Severe weather (storms, floods, heat waves, etc.) wrought by global climate change pose dangerous and unequal threats to urban residents in the United States. The combination of racial and economic segregation, aging infrastructure and housing stock, and physical geography makes Washington, DC particularly susceptible to the negative and unjust effects of climate change. Yet, very little research has investigated the social determinants of vulnerability, the strategies residents use for coping with climate-related risks, and the extent to which extant grassroots avenues can be tapped for building community resilience and climate justice in this city.
Our research project, “Tackling Urban Vulnerability: Lessons for Building Community Resilience and Climate Justice in Washington, DC,” aims to fill that gap, by exploring the connective tissue between social justice and climate change and revealing the urban dimensions of climate vulnerability and resilience in DC. Our team comprises two professors and a Master’s student, and you can learn more about us here.
What does our project study?
Our project focuses on the current abilities of DC residents to withstand short-term and long-term risks. By short-term risks, we mean environmental emergencies such as inclement weather (storms, flooding, and heatwaves) and power outages, and by long-term risks, we mean incremental and ongoing adverse events, such as displacement due to gentrification, redevelopment and housing foreclosures.
We hope to discover the ways that communities cope with these risks, how prepared or unprepared they feel, and the internal resources communities tap for support, day-to-day and in times of crisis. We are particularly interested in discovering how social support systems, civic organizations, and other networks foster cohesiveness and resilience within communities.
What is our methodology?
The first phase of our research, which consisted of interviewing key leaders, is complete. To improve our understanding of how community members identify their vulnerabilities and strategies for coping with them, we will also conduct a series of focus groups. Once those are complete, we will use our findings to design and deploy a household survey (for 150 households, 75 for each community). We also plan to attend neighborhood meetings to gain a more comprehensive understanding of community dynamics, social interactions, and resilience strategies, particularly concerning how different actors voice concerns, seek out help, and self-organize.
This data will be supplemented by archival material concerning neighborhood history, Washington DC development policies, and demographic, economic, social, and environmental features of each community. The final stage of our research will involve final data analysis, write-up, and dissemination.
What are our anticipated outcomes?
We aim to expand the analysis of urban climate vulnerability beyond the empirical impacts or effects of extreme climate events (monetary, land, or asset loss), which has been the dominant analytical paradigm. Our approach focuses on the causes of climate vulnerability in DC, specifically, the historically racial, political, and economic legacies of uneven development that connect the most vulnerable communities in DC (as well as other global cities).
A vulnerability assessment at this scale (household, neighborhood, and/or community) is virtually nonexistent for DC. Through several conversations with government and non-profit professionals we have learned that such a fine-grained assessment could bolster existing impact-studies of climate vulnerability in DC, which could in turn support improved climate resilience strategies.
Moreover, we believe that in addition to fleshing out the existing literature on urban vulnerability, our research will reveal how current strategies around economic displacement and gentrification might serve as templates for similar strategies to improve urban climate resilience.
Our research will culminate in a typology of the formal and informal support strategies, coping mechanisms, and tactics that reduce climate vulnerability and increase climate resilience.
We will make our findings available to communities and key stakeholders as a practical tool that we hope will support local, grassroots efforts to improve upon and refine their existing climate resilience strategies.
What other work is being done on environmental justice in Washington, DC?
Our work contributes to a small but growing conversation about the need for environmental justice in our city.
In 2013, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) published a summary of the potential impacts of climate change, along with climate vulnerabilities and adaptation strategies. This report came after several years of regional initiatives to prepare DC for the risks and effects of climate change, including:
- The National Capital Region’s Climate Change Report in 2008 which established greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals
- The creation of a Climate, Energy and Environment Policy Committee (CEEPC) to provide leadership on environmental issues in 2009
- The CEEPC’s adoption of a Workplan in 2010
- Collaboration between the COG and the Environmental Protection Agency to create a EPA guidebook on smart growth and climate adaptation
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s help training local officials on conducting vulnerability assessments in their communities.
- The COG’s summary provides regional sea level rise and subsidence rates for the Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac River, and the Anacostia River, and also reviews the major climate change risks for the area. These risks include flooding, urban heat islands, and Chesapeake Bay warming, among others
Finally, some researchers have focused on the intersections of race and environmental justice in Washington, DC, including the African American Environmentalist Association whose work shows how “race is the dominant factor in determining exposure to pollution” in the city.
This research project is funded by American University’s Metropolitan Policy Center, which is committed to research and outreach on issues of race and equity in the DC area.
For further reading, please visit this page.