How can U.S. cities inspire us to tackle climate change and its health impacts? An urban alchemist-turned-funder shares reflections on where we’ve been and where we’re headed with the movement for environmental justice in the United States and abroad.
Earth Day will be 51 years young this April 22nd—and I have been a witness to every one of them. The environmental activism that it launched and inspired has shaped me as an individual, shaped culture in the U.S. and beyond, and shaped the planet we all share. And it continues to evolve, as evident by the present-day focus on environmental justice and disproportionate health impacts felt by low-income communities and communities of color. As a child of the 1970s, I have seen momentous changes—environmental policies and discoveries that pointed in the right direction, setbacks and disappointments, and profiles in courage.
As a youngster, I drew inspiration from the boldness of Jacque Cousteau, the brilliance of Jane Goodall, and the courage of Norma Rae. As an adult, I look to the power of local change agents like Majora Carter of South Bronx, NYC and Margie Eugene-Richard of Southern Louisiana. In my lifetime, I have seen the institution of recycling, lead removed from gasoline and paint, asbestos banned from buildings, and consumer preference shift toward plant-based cleaning products and chemical-free food. I am excited by the burgeoning international movement for green schoolyards. I have also seen devastating environmental crises in places like Love Canal, N.Y., Flint, Mich., the Gulf of Mexico, and Prince William Sound. All of these represent both the incredible harm and good we can do when we act collectively.
I hope in my lifetime to witness less David vs. Goliath battles for the environment and a reckoning of environmental injustices. I have hope to share.
A year ago, a national emergency was declared in the wake of the pandemic. To curb the spread of COVID-19, the world as we knew it was suspended. A short time in, it was hard not to notice how nature was emerging in places we previously wouldn’t have expected, how our roads grew quieter, and our air cleaner. Birds appeared everywhere—even in industrial neighborhoods. Demand surged for equitable access to green and open public spaces. Some cities expanded bike lanes and closed streets to traffic—all of this and more helped us see that the way we’ve always done things isn’t the way we must continue to do things. We have demonstrated that we can be more resourceful, creative, and inclusive in solving the competing crises of our time.
While I would never wish this pandemic on this or any future generation, there is value in assessing what we are capable of when we marshal our resources across borders and cultures to meet a common threat. It makes me wonder about our other existential threats, like climate change. How do we muster the same collective will to overcome this challenge and to do it with a commitment to equity?
How Cities are Taking Action to Address Health, Equity and Climate Change
At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we know that good ideas have no borders and I’m excited that we’resupporting six projects in U.S. cities as they translate and adapt approaches tested in cities around the world to curb the health impacts of climate change. It demonstrates the power that we have to meet the challenges of extreme heat, climate displacement, and rising sea levels—that our communities are incubators of change. Here’s how a few of our grantees are taking action:
“In Lawrence, Mass., we’ve known that a lack of access to adequate and diverse transportation options, health care, green spaces, healthy food, and social connections—compounded by high poverty levels and environmental concerns—have given way to marked health inequities.
That’s why the city partnered with residents, the Conservation Law Foundation, and Groundwork Lawrence to look abroad—to Brazil, Italy and elsewhere—for innovations to create climate resilient parks and corridors in our city. It’s our opportunity to address health and climate inequities while capitalizing on our rich local natural resources and deep partnerships.”
“Jackson, Miss., is the capital of the poorest and most unhealthy state in the U.S. It is also among the most segregated cities in the nation, where lack of health insurance, obesity, and diabetes are directly correlated with residence in Jackson's redlined areas. These inequalities dramatically increase vulnerability to climate change, a reality ignored or outright denied, by many state officials. By contrast, we are supporting climate action to address health vulnerabilities by developing heat-mitigating green infrastructure in our city. Inspired by innovative solutions developed in Japan and Spain, we are working to transform Jackson into the greenest, healthiest, and most equitable city in the South!”
“Seattle’s Duwamish Valley is a microcosm for how the combined impacts of existing health disparities and the looming threat of climate change disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous, people of color, and low-income communities. That’s why we’re working with community stakeholders to develop and implement a strategy to mitigate and adapt to sea level rise and other climate change impacts, while prioritizing keeping people and businesses in the areas they call home.
Drawing from solutions in Brazil, Puerto Rico, and New Zealand, our sea level rise adaptation strategy will be driven by the community, rooted in racial equity, and will foster health and equity today and into the future.”
“In Cleveland, we’ve made tremendous progress in improving water quality and reducing carbon pollution, but we still have work to do in bolstering our resilience to climate change, creating green jobs, and scaling up social and racial equity. To accelerate our goals, we’re committing to an equitable transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050 and to building a circular economy in Cleveland, where solid waste and pollution management are redesigned to improve community health and economic opportunity. Inspired by circular initiatives in Toronto, we’re excited to join other circular cities from Europe, Asia and Latin America.”
"While the City of Detroit may be a little slow to act on climate change, health, and equity issues, we have a bunch of amazing people in our neighborhoods working to move things in the right direction. Through our Composting for Community Health project, our Detroit Compost Champions will advocate for policies that create a just environment where the benefits of our waste diversion efforts are kept in the communities—both in terms of the compost produced and the jobs that are created. Collaborating with our international partner, the Mother Earth Foundation in the Philippines, we will be able to accelerate the work that we need to do here by learning from their incredible example of community scale composting."
The changemakers from these cities aren’t alone. In response to our funding proposal, Cities Taking Action to Address Health, Equity, and Climate Change, we learned of promising solutions to air pollution, heat stress, and food insecurity taking root in over 100 cities across 60 countries—from Accra to Athens, Seoul to São Paulo. It gives me hope to see that so many are centering racial equity in their work, increasing community power over the systems and environments where they live, and prioritizing the needs of those who are most affected by the climate crisis.
We can lead momentous change when we set our sites on a common cause—and we all have a role to play in improving health and equity where we live. There is much we will learn from these cities as they build power and marshal resources—both local and global—in the fight against climate change. Along with other communities we’re supporting to advance health and climate solutions, it feels that we are on the precipice of real and durable change.
When Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, decrying the unsustainable and environmentally degrading practices of industrial societies, she set a course for change and changemakers. We have great challenges ahead, but I have seen change and I have hope.
Sharon Roerty, AICP/PP/MCRP, a senior program officer who joined the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2011, is an urban alchemist who has spent a lot of time at the intersection of health and transportation.