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Climate Crisis on Main Street: How Can Local Governments Address the Environment, Housing, & Equity?

July 6, 2022

Challenges in areas ranging from education to the environment, gender to governance, health to housing don’t exist in a vacuum. Each month, Abt experts from two disciplines explore ideas for tackling these challenges in our monthly podcast, The Intersect. Sign up for monthly e-mail notifications here. Catch up with previous episodes here.

As the climate crisis unfolds, the impacts will be particularly acute for vulnerable populations who live amid flood zones, heat islands, and rampant pollution, all of which cause disproportionate health issues. Barbara Fields, Frank Alexander, and Paul Anninos discuss the intersections between climate, housing, and equity policies in America, and the community-level approaches we can take to address these social determinants of health.


Read the Transcript

Eric Tischler: Hi, and welcome to The Intersect, I'm Eric Tischler. Abt Global tackles complex challenges around the world, ranging from improving health and education to assessing the impact of environmental changes. For any given problem, we bring multiple perspectives to the table. We thought it would be enlightening—and maybe even fun—to pair up colleagues from different disciplines so they can share their ideas and perhaps spark new thinking about how we solve these challenges. Today I'm joined by not two but three of those colleagues: Barbara Fields, Frank Alexander, and Paul Anninos.

Barbara is an innovative housing and community economic development leader with over 30 years in executive roles in federal and state government, nonprofit organizations, and philanthropy. She's a trusted advisor to key Abt clients, including HUD; state and local governments; and nonprofit and philanthropic partners, helping them to address housing and community development issues.

Frank is a nationally recognized leader in improving and creating innovative cross-sector health, housing and human services, strategic partnerships, and approaches. He has more than 30 years of experience working to improve systems for child and family wellbeing across the life course and prevention continuum, and has a track record of deep coalition building at every level of government.

Paul also has more than 30 years of business and operational leadership in the public and private sectors, and leads Abt's domestic U.S. environment business, including environmental program management, data and technology solutions, regulatory development, technical assistance, natural resource management, and climate and energy programs.


Paul Anninos: Thanks for having us.

Frank Alexander: Yeah, it's great to be here. Thanks for having us.

Barbara Fields: Great to be here today.

Eric: So today I'm going to talk with Barbara, Frank, and Paul, and discuss the intersections between climate, housing, and equity policies in America. And Paul, I'm going to start with you first. Essentially all climate indicators are dire, and I think most people are thinking of melting ice shells, rising ties and temperatures, but what do you see as some of the social community based challenges of climate adaptation mitigation?

Paul: Yeah. Thanks. Thanks Eric. And again, thanks for having us with you here today. Obviously a very important topic. I don't think there's anybody on this podcast here today listening that hasn't been somehow directly impacted by the actual visible results of climate change that we're all experiencing, obviously, at the global level, but what really matters is what's happening at the community level and at the individual level. So there's no shortage of impacts, whether we're talking about wildfires in the Western U.S., we're talking about coastal flooding in the Southeast U.S. and the Gulf of Mexico, whether we're talking about extreme heat impacts on individual's health in major urban centers, no one is escaping what's happening with climate change. And we talk a lot about mitigation of the greenhouse gases that are being emitted, that are creating this problem, but I think today we're really more interested in the concept of adapting to the change and building more resilient communities, so a segment of our population, usually disadvantaged communities, communities that have lacked investment or even experiencing disinvestment that are being hit the hardest by all these things that we're talking about.

Eric: You know, those sound like they're partially housing issues, right? Because you’re talking about where people are living, where are they located. Barbara, you want to speak to what this looks like from your perspective?

Barbara: Yeah. I think that, as a nation, we need to invest more in our housing stock in general. Home is where people live, where families grow and thrive and nurture the next generation and live in community. So those homes themselves have to be located in places that can be resilient, as Paul said. So we're talking about the location and the siting of homes as we invest in building new homes, as we rehabilitate existing homes. So we're talking about location, siting, but also the materials we use in building those homes, the energy efficiency of those homes, all of those things can have a big impact as we move forward and try and make our communities more resilient. I like what Paul said about that.

What I didn't talk about is the fact that families and individuals with lower incomes have a tougher time with these issues. They have fewer opportunities to move, et cetera. And we have a history in this country of locating housing for lower income people in the most vulnerable sites in our communities.

Eric: Right? So with that, let's pivot to Frank. Frank, people tend to look at housing and climate change as different challenges, but how can the social determinants of health approach help us develop more comprehensive solutions that sort of weave these issues together?

Frank: Yeah. And thanks again for having us. I would say that first of all, unfortunately, the problems that we're facing societally are more complex than the solutions that we're currently delivering. And so we really have to figure out how to see the problems as interrelated and how to work, to define solutions that will actually work on multiple problems at the same time. What a social determinants of health framework allows us to do is to approach these problems with a root cause lens, and to really think about how we're advancing equity across the different domains of social determinants. And, really specifically, what that means is when we look at a housing issue, when we look at an environmental issue, when we look at an education issue, when we look at a health disparity issue, we've got to train ourselves as a society to look for the root cause to be able to solve these problems, because we just simply don't have enough resources and tools to work on them consistently as individual siloed issues.

And so when we think about how to address the ravages of climate change and its impact on sort of unequal justice in the environment, we've also got to think about it from a health disparity lens. And we've got to think about it from an investment lens, how we invest in communities. So it's really critical for us to begin to work across these different systems and to work with our partners in the federal government, state government, local government, tribal governments, in a way that's going to bring out some of these deeper solutions to these complex problems that we're facing in an accelerating and daily basis.

Eric: So what would holistic, equitable and sustainable solutions look like? Paul, you want to take that first?

Paul: Yeah. So, I want to play up one point that Frank just made, and there's a thread here obviously around environmental justice. around climate justice, and I want to hit on that topic again, because I think it's critical. I was at a conference recently, an environmental justice conference recently, where we were talking about transportation and the impacts of transportation networks on disadvantaged communities. And then you layer on top of that the concept of daytime flooding, what I call clear skies flooding, flooding that happens not because of a storm event, but because of other factors.

And you think about the impact of flooding on communities and then transportation networks. And what you find often is disadvantaged communities, low income, poor communities are sited, to Barbara's point, in areas where they become stranded and they become cut off because of the lack of transportation planning, have been cut off from access to their jobs, access to hospitals or healthcare or their schools. So when we think about root causes, it kind of goes all the way back to our original community development, community planning and urban planning associated with transportation networks. So I'm not sure if this is exactly where Frank was going, but you have to get ahead of these problems at the planning stages so that we're not always reacting to emergency and disaster situations.

Eric: Well, that sounds like a great segue. Let's turn to Barbara. How do we address these kinds of zoning issues?

Barbara: I think one of the big challenges in addressing this, and I think Frank began to raise this, is we need to bust some silos at the federal, state, and local level. The resources that are available to do this work often sit in silos. And just like today, we're having people on this conversation from different areas within Abt dealing with different issues. We need to align those resources so communities think strategically and intentionally about these issues together. I was involved in a project where we rebuilt all the housing in a neighborhood that had been really boarded up and abandoned. And all of a sudden we realized they were isolated from the transportation system, to speak to what Paul was just saying. So we had to engage with the transit authority, make sure a bus line ran there.

I mean, we need to think holistically about our communities about who's being impacted, looking at the root causes and not just addressing the issues sequentially. “Oh gee, now I think I'll think about whether we build net zero homes.” We need to think about them all together. What's the impact? What's the cost? Who's impacted? Who can be engaged in this and how do we bring together various funding streams that need to align better? And I think we're beginning to see some hopeful signs and we need to raise up those examples of where this has been done, whether it's in Montana, Colorado, Massachusetts, or Florida. There are examples of where we're doing better and I really like to amplify those examples so others can learn.

Eric: I love what you just said about not addressing things sequentially. So let me turn to Frank now who, while working on the social determinants of health, is sort of looking at everything with a kind of contemporaneous overview. Frank, you want to comment on how we can sort of bust those silos as Barbara said?

Frank: Yeah. Well, again, just to kind of reiterate what I think a lot of what Paul and Barbara have said is that we've really got to get better. We simply are not good enough to face the problems head on that we're struggling with as a society. And we have the tools and we have the ability to get better, but we simply cannot get better if we stay siloed in our approaches. So what that means is, really, we need better data, we need better planning and we need better preparation if we want to have a resilient society. Because if we think of these issues from a population level, we are able to approach these problems with more sophistication.

We can look at cross-sector data. We can understand where multiple problems tend to be aggregated. We can think about solutions in those specific locations with a different lens, and therefore we might uncover methods to invest specific funding within the federal streams or state streams that we have in a way that supports solutions across silos and systems.

And just from my own personal experience, I spent more than 22 years in local government in Colorado, and we faced very, very significant disasters multiple times. We had the largest flood in Colorado history. We had one of the largest fires in Colorado history in 2010. The floods were in 2013. We faced this sort of horrific fire this year that burned 1,100 homes. And in each of those disaster situations, I think a community faces a turning point where systems can collapse, or often do collapse, and how you kind of bounce back from that, become more resilient and think about mitigation adaptation at that point of inflection is really critical. And I think for the rest of the states and localities across the United States, they have the opportunity to learn lessons from communities that have been hit hard by disasters to think about their planning, their preparation, their data, their population management upfront, and to really think about it, how do we build a resilient society from the get go.

And I think there are numerous methods how you can invest infrastructure dollars that will solve multiple problems at the same time. So, I think Paul alluded to one that I think is prime right now, which is thinking of investing your infrastructure dollars in transportation solutions, housing solutions, and solutions that are going to promote electrification is really critical if you want to address climate change and environmental justice.

Eric: Thanks. And you mentioned communities--this becomes a community issue, right? It's not purely a federal issue and it's not really even a state issue necessarily, right? It's community. Do you all want to talk about that a little bit? How do we sort of drill down?

Paul: Yeah, I might take a stab at that. I was just thinking about some of the things Frank was saying and about when he brought up the wildfires. And it made me think about the work that we do with Native American tribes and nations in the U.S. And thinking about when we talk about holistic, Eric, you used this term, “holistic,” we're kind of looking at this holistic approach.

When you think about a Native American tribe that lives off the land and drinks the water and has a sacred connection to their environment, and then when you have this series of events that happen, let's say it starts with a drought and then that leads to a wildfire. So the defoliation that occurs then creates problems. When the tribe is resident downstream from toxic materials, from abandoned mines that are not on their lands, but adjacent to their lands. And the next thing that happens is extreme rainfall. So there's a massive amount of erosion and all of the toxics contained in those soils end up in this community's water supply, land, food that they eat and they're growing on those lands. So this all comes down to a kind of a human health issue and impacts the culture and traditions.

I used examples here as Native American communities, but communities everywhere. In coastal Louisiana, we're seeing significant impacts on coastal lands and Native American tribes who have lived in Coastal Louisiana since the beginning are now having to be relocated. That is an amazing and complex and very disruptive activity to relocate a community because of sea level rise, in this case, because there's no way that they'll exist 50 years from now in coastal Louisiana in the place where they've been for over 200 years. So anyway, these are just all things that come to mind kind of real personal, individual, community, and human health issues.

Eric: Right. So, Barbara, how do we start solving for these issues at that level? Paul's talking about relocating people. How can we support communities as they work to address the way these challenges manifest somewhat uniquely in their own backyards?

Barbara: Well, I think we're at an interesting inflection point because we simply need to increase the supply of homes in this country. So, whether we're relocating people down in Louisiana or the public housing that was built on the Connecticut shore, when Sandy hit, or just needing more homes because our population is growing. I think we're the only Western nation where we've had population growth and we haven't kept up. Food, clothing, shelter, we haven't built enough shelter. So, here's an interesting opportunity for us as a nation. We have the tools, I think both Frank and Paul have talked about that. But are we using them, and will we use them? We need to build denser. We need to look at our zoning and we simply need to build more for all income levels and at greater density. I don't want to see America build homes from one ocean to the next.

So we need to think smartly about where we're building, how we're building, how we preserve the natural environment and create healthy communities that way. And that is going to mean talking to people and bringing people engaged in the process early on, and not as an add-on. It's not an add-on for a community or a city to think about housing, oh, let's go talk to the climate people later, or the transit people or the health people. All of that has to be discussed early on, again, as I said, strategic and intentional.

But it's an incredible moment because the president of the United States is now saying we need to increase supply. I've been working in the field many decades waiting for that moment. It's here. Where are the resources and how are we thinking strategically about how to do this differently? As I think Frank said, there are complex issues that require solutions, plural. There is no solution to this issue, only solutions. And that means changing the way we deliver, looking at the root causes and having those conversations at the beginning and not later as an add-on.

Eric: Thank you. So having those conversations. Frank, who do we have those conversations with, how do we deliver? How do we pull this together?

Frank: Well, I think the first thing, to your earlier question, which is really how do you localize solutions and come with really specific solutions that are tailored to meet the inequity at the place that it's occurring is an advancement for our fields. And that is something that is really, in my opinion, it's really non-negotiable. And it not an either or. Broad brush stroked solutions, unfortunately what they do is they bury the inherent inequities that exist across the country. They exist in tribal nations. They exist in local communities. They exist in historically excluded neighborhoods.

And what we can see if we look with a more keen eye on how to advance equity, when we disaggregate data, when we focus on place-based issues, we can see that in adjoining neighborhoods, there's often a life expectancy gap of 10 to 20 years. We can see educational disparities, we can see significant health disparities. We can see environmental justice issues based on toxicity levels or sort of more at risk areas within flood plains or more prone to wildfires, flooding, et cetera. And so I think what that allows us to do, to become better able to meet the moment that we are actually living in and through, and this didn't begin yesterday, this didn't begin the day before. This began decades ago and we're just at an accelerated point where climate change is reaching a critical tipping point and we're seeing the more visible impacts of it.

But what it allows us to do is kind of come at those problems with a different level of, I'd say humility, number one, and determination to disaggregate information, to look at where the intersection of these problems are to engage at the community level in a different way. And to realize that is a science in and of itself that we can advance. Cross-sector solutions within a place-space context can actually solve problems across the nation in different localities, because it's an approach. It's a way to engage community. It's a way to advance multiple tools. It's a way to think about data in a different way, and it's a way to invest your dollars that are really community centric, but with an eye on dealing with social justice and how to advance equity when we see this kind of dislocation happening rapidly in different neighborhoods, communities, states, localities, tribes across the nation.

Barbara: I mean, I think Frank, I was thinking in 2010, we had a lot of inland flooding in Rhode Island where I live and a number of major parks in our city were impacted where a lot of our Black and brown communities live. And they were building and investing in a new park. And I went to the director of planning and said, "What are you doing? It's 2010. It's not the only flood we're ever going to have." And the answer was we're planting flood-resistant shrubs. And I had to hold myself from laughing because, like you said, there are multiple tools out there, and we need to think about this more intentionally and more strategically. I will go back to that, that there are other tools besides flood-resistant shrubs. And we can't make those investment with these federal, state and local and private sector dollars without thinking about that, thinking about the impact. I think Americans have thought that these were going to be once in 50 years, once in 100 year floods, for example. They're happening all the time. What are we doing today?

As you said, we can't go back, we can only go forward to think about how we do this in ways that support communities in their efforts to be more resilient, to be stronger. We have produced a resilience toolkit for HUD. It's up on their website, and it does cover lots of different things that I think need to be introduced into the housing world. So I'm glad it's at HUD, where people think housing, but it is urban development too. But there are a number of things in that guidebook that can help communities because they're not all going to have the solutions ready for them. That's part of our role, to give them access to some of the information and support them as they think about investment.

Eric: Well, that's a great place to pivot. I think we were talking about busting silos. I'm going to ask each of you, what do you think you need within your sector to enhance or improve the ability to collaborate with other sectors? And I'm going to start with you, Paul.

Paul: Yeah. When I think about what we need going forward, I think Frank has referenced this, but this concept of data and kind of understanding climate risk, using evidence and being able to bring together data from multiple different sources and then put it in a place-based setting where you're using very advanced geospatial analytics to really understand what is actually happening on the ground. And in conjunction with the data, engaging—since this is happening at the local level and cities and towns everywhere are building what you would call climate action plans, I can only suggest that when cities and towns and communities are building these plans, that they aren't a bureaucratic exercise. They aren't a check-the-box exercise. We need to engage directly the voice of the stakeholders, the voice of the actual citizens in those areas, the voice of the people that live and work and go to school in those areas, in order to build smarter plans. And so good data with the voice of the customer side by side, I think is critical going forward.

Eric: “There's nothing about us without us” is something we hear increasingly here [at Abt], and that seems to apply there. How about you Barbara?

Barbara: No, Paul stole all my lines, so I have nothing left to say. [laughter]I was going to say the data and the tools and centering voice of community in the process. And it is a process. I guess I would say, in addition to the data and the resources and the voices, we need patience. Picking up on something that Frank said, we didn't get here overnight, and we're not going to get out of here overnight. But the moment is now to begin making the plans, to be thinking. I mean, I spent years where everybody was worried about the electricity usage in the homes we were building and renovating, nobody talked about the water usage. So we get focused on one thing and it pushes out other items. So, thinking again, comprehensively and strategically and having patience, but we have no time to lose. We're already behind. We need to get started now.

Eric: How about you Frank?

Frank: Well, I think both, both Paul and Barbara are spot on. I totally,  100 percent agree with that. I think that the process of data integration, data analysis, geospatial mapping is non-negotiable and, frankly, we should show up to a problem with that already in place. I think that is what's critical. We can't keep showing up to a separate project and then another separate project and sort of start at the beginning without bringing a more integrated and complex and sophisticated analysis to the situation that we're facing. And I think community engagement, from my experience, is much more authentic and sort of real if we show up with a deeper understanding already level set, and then begin to engage from there. If we start from ground zero, I think, in my experience, the engagement process is sort of like the “here we go again,” as opposed to you are really here, you understand what we've been going through and you're ready to bring real solutions, real investment, real sophistication, to meet us where we are. And I think that's really, really, really, really key for us.

The other thing I would say is just, we've got to continue to advance equity in everything that we do. So we cannot not disaggregate. We've got to disaggregate data at every point along the life cycle. We constantly need to look at who's impacted, where they're impacted, how they're impacted and what it's going to take to solve these problems. Because, we can pull a clear thread between historical redlining and housing and current environmental justice issues. That is a common story. Our inability to read that story and understand that story has nothing to do with the actual problem that the community's facing. It's our level of ability to do that. And so we've got to continue to show up with that level of sophistication to unearth the story that's already being told before our very eyes, and to read it with sort of eyes wide open.

Eric: That makes me think of something I know Paul's team's been working on with EV infrastructure, how the communities that most need--that most benefit from--reduced emissions, that would most benefit from lower transportation prices, don't have the support to own those vehicles and charge those vehicles. So, you have a solution that isn’t actually speaking to the community that needs it.

You know, as we were talking, you mentioned education and health at one point, two other areas Abt works in. It touches everything. So, we'll have to do a five-person podcast next time. But I'm really glad to get the three of you together. Thank you for joining me.

Paul: Thank you.

Barbara: Thank you.

Frank: Thanks for having us.

Eric: … and thank you for joining us at The Intersect.

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