Urban planning and public policy programs aim to protect vulnerable communities from climate change

During the summer of 2021, scorching heat waves blanketed the Pacific Northwest, claiming the lives of hundreds. Although the record temperatures may have seemed unprecedented, these deadly weather conditions have plagued the United States for decades. More than 25 years earlier, a similar crisis unfolded in Chicago when a 1995 heat wave killed more than 700 people. In these two climatic disasters, most of the victims were elderly, low-income and from underrepresented communities. They also lived in environments that, due to public planning policies, were built to trap heat and raise temperatures.

As the frequency and severity of these types of extreme weather events continue to increase, experts in the fields of urban planning and public policy are drawing attention to how historical practices such as racial zoning and redlining have made some populations more climate-sensitive. cash. Schools of planning and public policy have also begun to reinvent their teaching practices to address climate justice issues and prepare students for an education that emphasizes the needs of vulnerable communities.

Highlight the need for climate action

Although the links between urban planning, public policy and climate change have long been evident to professionals in these fields, a 2020 study in the journal Weather established the links as undeniable. Across 100 US cities, 94% saw higher temperatures today in neighborhoods that were previously fenced off compared to those that weren’t.

Vivek Shandas
Vivek Shandas

“The politics that separated communities decades ago has a long shadow and can really affect how communities experience climate change today,” says Vivek Shandas, PhD, study co-author and professor of Climate Adaptation at the College of Portland State University (PSU). urban and public affairs.

Urban planning, although considered a discipline in its own right, overlaps considerably with public policies. Most planning programs require students to have a solid understanding of public affairs, with particular emphasis on environmental, housing, and transportation policy. Many colleges and universities house their planning programs within their schools of public policy, and some even offer dual degrees in these areas.

Laxmi Ramasubramanian
Laxmi Ramasubramanian

“Planners recognize that climate emergencies cannot be seen as separate from other challenges related to housing insecurity and/or lack of access to transportation,” said Laxmi Ramasubramanian, PhD, professor and chair of the planning department. Urban and Regional Studies at San Jose State University and president of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP), wrote in a recent email to PREVIEW. “So adopting a justice perspective allows planners to show the interdependence of risk and vulnerability and the need to come up with strategies and policies that can actually work.”

ACSP, a consortium of more than 100 academic departments and programs offering urban planning and related degrees, recently updated its accreditation standards to draw attention to the urgent need for climate action. . The new language emphasizes environmental protection as a guiding value in educational planning and places greater emphasis on teaching about the causes of climate injustices and determining strategies to address them.

Universities can also play an important role in climate justice by researching what strategies work, says Shandas, who founded the Support research on urban places (SUPR) Lab in 2010 to study the effectiveness of different solutions. An example is the Canopy Continuum project, which assessed how urban canopy cover can affect maternal health. Lab members examined public perceptions of urban forestry to determine what residents expect in terms of tree care, conservation efforts, and more.

“With the support of census and remote sensing data, we were able to compare the current percentage of forest cover and demographic data with interactions and public expectations of urban forest ownership, such as satisfaction with regard to tree quality, tree quantity and ecological values,” explains Lorena Alves Carvalho Nascimento, who participated in the project as part of her PhD program at PSU.

Through this type of research, Shandas and his colleagues in the SUPR lab were able to formulate policy recommendations for municipal, state, and federal governments.

Being involved in this type of research and policy work is satisfying for students, Shandas says, because it provides first-hand experience with a range of potential climate action solutions they can use later in their careers.

Collecting feedback from these underserved communities also provides students with an important understanding of cultural differences that can affect an individual’s access to resources and support during a climate event. Undocumented people, for example, may not feel comfortable going to a government-sponsored cooling center during a heat wave. Policy makers need to consider these factors in order to really make a difference for vulnerable communities, Shandas says.

As climate science, public policy, and planning research continue to merge, Shandas hopes to see a climate movement begin to grow across disciplines. He adds that schools of public policy and planning can help by looking at the kind of research, policy evaluation and program design needed to ensure communities are better positioned to withstand extreme weather events.

“Climate change is an existential thing, and it’s often very difficult to identify a solution that would advance and move the conversation forward,” he says. “We need to rethink a lot of how we do our planning, and that takes time, it takes resources, and it takes real creativity.

Lisa O’Malley is the associate editor of OVERVIEW of diversity.

This article originally appeared in our March 2022 issue.