Forging City-Community Partnerships for Climate Action: Moving from Communication to Engagement

Forging City-Community Partnerships for Climate Action: Moving from Communication to Engagement

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of giving the keynote presentation at ICLEI-Canada’s Livable Cities Forum, held in Hamilton, Canada.  ICLEI is a global organization that helps its members—local governments—advance their sustainability work through tools, training, and networking. My talk, titled “What Do Daycare and Soul Food Have to Do with Climate Change? Forging City-Community Partnerships for Climate Action,” set the stage for the conference theme, which focused on how local governments can engage non-traditional stakeholders in climate work. Drawing on my experience in Chicago engaging culturally and socioeconomically diverse communities in climate action, it emphasized the importance of empowering communities to take joint ownership of climate action. I concluded with a countdown of the Top 10 strategies for doing this:

10.  Work through trusted and umbrella organizations
9.    Establish a Climate Action Leaders Network
8.    Focus on collective solutions
7.    Build on assets
6.    Identify and publicly recognize local champions and innovations
5.    Incorporate climate action into existing programs
4.    Link climate metrics to quality of life indicators
3.    Create neighborhood demonstration hubs
2.    Make it (hyper-) local, cultural, & personal
1.    Create & use place-based, visual, & participatory tools

Over the next two days, I was inspired by the case studies I heard about how local governments across Canada are reaching out to their constituents. I came away from the conference wanting to revise and expand my original list, to more deeply incorporate these ideas:

Focus on relationship- and community-building

The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority presented its SNAP program–Sustainable Neighborhood Retrofit Action Plans—which aims to inspire community members to “reclaim responsibility to care for their neighborhoods.” Its projects are tailored to community assets. For example, in one community with rich cultural diversity, a history of social activism, and lots of gardens, SNAP focuses on food. In another community where people care deeply about their yards, it focuses on native landscaping. The overall goal is to strengthen relationships, among people and between people and nature, and to facilitate engagement by nurturing “a sense of belonging to a neighborhood invested in its future.”

Institute collaborative problem-solving structures

Toronto’s Public Health agency shared its approach to creating Canada’s first Shade Policy and Guidelines, through the Toronto Cancer Prevention Coalition, which included members from a broad array of fields in and outside of government. Relationship-building takes time; and it took 10 years to create the shade policy. But after being rejected once by the Toronto City Council, it now has broad support from multiple sectors, including urban foresters, the school board, public health, universities, and the parks department. Key to building support, presenters said, was the multidisciplinary nature of the coalition; identifying co-benefits; linking to existing policy frameworks (beyond health, where this project started, to environment, for example, the Urban Heat Island Directive); supporting community champions; and demonstrating the project concept through pilot projects.

Evergreen CityWorks, whose mission is to green cities, also focuses on collaborative problem-solving, which is the second of a three-step behavior change model that starts with doing research to identify a problem and ends with implementing innovation projects. The problem-solving step involves bringing diverse stakeholders together for activities such as scenario planning, charrettes, and data visualization.

Make climate change and climate action local and visual

Our host, the city of Hamilton, highlighted their Hamilton Climate Change Action Charter, which organizations and individuals can both sign on to. As signatories, they commit to taking and reporting on climate actions in their work or personal lives. According to coordinator Brian Montgomery, the goal is not to get them to do new things, but rather to understand what they are already doing that is in fact climate action—and thus see themselves in a new light, as climate champions. Basically, Hamilton is building a constituency; and when they embark on the task of writing a climate action plan, they will already understand what the community cares about and have broad support.

The Hamilton Conservation Authority is also focused on making climate change local and has produced a series of short videos called Climate Change in Our Own Backyard that show the local impacts of climate change on traditions such as ice fishing. According to the presenter, residents did not connect extreme weather events to climate change in the past—and these videos, more than anything else the Authority has done, are making people want to get involved in climate action.

Finally, Stephen Sheppard, of the University of British Columbia’s Collaborative for Advanced Landscape Planning (CALP), presented examples of visual tools that local government can use with communities to do collaborative planning. For example, one data visualization tool is a moving graph paired with a visual of a local landscape that shows how changes in sea level rise will correlate directly with inundation of the landscape. In production now is a place-based video game on sea rise in the Delta community where the player takes on the role of mayor and makes different choices and then sees the consequences. Dr. Sheppard’s new book, Visualizing Climate Change, also provides many examples of how visual tools can help communities look to their present and past ways of life for low-tech solutions embedded in local cultures.

Overall, these and other stories highlight the ways in which community engagement—beyond communication, framing, and messaging—can help broaden the climate action movement to include diverse stakeholders who have not had a significant voice in our conversations or initiatives to date. The Livable Cities Forum advanced this crucial conversation, and I hope we can continue to expand on the lessons from this conference through online forums such as Climate Access and at conferences not only in Canada, but also in the U.S. and beyond. What will this conversation sound like when we truly open it up? What will climate action look like once it’s out of our hands?

Dr. Jennifer Hirsch is a sustainability and diversity professional. She was the project manager for the Chicago Community Climate Action Toolkit, which was highlighted in this Climate Access blog post. Visit her new blog: Sustainability –  What’s Culture Got To Do With It?