Severe weather (storms, floods, heat waves, etc.) wrought by global climate change poses dangerous and unequal threats to urban residents in the United States. A combination of racial segregation, high levels of income inequality, uneven distributions of environmental toxicity, aging infrastructure and housing stock, and physical geography makes Washington, DC susceptible to the negative and unjust effects of climate change. Top-down plans issued by government agencies aim to document the city’s vulnerability and propose a vision for future resilience. Yet, little research has investigated the the bottom-up and embedded strategies residents use for coping with climate and related risks, and the extent to which grassroots avenues can be tapped for building community resilience and climate justice in this city.
Funded through a seed grant from American University’s Metropolitan Policy Center, our research project “Tackling Urban Vulnerability: Lessons for Building Community Resilience and Climate Justice in Washington, DC” was designed to fill this gap. We take an explicitly anti-racist and abolitionist approach to thinking about climate justice. Through historical and qualitative research, we seek to reveal how contemporary environmental injustices are produced by deep histories of housing segregation and urban renewal, toxic waste dumping, and, more recently, aggressive gentrification. At the same time, we are interested in the actually-existing social networks and support systems that assist seniors and children during inclement weather, for instance, and, more generally, help heal communities that have long been ravaged by structural inequality. Our team includes two professors, Dr Malini Ranganathan (American University) and Dr Eve Bratman (Franklin and Marshall College), and a current Master’s student, Abby Zan Schwarz (Parsons School of Design, The New School), as well as several previous American University Master’s students, including Tracy Watson and Erin D Matson.
What have we achieved so far?
In 2015-2016, we conducted key informant interviews with nationally recognized environmental scientists, city-level climate and urban administrators, and leaders of civic and neighborhood organizations in Wards 6 (Southwest) and 7 (Northeast). We then decided to focus our historical and qualitative research on Ward 7, especially the neighborhoods and housing complexes in Kenilworth-Parkside, Paradise, Mayfair Mansions, and Eastland Gardens. In these neighborhoods, we identified key organizations that have active programs related to food security, senior welfare, and education such as East River Family Strengthening Collaborative and DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, among others. We sought to understand how these organizations build cohesiveness, intersectionality, and solidarity across residents and across issue areas. After reaching out to community leaders to seek their assistance, we conducted a 200-household survey on climate vulnerability in Ward 7 geographically focusing on the Kenilworth- Parkside and Paradise Communities.
In addition to our interviews and survey, we conducted archival-historical research on neighborhood change in the Kenilworth area of Ward 7. In particular, we wanted to understand the historical political ecology of the Anacostia River, tracing it from the Nacotchtank Native Americans, to white settler colonialism, to plantation slavery, to New Deal-era urban renewal and segregation, to “Negro Removal”, to white flight dynamics, to contemporary gentrification. Among the many notable pieces of history that has affected the contemporary environment, Kenilworth was the site of an open-burning trash dump in the 1940s-1960s, which the Surgeon General ordered shut. We document this and other aspects of Northeast DC’s history in a draft manuscript in progress titled “From Urban Resilience to Abolitionist Climate Justice in Washington, DC”.
What lies next?
Next we aim to further document what we are referring to as an “ethics of care” that mark bottom-up resilience-building measures in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. We argue that such an ethics of care and healing are–and will–be instrumental in fostering actual resilience over and beyond top-down city-imposed visions. Examples of the “ethics of care” we are witnessing include cultural events at community centers centering the work of women, food delivery to seniors, and innovative youth programming. All of this happens everyday in DC’s culturally rich, historic neighborhoods, but rarely do these programs register outside recognition and support, especially when it comes to environmental justice planning.
Presentations and keynote talks recently delivered
Malini Ranganathan will present work-in-progress at the London School of Economics in October, 2018.
Malini Ranganathan presented a draft manuscript in progress (coauthored with Eve Bratman with significant inputs from Erin D Matson) at the University of California, Davis (June 2018) and at a paper session titled “Abolition Ecologies” at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in New Orleans in April 2018.