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Rush Tebbe: Solving for climate resilience, community development and wellbeing

American Cities, Centennial, Environment, Health

As a supporter of climate resilience efforts for more than 15 years, we at Kresge know the community development sector must play an essential role in building housing and infrastructure that keeps neighborhoods safe as the climate changes.

What actions can place-based community development organizations take at this moment to accelerate rapid and equitable climate action? Earlier this month, Kresge and the Urban Institute gathered more than two dozen nonprofit leaders working across climate resilience, community development and social determinants of health (both in a single neighborhood or across multiple communities) to discuss how community development organizations can mobilize to build safer and healthier places.

Urban Institute researchers kicked off the day-and-a-half convening by unveiling findings from a research review on the connections between community development, climate action and public health. Literature reinforces that:

  • The fate of community development, climate action, and public health are intimately linked. Climate action depends on the availability of affordable housing and jobs, local infrastructure, historic preservation, community empowerment, the ability to recover from disasters, and the provision of services impacting community health, safety and well-being.
  • Climate-related risks, shocks and stressors are higher in historically disadvantaged neighborhoods.
  • In many cases, people of color who live in marginalized neighborhoods never recover economically from climate-related disasters, and even day-to-day climate change impacts, like extreme heat, jeopardize the health of the same people.

Luckily, local community development organizations can support climate action. The discussion highlighted that:

  • City- and neighborhood-based community development organizations play a critical role in attracting, advocating for and implementing climate mitigation and adaptation investments in housing, green infrastructure, solar and more. Realizing economic and workforce opportunities created by climate action is essential for equitable community development.
  • Community-based organizations can help protect their communities from climate-related threats to cultural preservation, climate gentrification (as wealthier families purchase safer, more protected land), and, in hotter markets, rising property values associated with urban greening and new physical investments. Communities can potentially confront these challenges through legally enforceable tools like community benefits agreements.
  • Community development organizations are employing innovations like citizen planning academies to support residents in advocating for climate action aligned with their priorities.

There was a wealth of discussion among participants on how community development organizations are taking on these and other challenges related to climate action.  Discussions underscored that:

  • Place-based organizations focused on resident priorities naturally work in an intersectional manner. That is, because they listen to their constituencies’ needs, they tackle issues of health, community development, economic development and climate action all at once.
  • Because these organizations are “doing it all,” they are hungry for even more financial and non-financial support. Adding climate and public health efforts into an already stretched-thin organization is challenging.
  • Organizational collaboration and government partnerships are essential. We heard that communities sometimes have to foot the bill for their own neighborhood climate resilience when government, businesses and philanthropy should help.
  • Support for ground-level initiatives is critical. Support for citizen planning academies, local data collection, communications and public relations would help organizations advocate for community needs. For example, efforts to bring attention to “low-attention disasters” such as repeat flooding and heat events that don’t make headlines but regularly disrupt the quality of life in neighborhoods might be furthered by investments in citizen-led data collection. Data and reports published supporting community-based organizations could provide them with ammunition for local government asks.
  • Communities must “follow the money” to determine the resources available to support community climate mitigation and adaptation and assess where they are getting stuck.
  • There is a pressing need to address “middle-scale” adaptation and mitigation projects. Valuable bespoke efforts (think solar roofs on community centers and health clinics) and multi-billion-dollar initiatives are underway. How can the scale of projects in between those be accomplished?
  • There is a need for reparative approaches that address the systemic injustices.

We look forward to continuing to explore the intersection of climate action, community development and the social determinants of health and finding opportunities to work together to accelerate collective climate action.

Chantel Rush Tebbe is the managing director for the American Cities Program at The Kresge Foundation