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We Speak for Ourselves: Integrating Environmental Justice in Boston’s Climate Proposals

News & Features | April 2, 2018

On the fifth floor of the Boston Children’s Museum, an eclectic group of students, reporters, property owners, and activists are gathered, united by a common interest in the newest climate change initiative from the city of Boston—Climate Ready Boston.

The animated conversations around the room fade as Carly Foster, planner for Climate Ready South Boston, begins her presentation. Foster describes the goal of Climate Ready Boston as generating “resilient solutions for neighborhoods, infrastructure, and governance that help the region prosper and grow in the face of long term climate change and short term” because climate change “isn’t something that is coming, it is something that is here now.” This statement rings disturbingly true as Boston, within the last five years, faced record-breaking floods, heat, and snow storms.

The Climate Ready Boston initiative is built around the idea of resiliency—the way a city adapts, grows, and changes in the face of climate change’s impacts. Due to Boston’s large coastal area, the city is mainly focused on flood prevention. According to Foster, Climate Ready South Boston’s primary goal right now is to look at possible solutions for flood prevention and further develop concepts and designs based on the opinions of the public and feasibility. Throughout the night there was plenty of participation and communication from the crowd—comment cards were distributed and poster boards that outlined potential flood solutions were covered in thumbs-up and thumbs-down stickers by the end of the night. There is no doubt that the opinions of the public are of the utmost importance to this initiative.

Austin Blackmon, Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space in Boston, sees feasibility and public input as “linked together.” Instead of simply presenting and proposing a plan to its citizens, the city is finding ways to understand its people, especially owners of property along the coast. Climate Ready Boston is a team effort that requires private owners to contribute to the protection of the city. Blackmon explains that even if just one building or property owner along the coast declines to join flood prevention initiatives, these proposals could be rendered useless. Before finalizing a plan, the city wants people to understand the pros and cons of each solution and contribute their ideas and concerns.

Listening to local communities introduces another aspect of climate change—environmental inequality—in which lower income and communities of color are subjected to disproportionate exposure of pollutants, denied access to sources of ecological benefits, or both. Penn Loh, Lecturer and Director of the Master in Public Policy Program and Community Practice at Tufts University, explains his hesitancy towards the environmental movement in the 1990s, stating that he “never called himself a part of [it]” because as this movement became more and more “institutionalized” it became “a lot about the upper middle class.” “There was a real separation” between the people, Loh emphasizes, and the word climate “seemed so abstract” and was hard to translate into the local work.

He describes two slogans from the early 90s that embody a more inclusive environmental justice movement: “We Speak for Ourselves” and “Where We Live, Work, and Play.” These present two ideas: that the people most impacted should be developing the solutions, and that humans are a part of their environment. There is a need to “transform climate so that it wasn’t just about climate.” Loh acknowledges that currently, “there is a realization [in Boston] that climate issues have to be framed more broadly.”

For example, neighborhoods such as Dorchester—where 23.5 percent of households are affected by poverty—are at more risk to heat exposure. The large number of concrete or steel buildings and asphalt sidewalks retain more heat, and the lack of trees to provide shade only worsens this effect. Furthermore, Dorchester has one of the largest areas of coastal land vulnerable to flooding. Blackmon says he and the city “made sure to take these concerns in” while forming this initiative for low-income communities in Boston. According to Blackmon, their goal is to build more public areas that promote a sense of community and can handle flooding through new resilient structures like amphitheater steps. He believes fighting climate change and supporting communities more at risk to environmental inequality are “inherently linked together.”

Climate Ready Boston’s final report focuses on eight areas, including Dorchester and Roxbury. While Climate Ready Boston is Boston’s most recent climate change proposal, Blackmon points towards Imagine Boston, a different initiative that focuses more on fighting environmental racism. Set to be completed in 2030, Imagine Boston is coordinated in tandem with Climate Ready Boston to not only build resiliency but also to make sure the solutions are “affordable” and “equitable.” Imagine Boston’s proposal declares their goal is to make the city a place of “unparalleled economic and social opportunities for people of all races, genders, and incomes.” With these proposals, low-income communities will not be left behind due to cost or lack of representation in the city’s decisions. In a letter, Mayor Martin J. Walsh states that they have plans for these more vulnerable areas to have more “affordable housing and accessible transportation.”

Nina Schlegel, who recently finished her master’s degree in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts, further addresses issues of environmental racism in a report for Boston City Council President Michelle Wu and those forming climate change policies. Titled Climate Justice for the City of Boston: Visioning Policies and Processes, Schlegel puts together interviews from 31 community organizations in the Boston area. Her report states that “a resilient city is one that is both climate resilient and has intentionally created a resilient social and economic fabric to weather the coming storm.” According to Schlegel, there are “different types of vulnerability tied to environmental vulnerability,” such as the access to “green spaces, fresh produce, transportation, jobs, and halls of power.” She adds that elderly people, immigrants, and people whose first language isn’t English all experience different sorts of vulnerability as well. Loh expresses a similar sentiment, stating that “resiliency is about people, and people interacting with their ecosystems,” and that Boston needs to “understand the landscape” of their people.

In interviews with Boston community organizations, many were wary, yet hopeful, about Climate Ready Boston. Schlegel explains that the organizations she spoke with wanted to increase communication, trust, and the amount of resources between the city and the community. Governments need to use less “expert speak” and listen to the concerns of the public before stepping back and planning the next step. Moreover, Schlegel points out that the “city says nice things” but often “don’t really follow through.”

In her research, Schlegel found that local organizations often want specific answers to questions like “Where’s the timeline for this plan?” or “What’s going to happen every year?” to ensure that the city completes its plans. Communities want concrete evidence and to be involved. According to Schlegel, looking at the situation from afar, both cities and organizations want the same thing: to protect Boston and its people from the effects of climate change. “Organizations are really willing to be seen as partners,” Schlegel continues.

Boston is looking to the future in their plans for climate resiliency, and the people are incredibly willing to contribute their ideas. While the city develops plans to build floodable parks and raised walkways, voices of those subjected to environmental racism must be heard. The two are deeply intertwined and the city must directly address this inequality. Only then will Boston be able to grow towards a more sustainable future. As Loh says, “Climate change isn’t just about how much the sea level rises…it’s a part of all the other environmental justice issues.”