State of the Planet

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How Community Partnerships Are Helping to Address Environmental Concerns

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Hurricane Matthew made landfall in southeastern North Carolina in October 2016. It caused major flooding and killed 28 people. The flooding remained at high levels for weeks following the storm, creating lasting impacts on the poorest counties in the state. Unlike normal Atlantic hurricanes, Matthew more directly hit inland and stalled before leaving land. Such slow movement caused unanticipated and major flooding across the region.

In light of the devastating impacts of climate change and its effects — such as hurricanes that are increasing in number, intensity, and human impacts — and the many environmental issues facing our society, we need creative and comprehensive solutions that center the communities being directly impacted. One such approach is the creation of community partnerships. Climate change is a global reality requiring coordinated action among nations and across sectors internationally. But simultaneously, collaboration in localities will be increasingly required in order to confront a range of environmental concerns. Community partnerships harness the expertise and resources among an institutional ecosystem within a geographic area, such as a city, town, county, or metropolitan region. These collaborative efforts transcend sectors, bringing together government, the nonprofit sector, and, in some instances, the private sector as well, in order to solve problems facing localities. They leverage private philanthropy as well as locally-based anchor institutions — enduring organizations that remain in their geographic areas, and play a vital role in their local communities and economies, such as universities and hospitals.

One such community partnership grew out of the long-lasting impacts of Hurricane Matthew. The Hurricane Matthew Disaster Recovery and Resilience Initiative engages faculty and students from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University as well as professional planning experts in addressing community and state-level needs associated with recovery from Hurricane Matthew. North Carolina Policy Collaboratory, North Carolina Division of Emergency management, North Carolina State Legislature, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate are organizations that support the Initiative’s work through funding, staff support, data, office space, and other resources.

The Initiative provides sustained levels of assistance to six communities: Fair Bluff; Kinston; Lumberton; Princeville; Seven Springs; and Windsor. For example, due to floodwaters from Hurricane Matthew, the nearby Lumber River rose approximately 15 feet, damaging Fair Bluff homes and infrastructure. Through the Initiative, the North Carolina State University College of Design proposed multiple housing types for relocation, elevation, and further protection of future town infrastructure, as well as green space designation. The Initiative has provided Fair Bluff multiple levels of support through recovery plans, flood retrofitting reports, and land and economic analyses.

Community partnerships can help localities become more resilient and more effectively manage future environmental challenges. Responses to natural disasters require more than immediate relief; in order to better handle future climate-related adversity, localities must be more resilient.

One part of the U.S. that is considered particularly vulnerable to sea level rise and other environmental considerations is South Florida. As awareness of this vulnerability increases, local governments, nonprofits, anchor institutions, and others are exploring new collaborative strategies. One such example is the Resilient 305 Collaborative.

This effort is a joint academic-government research partnership among Florida International University, Miami-Dade College, University of Miami, and government and non-government organization leaders of the Greater Miami and Beaches region. It began in 2016 as an outcome of the MetroLab Network and was created to work in support of comprehensive resilience research and learning. The different city groups came together to lead development of their community’s resilience under the 100 Resilient Cities Network, pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. In the piloting of its research strategy, the Collaborative focuses on an area called the “Little River to North Beach Resilience District” — a diverse area that spans communities with varying degrees of exposure to natural hazards, socioeconomic conditions, and technological capacities. The research strategy will help quantify the benefits and investments resulting from ongoing programs and policies identified in the Resilient 305 strategy.

Through intergovernmental and community collaboration, the Collaborative looks to help build existing networks and endeavors to safeguard South Florida people, homes, and livelihoods by connecting, engaging, and empowering every voice in the community. In public meetings, surveys and focus groups, the partnership engaged stakeholders to help shape the strategy and make sure it reflected the input from a wide range of people who have diverse areas of expertise, representing a wide variety of ages, ethnicities, cultures, income levels, and geographic areas. The Collaborative will continue to expand to include all municipalities, community organizations, and anchor institutions in implementation.

There are many other opportunities for community partnerships to address other pressing local and regional environmental concerns. Another example of an environmental community partnership is based in Fresno, California.

Fresno has faced long-standing environmental, health, and economic disparities. More than 100 square miles in the city have been consumed by suburban sprawl, including areas which have valuable agricultural land. As a result, the urban center and historic neighborhoods, such as Southwest Fresno and Chinatown, have some of the highest concentrations of poverty nationwide. At the same time, these communities struggle with high levels of air pollution and also lack access to green space and healthy foods. Through the Fresno Transformative Climate Communities Collaborative, the city is working to address local environmental, health, economic, and social equity concerns.

The Fresno Transformative Climate Communities Collaborative, formed by residents and other community stakeholders, employed a participatory process to identify a series of projects to implement in the Downtown, Chinatown, and Southwest Fresno Areas. The approved project, Transform Fresno, is a community-driven initiative to transform the 4.9-square-mile project area through multiple projects and plans that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also providing local environmental, health, and economic and social equity benefits. The California Strategic Growth Council awarded Transform Fresno with a grant of $66.5 million in November 2016 to start this project. The suite of projects enveloped in Transform Fresno involved multiple different types of partners. For example, its Displacement Avoidance Plan involves the city, Fresno Anti Displacement Task Force, Central Valley Business Diversity Partnership, Wells Fargo, and Fresno Regional Workforce Development Board. Another project, the Clean Shared Mobility Network, involves Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce, San Joaquin Valley Latino Environmental Advancement and Policy, Inspiration Transportation, Shared Use Mobility Center, and Bethel Temple Early Readers Preschool.

Community partnerships have been emerging as important pathways to various types of local solutions. They seem to have particular relevance regarding environmental challenges, which can only be sufficiently addressed through multi-stakeholder, cross-sector collective action. With each passing year, we are reminded of the urgency of present and future environmental challenges. This is particularly the case for the most vulnerable populations. It is not only important to create, maintain, and strengthen local environmental community partnerships, but these initiatives must also intentionally bring an equity and racial equity lens.

Too often, the most pressing environmental concerns are experienced most significantly by those with limited resources. We are witnessing the development of an important basis for new collaborative strategies that can lead to more sustainable, resilient, and equitable communities. None of this work happens automatically. It requires substantial time, resources, trust-building, inclusion, and alignment. Raising awareness about what it takes to develop effective community partnerships is an important aspect of the journey toward proliferating and strengthening creative and impactful collaboration.

In addition to being a research scholar at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, David J. Maurrasse is the president and founder of Marga Inc., a consulting firm providing advice and research to strengthen philanthropy and innovative cross-sector partnerships to address some of today’s most pressing social concerns. He is the author of Philanthropy and Society and the soon to be published Strategic Community Partnerships, Philanthropy and Nongovernmental Organizations. He is also beginning research toward the production of another book, Community Partnerships Toward Sustainable and Equitable Communities.

Victoria Bortfeld is a recent Master of Public Health graduate from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health’s Environmental Health Sciences Department. She works as an intern with David on his book projects. Her focuses include environmental health policy, environmental justice advocacy, and climate change action.


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Camila Rodriguez
Camila Rodriguez
2 years ago

Very informative article, as someone living in and witnessing social and environmental challenges in South Florida it is very urgent that we foster more partnerships across sectors!