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Sadie Wilson

Building Climate Governance Through Community-Centered Programs

In September 2021, Governor Newsom passed a budget with $15 billion allocated for climate resilience and natural resource management, and just two months later, the Biden Administration passed the $1 trillion Infrastructure Bill with $47 billion designated for climate resilience. With local and international reminders of the huge amount of work left to do, government agencies are scrambling to make these funding infusions available to local governments and community-based organizations where adaptation work is most critical. In the interim, we can take this opportunity to prepare the Bay Area—a region with robust resources, yet perhaps even greater climate-related risks—with the tools necessary for leveraging these one-time funds to build lasting climate resilience. 

When California’s Legislative Analyst Office asked local municipalities what their greatest barriers to adaptation are, they found that it was rarely a lack of data that prevented action, but instead, insufficient funding and capacity. With the Bay Area poised to receive a significant influx of capital in the coming years, our team at Greenbelt Alliance is working to build capacity at the local level to ensure that these climate investments are strategic, coordinated, and centered around the experience and knowledge of frontline communities. Without adequate local capacity, no amount of additional funding will be enough.

The Key to Building Local Capacity: Governance

Local capacity can mean a number of things, including: 

  • The ability of city or county staff to engage in climate adaptation planning
  • The political will of local policymakers to prioritize funds and staff for climate adaptation projects
  • The knowledge and expertise of stakeholders to address complex adaptation challenges
  • The engagement of non-governmental organizations in bolstering public-sector capacity and knowledge

One common term that is used to describe these many vital functions is governance.

Governance is an ambiguous, far-reaching term that refers to the structures of multiple public and private players involved in planning, implementing, and sustaining climate adaptation action. Key aspects of climate adaptation governance are accountability, decision-making ability, monitoring, and fair and equitable processes. 

In the Bay Area, we have a wealth of top-notch agencies, institutions, and non-profit organizations working in the climate adaptation space, yet we are still experiencing a “governance gap”, or a lack of coordination and accountability within and between actors to overcome institutional barriers to action (Lubell, 2021). This governance gap has resulted in uncoordinated projects happening on a largely ad-hoc basis, and often with inadequate public processes and monitoring mechanisms in place. Uncoordinated adaptation efforts are not just inefficient, they are inequitable. For example, a recent study found that a seawall built to protect one portion of the Bay’s shoreline may worsen flood impacts and economic damages for other communities (Hummel, 2021). 

Filling the Governance Gap: A Look at Innovative Approaches Around the Country

To reduce the adaptation deficit the Bay Area is facing, we will need to think beyond our existing systems to find tools to close the governance gap and prepare for the future in the face of a changing climate. This will have to happen as a region, but also (and arguably more urgently) at the community scale. Thankfully, places around the country, and around the world, have gotten the ball rolling in thinking through how we might fill this gap.

Here are some case studies we’ve been following:

San Francisco: Community Advocates Push the City to Allow For Creation of Green Benefit Districts

One close-to-home example of a community taking direct action to fill the governance gap is San Francisco’s Green Benefit District (GBD) in the Dogpatch-Potrero Hill Neighborhood. This community-scale governance tool was created in 2014 as a way to facilitate park and greenspace development and maintain and beautify the community’s natural and cultural assets. Their mission is to: (1) Clean, maintain, enhance, and expand open spaces, parks, plazas, parklets, gardens, sidewalk greening, and the Public Realm in general; (2) Support volunteer efforts, and (3) Promote ecological practices and Green Infrastructure with a locally controlled, sustainable, and transparent funding structure.

The GBD has had an astonishing impact with successes ranging from the development of Progress Park, to transforming an alleyway into a vibrant landscaped walkway, to a partnership with Caltrain to green and beautify their station area, and much more. These positive impacts are made possible through GBD’s ability to raise local dedicated funding for project implementation and maintenance, its partnership with the City and other public and private agencies, and its Board of Directors and volunteers that continuously advocate for progress. 

In order to form the Green Benefits District, all property owners within the District’s boundaries had to vote (50% majority) to assess their property to pay for formation and District activities.  With a successful vote, the GBD was formed and a nonprofit entity was created to manage operations led by a volunteer Board of Directors. Local assessments make up less than 50% of GBD’s revenue with grant funds accounting for the majority along with a small share coming from donations and partnerships. Through formation of the GBD, the Dogpatch-Potrero Hill community has been able to expedite and customize greenspace improvements while also having great success in leveraging outside funding and facilitating partnerships with local businesses, public agencies, and community members that are helping to build local governance along the way. 

Resilience Districts Around the Country
San Francisco’s GBD was designed to specifically address green space and parks rather than climate resilience, but examples from around the country exemplify how these “districts” are taking hold as a way to provide comprehensive resilience investments at a local scale while also bolstering local climate governance and social resilience. This approach to resilience is especially important when considering that many frontline communities not only face physical threats as a result of climate change, but also experience indirect risks due to a lack of safe affordable housing, inadequate green space and recreational opportunities, unstable employment, and other social and economic factors. New Orleans, Portland, and Seattle have recently taken steps to enact “Resilience Districts” in various ways, can the Bay Area be next?

Seattle: Decades of Environmental Justice Organizing Results in City Planning and Investment in Equitable Adaptation

The Duwamish Valley community, located adjacent to the Duwamish River in one of Seattle’s former industrial areas, has a legacy of organizing around environmental justice, but with the new threat of flooding, community advocates doubled down on the need for equitable adaptation. The City of Seattle has recently taken action to support community efforts by establishing the Duwamish Valley Program, co-creating an Action Plan with the community to document a shared vision and shared priorities, and establishing a first-in-the-nation municipal Equity and Environment Agenda. One of the first commitments the City made after releasing the Agenda was to create a staff position to advance environmental justice and equitable development in the Duwamish Valley. Alberto Rodríguez, who filled this role as Strategic Advisor for Seattle’s Office of Sustainability & Environment, has focused his efforts on creating the City’s first Resilience District as a way to “create a policy, organizing structure, and funding framework that will help the City address flooding and sea level rise, in addition to community revitalization, health equity, and local wealth building in ways that allows residents and businesses to stay and thrive in place” (Center for Community Investment). 

The hard work of the Duwamish Valley Program, community partners, and the City resulted in the award of $600,000 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2020 to implement the Action Plan and develop the Resilience District concept. This grant is vital for further development of the Resilience District, as it will support research of financial models and equitable investment strategies, capacity building, extensive engagement, and implementation of projects for “proof of concept” (Seattle Greenspace Blog).

“The partners are thinking of the resilience district timeline in three stages: “norming, forming, and performing.” At each of these stages, representatives from the community, philanthropy, and city will play evolving roles. During the “norming” stage, the city and community are organizing listening sessions and researching precedents. In the second stage, the city plans to develop regulatory options for enabling legislation and amendments to development standards. By the third phase, the community would hold the largest role and begin to cogovern the district, with the city playing a financing and legislative role.”- Lincoln Institute

Even while Seattle’s Resilience District is still in its infancy, it provides a powerful example for how to bring together climate adaptation, racial equity, and placemaking through co-creation between community stakeholders and municipal partners.

New Orleans: City Rebuilds to Live With Water Through Coordinated Resiliency Infrastructure

The City of New Orleans is perhaps one of the most infamous for its climate resilience and flooding challenges, but that may be changing with the City’s new approach to living with water as a method of rebuilding its infrastructure systems and bolstering social and economic resilience post-Katrina. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2001, there were major concerns about the long-term viability of a city built largely on swampland in the heart of hurricane territory. While contemplating recovery, designers, community members, and planning officials turned to the Netherlands—a country that has pioneered the living with water approach—as a model for resilient infrastructure and using natural systems for climate adaptation. After many years of planning, one program that emerged from this new approach was the Gentilly Resilience District (GRD). 

The Gentilly community of New Orleans is a historically Black, middle-class, community that was hit hard during Katrina and has continued to face flooding and stormwater issues due to its low-lying nature and position adjacent to both the Inner Harbor Canal and Lake Pontchartrain. The GRD became a reality in 2014 when it received $141 million in Federal funds through the National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC) Grant program (through HUD). This example does not include a formal governance structure, but the concentration of resilience programs to serve one community does provide an illustrative instance of how grant funding can build capacity and bolster a community’s social resilience. 

The Gentilly Resilience District is made up of twelve projects and programs that range from wetland restoration and urban greening to energy-efficient retrofits and an art program that raises awareness about urban water systems. This suite of projects aims to address resilience at both the neighborhood scale as well as the city and regional scale through project coordination and infrastructure development. While a project of this size is hard to imagine without significant public funding, it nonetheless provides an example for how Bay Area communities may move forward with coordinating climate adaptation projects at the local scale that are strategically nested within larger city and regional resilience planning efforts.  

Portland: Cully Community Uses Social Enterprises and an Ecodistrict Model to Build Community-Scale Governance to Approach Environmental Justice and Adaptation

Living Cully is an EcoDistrict, or informal district, that can be described as a concentrated series of investments in the Cully neighborhood and community that focus on increasing access to parks and open space, developing and rehabbing affordable housing, and offering workforce development in green jobs. Projects are centered on anti-gentrification work including affordable housing, protection of small legacy businesses, and financial planning and education for families.

In Living Cully, we reinterpret sustainability as an anti-poverty strategy, a means to address
community disparities in education, income, health, housing and natural resources by
concentrating environmental investments at the neighborhood scale. – 2015 Press Release from Lead Organization, Verde (cited here)

Living Cully evolved from coalition-based organizing between three local nonprofits in the Cully neighborhood in 2010. Roles of each member of the coalition are formalized through a Memorandum of Understanding. Verde, the lead organization, operates three social enterprises (landscaping, plant nursery, and home electrification) that target both workforce development goals and urban greening. Verde also devotes significant energy to advocacy work to promote inclusive environmental policies at the municipal, county, regional, and state levels. This advocacy is also important for ensuring that green investments are devoted to the Cully neighborhood by the City of Portland. 

Living Cully serves as a model for nonprofit leadership in building community governance and offers innovative solutions to tackle the interrelated issues of affordable housing, workforce development, urban greening, and comprehensive resilience.

How Greenbelt Alliance is Bringing Resilience Districts to Life in the Bay Area

In learning from these case studies and building on existing scholarship, Greenbelt Alliance will continue to develop innovative capacity building strategies that uplift frontline communities and nature-based solutions simultaneously.

Our community partners around the region are a testament to the power of local advocacy and the importance of having citizen experts in the fight for equitable climate adaptation. To capitalize on this local knowledge and power, Greenbelt Alliance is developing a Bay Area iteration of the Resilience District concept as a mechanism for implementing vital climate adaptation projects, providing a platform for ongoing community engagement, and generating local funding for ongoing resilience needs. 

We are building off past work in Contra Costa County, including the Resilient By Design competition, interest by the County’s Public Works department, and most recently, a report prepared for the County assessing various options for creating Resilience Districts for unincorporated areas. A broad range of stakeholders have agreed that new approaches are needed to advance climate governance and equitable adaptation, but the question still remains: what does this look like in practice?

While we celebrate recent wins in Contra Costa County (Measure X allocations of $500,000 annually for expanded staff capacity to address climate equity and resilience!), we are also looking towards the future. In doing so, Greenbelt Alliance is advocating for a Resilience District pilot project in Contra Costa that would assess critical questions while building local capacity through community engagement and action-focused planning. Stay tuned for updates on Greenbelt Alliance’s work on filling the climate governance gap!

Photo: Benches Park by James Bueti© courtesy Green Benefit District

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