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Q&A: How to address climate impacts, reduce silos and blend practices with Urban Institute

American Cities, Centennial, Environment, Health

To better understand how climate action, community development, and public health practice come together and what barriers to closer integration of these practices exist, Communications Officer Tracey Pearson spoke with Andrew Rumbach from the Urban Institute in the following Q&A. Rumbach shares his advice on blending practices, policy implementation, and resources for practitioners to use at the local level.
Q: There are several cross-cutting themes and issue areas within the intersection of climate change challenges and the process of community and economic development. How do you suggest a practitioner who is well-versed in one area of practice approaches the less familiar areas of practice?
Andrew Rumbach, Urban Institute

A: I think crosscutting is a good way to describe it. Practitioner experience and research both tell us that local-level climate action and community and economic development are deeply intertwined but that practitioners are often siloed from one another. I would offer a couple of pieces of advice. The first is to focus on shared values like equity and to begin conversations on those terms. Once we recognize that we are working towards similar goals – like ensuring people’s health, safety and prosperity – the importance of collaboration and integration becomes clear. A second piece of advice is to recognize and make time to explore the tremendous resources that are available to quickly ‘get up to speed’ on either topic. For practitioners new to climate change work, for instance, there are tremendous web-based resources and tools on everything from climate science and risk analysis to community-based adaptation planning. The learning curve is much less steep than it used to be.

Q: How can climate action contribute to or accelerate the process of community and economic development?
A: This is a great question because we are often fixated on the challenges posed by climate change (and there are many challenges). But climate action —what we do about climate change — can be an accelerant for community and economic development. For example, many of the resources that we are investing in climate action (like programs to upgrade homes or create community resilience hubs) also advance basic CED goals. And there are increasing calls to invest in equitable climate action, which would prioritize people, businesses and organizations in disadvantaged neighborhoods and communities.
Q: How can community and economic development benefit or accelerate climate action & climate equity?  
A: I see community and economic development as foundational to climate action. With the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bi-Partisan Infrastructure Law, there are gobs of new resources available to households and businesses. Still, the implementation of those laws will require local action on a monumental scale — especially if we want those resources to flow to the people who need them most. CED organizations and practitioners will be absolutely essential in designing and delivering policy implementation and connecting disadvantaged people to those resources. CED practitioners have the deep local knowledge and relationships necessary for climate action to be successful locally. They can also hold federal and state agencies accountable for integrating equity, transparency, and community engagement into the laws’ rollouts. I can’t over-emphasize how important CED is to achieving climate equity at scale.
Q: Regarding green infrastructure and nature-based solutions, what role can efforts to make urban areas “greener” play in climate action? Does the current body of research suggest guidelines to do this in a way that benefits existing residents?
A: Greening’ communities through things like parks, trees, and natural vegetation plays an important role in climate change mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) and adaptation. A bioswale, for example, is a natural infrastructure that absorbs and ‘captures’ some carbon dioxide but, more importantly, absorbs precipitation and reduces stormwater runoff. There are great resources on green infrastructure planning at the local level from organizations like the EPA and the Georgetown Climate Center, along with many others.
Rumbach is a mixed-methods researcher who studies household and community risk to natural hazards and climate change. He is especially interested in how federal, state, and local government plans and policies shape hazard mitigation, climate adaptation, and community disaster recovery. He has studied numerous federal and state-declared disaster events and has written about affordable housing and disaster vulnerability, land-use policy and environmental risk, the vulnerability of cultural and historic resources to disasters and climate extremes, and rural governance of disasters. His writing has appeared in such venues as the Journal of the American Planning Association, Housing Studies, Habitat International, and the Journal of Urban Affairs. His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation; the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; the Natural Hazards Center; the Rockefeller Foundation, and others.