Why urban planning must ensure climate justice

Urban and regional planning can and should be an essential part of any long-term strategy to prevent climate change. It plays a role in transportation plans that aim to reduce automobile use, congestion and urban sprawl. These plans are also key to reducing water use and preventing sea level rise. Urban planning, however, has also contributed to systemic racism across the United States.

In recent years, urban planning has often focused on the preservation and construction of green spaces and new types of lighting installed along city streets. But such an approach falls far short of addressing how the decisions of planners have caused harm to communities of color – from the massive mid-20th century redevelopment in cities like new York to the highway construction on the other side Los Angeles. More often than not, American highways have been Splitand even erasedblack communities.

There are many examples of how historically racist planning practices still impact cities and towns across the United States today. Flint’s seven-year water crisis is one of the prime examples of how majority black communities have endured, among many problems, enormous public health risks.

Studies have shown that in many cities to like Sacramentopoor neighborhoods can experience anywhere from 5 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit warmer temperatures compared to wealthier, whiter tree-lined communities. Inequalities within Philadelphia caused air pollution in its black neighborhoods be linked to rising cases of asthma and respiratory illnesses that make it one of the deadliest airs to breathe in the country. Cities in California Central Valley also found a huge difference in air quality between poor and wealthier neighborhoods, often the legacy of past planning decisions.

Denver is a city with leadership showing up aware of how the ancient town planners redlining the policies have had long-term effects on the poorest and most diverse neighborhoods; results included a roadmap that local officials say can help reverse this trend. To that end, Denver city government has prioritized new parks, tree planting and trail systems to be placed in its areas, including northern neighborhoods that city officials had long been neglected. The city’s overarching goal – a share by other American cities – is to tackle the urban”heat islands” while improving the public spaces that residents of these neighborhoods need during these warmer months.

Critics in Denver have been concerned about how these efforts could accelerate gentrification in these neighborhoods, and how past interference from government planning has long made some residents mistrustful at the insistence of the city government he wants to help. However, by joining local non-profit associations and having open and honest discussions about what has happened in Denver over the past years, local leaders say they are taking the necessary steps to strengthen its neighborhoods in a much more sustainable and equitable way.

The bottom line is that city sustainability plans must go beyond a focus on the environment: they must be inclusive and ensure they no longer contribute to systemic racism, a trend the pandemic has actually exacerbated. Planners and municipal leaders must deploy new tactics such as allowing community voices to be heard, the inclusion of local residents in any decision-making process and a commitment to transparency can help ensure that climate justice is guaranteed not just for the few, but for all.

Image credit: Cassie Gallegos/Unsplash