News from the Columbia Climate School

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Building Climate Justice: Empowering Communities Through Coastal Resilience at Columbia University

Last fall, the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development introduced a new course titled “Building Climate Justice: Co-Creative Coastal Resilience Planning,” which aimed to educate students on effective coastal resilience planning and climate justice, using a combination of social science and data acquisition and analysis.

Smiling group of students
Building Climate Justice students celebrate the end of the fall 2023 term. Photo credit: Daniella Donzelli Scorza

The course was born out of a collaboration between instructors Greg Yetman, Paul Gallay and Kytt MacManus, with support from the Columbia University Collaboratory. The course is grounded in the notion that climate-adaptation planning should not alienate the very individuals resilience planners are seeking to protect. It also allows students to experience firsthand the power of community engagement.

As the director of the Resilient Coastal Communities Project at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development and an adjunct lecturer with the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, Gallay’s past work in government and environmental advocacy has emphasized the importance of effective community participation.

“The Climate School’s founding principles challenge us to pursue research, practice and education that helps solve problems like this, and that’s exactly what the Building Climate Justice course sets out to do,” he said.

To facilitate collaboration with environmental and climate justice practitioners, students actively engaged with community-based climate and environmental justice organizations. This involvement allowed them to collect and analyze environmental, geographic and socio-economic data pertinent to local resilience needs.

After generating and quality-checking the data, students and community partner organizations South Bronx Unite and Staten Island Urban Center worked together to prepare presentations for planning officials, the public and others to ensure that identified resilience goals would be fully integrated into future planning initiatives by these stakeholders.

While there is still a long way to go to reach true and transformative co-production within climate adaptation projects, Gallay said the fall 2023 cohort represents a commitment to partnership and service he believes will grow stronger and deeper, year by year.

Successful completion of the course offered a partial fulfillment of the Analysis and Solutions to Complex Problems requirement for the major and special concentration in Sustainable Development. The course will be offered again in fall 2024.

Carmelli Leal, a student majoring in Undergraduate Sustainable Development, chose to enroll in the course due to her personal connections to the Philippines and Baltimore, Maryland, where she witnessed environmental injustices in coastal areas.

The course’s emphasis on the intersection of data and social science resonated with Leal, as did the experience of collaborating with community partners. “It felt meaningful to be doing more than just a class project, but a project that would contribute to their efforts as an organization,” she said.

Individual holding a phone showing air quality measurement
Students calculate air quality in the Bronx during their field visit. Photo credit: Paul Gallay

Leal underscored the importance of deep engagement with course materials and community collaboration for a richer learning experience. A key takeaway for her was gaining a practical understanding of how co-production manifests in real-world scenarios. “The course is truly a reflection of what you invest in it. The more time and genuine engagement you invest, the richer your learning experience and overall gains from the course will be,” she said.

Amy Chen, a sophomore in urban studies and economics, enrolled in the course to explore the convergence of urban planning, resilience planning and sustainability.

Chen highlighted the transformative nature of the course, emphasizing the significance of community participation in the planning process and the nuanced understanding of data tools. “The dual structure of social science and data science was very compelling to me, as well as the potential to get a drone license and work with community groups using knowledge and tools learned from the class,” she said.

Although the process of operating drones in New York City was legalized in July 2023, the class was one of the first cohorts to use the new permitting program as both the Columbia University office of risk management and the NYPD supported the team to conduct drone research in the city.

MacManus said that once the drone mission was completed, the kindness of the community continued to pour in as an official at NYC Parks gave the team permission to operate on the top of a historic firehouse on Staten Island.

Individuals stand on a roof with a drone
Students conduct a drone mission in Staten Island. Photo credit: Greg Yetman

The class introduced students to tools like ArcGIS Online and StoryMaps, emphasizing the importance of considering legal, economic and ethical aspects of data collection and presentation.

“I was immediately impressed by the energy and positivity the students brought to the class. It was clear they were more than eager to participate in a course which provided the opportunity to make a real impact on the world,” MacManus said.

During final presentations with partnership projects, students laid some foundational groundwork around how the South Bronx experiences air pollution, and as a group focused on three resident profiles to highlight air quality and pollution in Mott Haven. These presentations led to ongoing feedback from the partner organizations on how to make the findings most effective for presentations to government officials, deployment of air monitoring and future use in organizational communications materials.

Group of students smile in front of double doors
A group of students during final presentations. Photo credit: Paul Gallay

All instructors expressed their gratitude to everyone who came together to move the course from principle to practice. These efforts helped make the Climate School a more dynamic and engaged partner in climate adaptation by empowering the individuals fighting for safer and more vibrant communities, they said.

Kelly Vilar, executive director of the Staten Island Urban Center, commended the students on the quality of the research they conducted and provided to grassroots organizers. “They’re helping us lift the community’s voice as we urge government leaders to respond to our needs,” she said.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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