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Communities & Climate Resilience: A New Way to Measure Vulnerability

by Lara Hansen and Marissa Ramirez

A community organization in Los Angeles recently identified a crucial need for public spaces that provide a place for residents to cool off, while not increasing greenhouse gas emissions that would make it even warmer. Temperatures have already risen in Los Angeles by 1.5°F over the past century and heatwaves are expected to continue to increase in intensity in the next 30 years. As a result, vulnerable populations such as the homeless, those with health conditions, or the elderly will need respite from the heat.

In Atlanta, community organizations and community members have committed to incorporate specific questions about climate resilience into their community planning in the Lee Street Corridor by partnering more intentionally with public health experts, ensuring that residents have healthier housing with greater energy security, and that new trees planted in the neighborhood will be able to withstand hotter climates with less predictable precipitation patterns.

Communities are places of our cultures, our families, our friends, our jobs and the things we hold dearest. They are home. While holding space for the beautiful things in our lives, communities are simultaneously under tremendous stress — with record development in many urban areas, concurrent disinvestment in others, increased traffic and air pollution, aging infrastructure, a lack of affordable and decent housing, and increased exposure to climate change in the form of flooding, drought and extreme temperatures.

As people struggle with these stresses, the questions that continuously come to mind are those of vulnerability and resilience.

What decisions need to be collectively made to withstand climate change while centering climate justice and equity? How can solutions be developed that underscore climate vulnerability and chart a new path on which all people can be included?

The Strong, Prosperous, And Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC) has focused on these questions and others through the development of the Rapid Climate Vulnerability Assessment (RCVA) – the tool used by Los Angeles in its work cited previously, as well as other SPARCC regions.

Its value is in assessing the vulnerability of people and place – exploring the adverse effects of climate change, how it exacerbates and intersects with challenges of health and equity and creates a pathway to addressing those vulnerabilities. The process of using this tool is ideally community-driven and allows community residents, leaders and local governments to collectively plan for future change, potentially increasing the effectiveness of every decision and every dollar spent. Addressing inequities through vulnerability assessments allows people and communities to utilize knowledge and data to be in a better position to withstand shocks and stressors. In addition, the RCVA provides a basis for communities to work with local organizations, public and private authorities, and local government to take immediate action to transition to a climate resilient future.

Rapid Climate Vulnerability Assessment

The RCVA has been implemented in three of the six metro areas that are part of SPARCC, led by NRDC, Enterprise Community Partners, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the Low Income Investment Fund.

Here is how it works: The RCVA is a 3-step process that brings community members together around local goals and priorities, including for example, the update of a local planning effort or projects such as developing a new grocery store or soccer field. Using readily available climate data and local knowledge, RCVA participants consider how those decisions might be affected by future climate change projections such as rising heat or sea level.

Then, considering both existing stresses relating to health, equity or any other community priorities, and the effects of climate change, they can see where these variables intersect – an exercise that helps them see the ways people connect to nature and the environment, understanding that climate change directly affects their lives in ways both small and large. Once those initial links are made, community leaders can engage in a strategic session to address vulnerabilities and solve for what the community cares about. That leads to decisions about investment and revitalization that means the community can better withstand the effects of climate change.

Recently, the climate team collaborated on an RCVA workshop in Chicago led by Elevated Chicago, the local SPARCC partner. Elevated Chicago is focused on promoting racial equity, prosperity, and resilience in Chicago communities by using equitable transit-oriented development as the catalyst for change. One focus of its work is centered on displacement, and its RCVA prioritized ways to “ensure residents can remain and want to remain in their communities.” The workshop focused on climate change interactions with health and community equity, which we define as the sharing of community assets and other development resources and investment in neighborhoods in a fair and equitable way. Various connections were made throughout the day, including, for example:

  • Health: The Chicago region will face annual temperatures 5-9°F higher by the end of the 21st century and changing precipitation patterns resulting in both higher risks of flash floods and extended dry periods. These changes would be expected to increase heat-related illnesses and deaths, worsen air quality and aggravate respiratory illness and asthma, exacerbate crime, cause the release of contaminants from soils, and disrupt the food supply chain.
  • Equity: Concentrated flood damage from heavy rainfall would hit low-income families especially hard. CNT’s (Center for Neighborhood Technology) Urban Flood risk data show the lowest income ZIP codes are disproportionately impacted by urban flooding. In areas of Chicago, such as those near the California Pink Line, residents have the highest percentage of impervious surface area, leading to greater flood risk and air quality concerns.
  • Climate: The impacts of ground-level ozone and other air pollutants, for example, are exacerbated by high temperatures, which increases the frequency of red-air days (restricting the use of outdoor space, and limiting outdoor activity), damages trees and vegetation, threatens crops, and keeps tourists away, affecting jobs and businesses.

The RCVA in Chicago revealed the need to explore potential air quality hotspots, including generating improved and more localized data, especially those related to poor air quality in residential neighborhoods with already significant rates for asthma, especially childhood asthma. When you add the simultaneous challenge of heat vulnerability from climate change, this makes for an even bigger health concern. Proposed solutions included advocating for requiring clean freight transportation best practices, planting hedges around perimeters of new developments to improve air quality, requiring clean air stipulations for new developments, advocating for community benefits, and encouraging people to check the air quality before going outside for extended periods of time.

“Air emissions are a major issue and need to think about how we can respond to that.”
-Marcella Bondie Kennan of CNT

Addressing inequities such as air quality is an important objective of climate vulnerability assessments, allowing communities to utilize knowledge and data to be in a stronger position to withstand shocks and stressors of greater unpredictability.

Climate-Savvy Communities

Vulnerability assessments aren’t new. Those in the natural resource world have been using them to document and adapt to climate change events such as coral bleaching for over a decade. But such assessments at the state, city and community level are just beginning, and their power is being understood in such fields as urban forestry and in planning and design.

As the examples in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Chicago demonstrate, RCVAs provide a first step to taking ownership of local climate change impacts by making breakthroughs in understanding and quantifying their effects on the general population. This “rapid” version (often conducted in one day) allows community leaders, stakeholders and residents to articulate the climate vulnerability of development and revitalization projects and to gain experience in thinking about climate change in their work. What makes community RCVAs different and so valuable compared to city or regional authority-scale assessments, is that they are local, cross-cutting, and grounded in every aspect of community life.

As Lara Hansen, executive director of EcoAdapt and an architect of these and other assessments, put it: “We want the SPARCC communities to design solutions that are not at risk of having their shelf life cut short by climate change. We want durable solutions that will last for decades to come, serving all of the community.”

As we apply the RCVA across all six SPARCC sites, our knowledge, and that of the communities in which we work, will grow. Ultimately, undergoing an RCVA provides a collaborative basis for tackling climate adaptation in the context of building social justice and community wealth. And, that’s the point – to spread the fundamental reality that climate change affects our health, our well-being, our economic opportunity, our social consciousness and responsibility, and our future. We can do something about it, if we ask the questions, then apply the data and also our values to designing climate-informed solutions.