies left low-lying, low-income neighborhoods of color disproportionately devastated.

In the aftermath, New Orleans launched numerous efforts aimed at making the city more resilient to major storms. Among them was a special city commission’s so-called ‘Green Dot’ plan, which proposed replacing certain heavily damaged neighborhoods with water-absorbent parks and green space, while restoring others.

Hydrologically, it made a limited amount of sense. But from an equity standpoint, it was a disaster: The neighborhoods slated for razing were overwhelmingly black. White neighborhoods that had also sustained serious storm damage had been spared. “All hell broke loose” in response to the plan, LaToya Cantrell, the president of a community association (and current city council member) in one of the black neighborhoods in question, told me last summer. To some neighbors, this was a racially charged land grab, disguised as an “adaptation” strategy. The plan was abandoned amid public outrage.

All cities—even those not vulnerable to hurricanes—can learn from New Orleans’s story. Climate change is bringing rising sea levels, stronger storms, higher temperatures, prolonged drought and fire seasons, and new disease risks. Broadly speaking, the planet’s poorest citizens will suffer the most. To prepare for a warmer future, local leaders are beginning to develop climate resiliency and adaptation plans. But, as they did in New Orleans, these plans can make vulnerable communities even worse off.

When good intentions punish the poor

“Adaptation planning is supposed to reduce risk to the whole population, and these plans are imagined to benefit the city at large,” says Kara Reeve, an urban-planning specialist at the nonprofit social-science research institution RTI International. “But many of these plans are actually exacerbating existing inequities in cities, either by affecting or displacing less privileged groups, or leaving them out of the planning process entirely.”

Alongside a team of international researchers, Reeve co-authored a paper published recently in the Journal of Planning Education and Research that found numerous examples of “urban adaptation injustice” in developing and developed countries around the globe.

To name a few: In Dhaka, poor communities are being displaced by landfilling, pumps, and embankments designed to protect higher-income residents from flood risks. In Medellin, a plan to contain urban sprawl while reducing landslide risk following heavy rainfall seeks to relocate thousands of poor residents away from certain non-recoverable areas, but without adequate affordable housing to accommodate the displaced. Adaptation planning efforts in Jakarta and Santiago have all but ignored the needs and input of poor communities, in spite of their residents already bearing the brunt of climate hazards. Back in the U.S., Boston has relied heavily on private property owners and business leaders to develop their own flood risk assessments and adaptation plans, a strategy that seems likely to worsen the imbalance of flood protection between higher- and lower-income communities.

Cities and states trying to shrink their carbon footprints can also wind up squeezing out their most vulnerable residents. In California, for example, state legislation strongly encourages regional planning authorities to work toward more compact, transit-oriented development. These plans can go a long way in reducing car emissions and promoting healthier communities overall. But alongside economic and cultural shifts pressing more people into urban cores, pro-density climate policies can also play a hand in driving up property values—which can displace existing residents and put those climate-friendly amenities out of reach. “You can’t disentangle market, demographic, and planning forces,” says Manuel Pastor, the director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California. He points to San Francisco, a city long applauded for its aggressive and progressive environmental policies, as a prime example of this complicated tension.

Residents dig at the site of a landslide near Medellin in 2010. (REUTERS/Albeiro Lopera)

Righting past wrongs

Why aren’t adaptation planners taking equity concerns into account? To a great extent, it’s a problem that plagues professional urban planning in general. “It tends not to involve folks who are usually on the losing end of an equity measure,” says Jacqueline Patterson, the director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program.

Patterson has served on advisory committees for many national organizations supporting adaptation planning, and says that, time after time, she’s seen well-meaning planners talk about equity, but rarely take the steps necessary to achieve it. One major pitfall can be when cities consider adaptation projects as ends in themselves, rather than a means to benefit a specific group of people. “For example, I might hear that the desired outcome is to have a stormwater-management system developed. When really the desired outcome should be something like, ‘This many people were flooded out of their homes in the last storm, and after we build this system, it’ll be this many fewer in the next storm,’” says Patterson.

Not every city’s climate adaptation plan is failing poor communities of color. Patterson says that the city of Oakland did a stand-up job of including representatives from diverse communities as it planned its Energy and Climate Action Plan. That plan now includes a host of equity measures, such as setting up an investment fund to retrofit low-income housing with energy-efficient appliances, encouraging transit-oriented development that includes affordable units, and running “green” job-training programs for young adults. Also in California, Los Angeles’s sustainability plan spreads its green initiatives with a notably balanced hand. Among other things, it calls for the adoption of “green zones” in poor neighborhoods hit hard by industrial pollution, incentivizing cleaner industries to set up shop there. Even the Big Easy is slowly getting better, with a 2015 “Resilient New Orleans” strategy that proposes a program that helps low- and middle-income residents set aside storm-emergency funds.

Climate-adaptation planning can and should be an opportunity to create more, not less, equitable cities, says Reeve, the RTI researcher. Planners can do this by opening the process to outside groups, and paying close attention to the nuanced human impacts associated with the adaptation strategies they deploy—in other words, developing a better sense of the trade-offs. To help with this, in 2015 Patterson authored a checklist of demographic, environmental, and economic “indicators” that planners can look to as they approach adaptation with a more inclusive lens. The key, says Patterson, is looking at the broader socioeconomic context to understand what’s making a community vulnerable in the first place—then working to fix that.

“It’s not just about how we stop people from buying homes in a flood plain,” she says. “But how do we have economic equity so that people don’t need to make those kinds of choices because that’s all they can afford?”

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