Community spotlight

Designing Equitable and Culturally Vibrant Planning Processes


New York, NY

In New York City, where low-income communities and communities of color have long suffered the effects of disenfranchisement from public decision-making processes, WE ACT for Environmental Justice works to build healthy communities by ensuring that low-income, communities of color participate meaningfully in environmental health and climate planning processes. With an ultimate goal of protecting NYC’s most vulnerable communities from climate-related impacts, WE ACT initiated a community-driven climate resilience planning process. This resulted in the Northern Manhattan Climate Action Plan (NMCA), and more recently, the Upper Manhattan Climate Action Manual.

The plan promotes environmental policies and concrete solutions that also aim to address socioeconomic inequality in Northern Manhattan.  Coming together for six months of planning in community forums throughout Northern Manhattan, the NMCA is a product of the collective knowledge of residents and allied stakeholders with a vested interest in their own capacity to survive and thrive though the impacts of climate disruptions in NYC.  Activating community knowledge is vital to resiliency, because as New York residents can attest, when crises hit, survival can depend on the coordinated actions of one’s neighbors.

The Northern Manhattan climate action planning process included a series of “serious games,” in which facilitators posed potential climate-related crises.  Through collaborative dialogue, participants worked in teams to develop solutions to these crises.  If the power goes out, how will people respond?  What systems will need to be in place for emergency preparedness?  Conversations focused on the environmental justice impacts of climate change in the near and long term.  Who will be most affected by climate related events?  What do resilient systems look like when designed with equity and inclusion?  By facilitating strategic dialogue rooted in climate science-based scenarios through an environmental justice and equity lens, WE ACT and its partners produced a plan with four fundamental pillars in its vision for a resilient New York: energy democracy, emergency preparedness, social hubs, and participatory governance.  These pillars represent a critical intersection between climate resiliency and environmental justice, at which communities take greater control over essential resources and over the decision-making process related to these resources  For example, solutions the community has identified in the plan include forming cooperatives that can leverage local economic resources, building educational programs and community spaces that build local capacity, and creating community-managed communications systems that provide peer-to-peer contact within local networks, as opposed to top-down or “broadcast” systems that are currently in place.

Because the planning process was also a community organizing and alliance-building process, the Northern Manhattan Climate Action Plan is not just a plan--it is an integrated set of community-driven resiliency projects.  WE ACT has established member-based working groups and other grassroots processes of design, finance, planning, construction, and more, to implement the goals set forth by the NMCA.  Member leaders are building energy projects, educating their neighbors on climate impacts and resiliency strategies, and carrying out local sustainable agriculture projects to increase food security.  While implementation is not yet fully funded and much work remains, WE ACT’s community-driven planning process has set forth a clear path towards comprehensive climate resilience in Northern Manhattan, and most importantly, has activated and connected residents as leaders of the climate solutions in their own neighborhoods.