Discover what communities can teach us about equitable and people-centered climate action.
Each leaf of a blooming plant holds a vignette of people working on climate solutions, while one blooming flower contains the earth.
Every community should have the pathways and resources it needs to address emerging environmental challenges so members can thrive and be healthy. Truly effective climate action requires local engagement that addresses the interconnected issues of health and equity.Through innovative, community-driven approaches, cities and communities are taking action to confront the health and equity impacts of climate change.
In 2021, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), with our partner C40 Cities, announced support for six U.S. cities working on initiatives at the intersection of health, climate change, and social equity. These cities share climate challenges and histories of industrialization, racial inequality, and environmental injustice. They also have strong track records of environmental and social activism. This initiative built upon these shared histories and the power of community activism.
How Cities are Addressing Health, Equity, and Climate Change
Health, equity, and climate risk are interconnected challenges facing cities worldwide. At RWJF and C40 Cities, we believe that good ideas have no borders. That’s why our grantees have adapted proven approaches tested in cities around the world to curb the health impacts of climate change, implementing global solutions within their communities. Drawing wisdom from cities in the Philippines, New Zealand, Brazil, and beyond, these projects have introduced community gardens, developed composting pilots, established resident advisory groups, and more.
Three years of on-the-ground efforts have yielded valuable lessons that shed light on the power of community-driven climate action:
Truly inclusive climate action must go beyond traditional town hall meetings. For inclusive and effective solutions, climate action needs widespread support within the community. This means reaching out to those often overlooked in decisionmaking processes. For example, in Seattle, a resident advisory group was established to foster shared decisionmaking and community planning against displacement and sea-level rise, hosting events to reach residents usually excluded from decisionmaking. Advisory group members represented diverse communities and interests, as well as community-based organizations (CBOs), an affordable housing association, and businesses.
The six cities engaged their communities in myriad ways, ranging from capacity-building efforts (e.g., resident-driven task forces and multi-generational advisory committees) to power-shifting strategies (e.g., community-driven grantmaking and budgeting).
Strong relationships with local stakeholders and city government are crucial. While strong CBOs and leadership are important, established relationships at the city level between CBOs and city leaders matter. Without these relationships, CBOs can face challenges and barriers during implementation. For instance, in Cleveland, the project benefitted from strong, established relationships with stakeholders across the city. The city partnered with Cleveland Neighborhood Progress and Neighborhood Connections to form Circular Cleveland. This collaboration brought together community organizations, city government and local leaders, businesses, and residents to advance a circular economy. The strong relationships between CBO leaders, the city, and local businesses are helping sustain momentum.
Meet the communities where they are. While projects in these cities did address challenges at the intersection of health, equity, and climate change, the focus was on pragmatic community solutions. Organizers focused on engaging residents around what they saw as pressing, day-to-day challenges. Residents of Lawrence, Mass., shared their health struggles caused by walking outside in the heat—heat made worse by high density of concrete pavement and buildings that retain heat. Taking inspiration from Paris and Fortaleza, Brazil, a community-led task force created a ‘cool island’—a central meeting place featuring safe walkable areas, shaded streets, and essential services for residents. This focus on tangible solutions led to higher levels of resident participation across the cities.
Education and awareness are just as important as action. While implementing tangible solutions was the goal, education and awareness were also significant aspects of the projects. Pairing action with awareness, Detroit not only created composting programs, but also instilled skills and knowledge about composting in their community. The program trained cohorts of young people in composting and urban farming and created a Compost Warriors training for student leaders.
In Tempe, Ariz., the Cool Kids, Cool Places, Cool Futures project centered on youth education and activism in response to extreme heat. While youth are often left out of decisionmaking and policy conversations, Tempe has educated young people to be community advocates and activists through environmental justice training programs and curricula. In addition to specific accomplishments, the projects raised the awareness and consciousness of people in their cities.
Focus on your community’s strengths and assets. These cities used collective action to transform the challenges and problems their communities faced into opportunities and assets. In Jackson, Miss., there are several abandoned sites in the Farish Street District due to business closures. To tackle inequitable extreme heat, three sites will be transformed into green spaces, using nature to reduce temperatures and improve health and wellbeing for Jacksonians. Likewise, in Lawrence, the Safer Cooler Streets project is working to reimagine and reclaim vacant spaces for health and recreation across the city. The project transformed the “Bennington Triangle”—a once-abandoned gas station and informal parking space—into a vibrant community park. Focusing on a community’s strengths rather than deficits can be a useful framework.
Through community organizing, these cities and organizations made pragmatic accomplishments on the ground—while simultaneously building community power and confronting health and equity risks posed by climate change. Engaging community members—especially those adversely impacted by climate change due to longstanding inequality—ensures community needs and priorities are understood and that actions respond to health inequities rooted in structural racism.
Whether you’re a municipal official, community-based organization, or a funder looking to support similar work in this space, you too can engage in effective, equitable, and community-led climate action. C40 Cities provides resources and case studies to share the success of these projects and equip community-based organizations and cities around the world.
Sharon Roerty, AICP, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is an urban alchemist who brings extensive expertise in built environments, transportation, and environmental and urban policy to the Foundation’s efforts to help create healthy communities.
Gloriela Iguina-Colón, manager of U.S. Health, Equity, and Climate for C40 Cities, collaborates with U.S. cities working on initiatives at the intersection of public health, climate change, and social equity to facilitate peer learning and co-create public-facing deliverables to amplify implementation lessons.