The urgency of equity in the face of climate change

My experience this past year working with the Resilient by Design challenge in the San Francisco Bay area is sure to affect the work I do for the rest of my career.

Image of Debra Gunther at a community meeting.
Debra Gunther, a partner and landscape architect from Mithun, at a community meeting.

My experience this past year working with the Resilient by Design challenge in the San Francisco Bay area is sure to affect the work I do for the rest of my career. I had the honor of leading the Mithun team of consultants and working with the North Richmond, California community. 

The Resilient by Design challenge is a follow-up to the 2014 Rebuild by Design competition in New York City that was held after Hurricane Sandy. It’s a proactive effort to collaboratively define the policies and implementation strategies needed to respond to sea level rise in the low lying Bay area.

Each of the design teams worked in one of the nine counties that touch the Bay and were charged with creating an implementable project that can serve as a set of resilience strategies for the region to learn from.

From a historic perspective, the North Richmond area was a place of tremendous ecological diversity when Ohlone tribes first arrived there in the sixth century. The Bay coastline and marshlands of the Wildcat and San Pablo creek deltas provided critical resources for initial human settlers.  The low-lying area with fertile soils provided good agricultural opportunities. 

African Americans arrived in the Bay Area from across the country during the WWII labor surge and were forced to settle in the low-lying and flood-prone topographic bowl adjacent to the Chevron refinery through de facto segregation. Cut off physically from adjacent resources by railroads and other infrastructure, community members also had to endure a lack of public services and travel long distances to their seat of governmental representation.

Experiencing trauma and chronic stress from the generational impacts of slavery, Jim Crow laws, predatory lending and mass incarceration, this community derives strength from a long history of cultural, environmental and social justice activism.

Today’s demographics include increasing Hispanic American populations with a continued spirit of advocacy and community organization.

We approached this project differently. We did an open call for applications to join a community advisory board. We worked with two community liaisons to select a board that reflected the demographics of the community – racial, geographic, age, occupation.

This was a critical ingredient to not only receiving insightful input, but also building capacity for advocacy around the issues of climate change and resilience. It was a reciprocal relationship. 

In our meetings, we quickly learned that this was a cohesive group that knew how to work together. We began to work more closely to have the residents define the agenda with us and to present ideas that had languished over time that the community was still excited about. 

In the end, the suite of projects we put forward truly came from the sense of urgency in the community. Establishing a more stable and secure neighborhood through infrastructure investments was the thread that tied the design solutions together. The four primary ideas were:

  • Thrive: Establish paths to home ownership that vest the community in its governance and that underlies the vision for a resilient North Richmond.
  • Filter: Plant more trees to improve community health forming a natural air filter, storm water filter and habitat filter; a green health “forcefield.”
  • Grow: Create muted marsh options that can co-exist with industrial uses and breachable levee designs. Horizontal levees that protect the arterials and include wastewater treatment processes can be a placemaking tool.
  • Relate: Trails and path connections to nature are among the strongest healing for people experiencing trauma and chronic stress. As climate change impacts continue to accrue, creating healthier physical environments becomes a foundation for being mentally prepared to adapt to change.

One of the most powerful things that I learned from the Resilient by Design process is the opportunity for sea level rise investments to become a social justice tool. 

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