Wednesday, October 18, 2017

CUNY Law's Climate Change, Environmental Justice, and Urban Resilience symposium: Proceedings of Panel 1: Governance for Resilience

[This is the first in a series of four blog posts detailing the proceedings of CUNY Law's recent symposium.]

Recently City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law and its Center for Urban Environmental Reform (CUER) hosted a conference, Climate Change, Environmental Justice, and Urban Resilience: Incorporating Community Voices, to reflect on the impact of Superstorm Sandy, which struck New York and other parts of the Northeast five years ago, and to confront the increasingly severe impact of more recent climate-related weather along the Gulf Coast, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean. CUNY Land Use Law Professor Andrea McArdle, who organized the conference with CUNY colleague, Rebecca Bratspies, director of CUER, shares some post-conference thoughts:

My colleague Rebecca Bratspies and I organized the program with the hope that we could engage a range of voices and perspectives on the challenges of governance for climate risk in densely populated urban areas.  We began with an appreciation that government policymakers and the research and science sector have embraced the concept of resilience as a policy response to the catastrophic consequences of climate-related weather disasters.

We set out to analyze and unpack that term, and consider how resilience is implicated in governance in such strategies as rebuilding, restoring, and retreat from the waterfront.  Although these strategies have sometimes been framed as alternatives, even as mutually exclusive, we hoped the conference discussions would illuminate ways in which, we believed, these aspects of resilience could be compatible and complementary.

We also wanted to examine how policy making on climate resilience could access community-based knowledge, and incorporate community voices. We invited conference participants to approach climate resilience governance through an equity lens that accounted for impacts on climate-burdened communities. We considered “climate-burdened” to include those living in the floodplain in at-risk housing, from wood frame bungalows to high-rise public housing, and those whose life circumstances in relation to race, poverty, disability, or social isolation compound vulnerability to the effects of severe weather.

Further, we asked panelists to consider the intersections between climate-burdened communities and environmental justice communities, united by their shared location on the urban periphery, where land values traditionally have been lower, municipal services and amenities less accessible, and environmentally noxious uses more prevalent.

With a mix of speakers drawn from government, community-based organizations, and academe, the program comprised four panel discussions and a conversation with New York City’s Chief Resilience Officer.

The first panel, on Governance for Resilience, which I moderated, addressed what resilience governance encompasses. From their distinct perspectives, the panelists considered the roles of various levels of government and public institutional structures, the research sector, and relevant communities in governance initiatives.

Sam Capasso, a Hazard Mitigation Specialist for FEMA and a lead technical reviewer for Hazard Mitigation Grant Program projects at the New York Sandy Recovery Office, examined the agency’s pre-disaster functions and post-disaster approaches to resilience, including recovery and mitigation. His presentation drew on the National Mitigation Framework, with its goals of achieving community resilience, communicating with the public, and reducing vulnerability to risk. He highlighted examples of flexibility in the tools FEMA can employ in the post-disaster context, and explained how FEMA’s reinterpretation of its own regulations has led to larger expenditures under its mitigation assistance authority.

Holly Leicht, currently Vice President for Real Estate for Empire State Development, discussed her experience serving in the Obama administration as the Regional Administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in New York and New Jersey where she oversaw Superstorm Sandy recovery funds and implementation of resilience competition projects.  Her presentation drew from her comprehensive report, “Rebuild the Plane Now: Recommendations for Improving Government’s Approach to Disaster Recovery and Preparedness,” highlighting report recommendations for improving equitable recovery strategies for disadvantaged populations, such as renters, in the current recovery framework and for increasing coordination at the federal level with more support for state and local grantees.

Adam Parris, executive director of the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay in New York City, discussed this unique partnership between governmental, research, and community-based organizations established to improve resilience in the region’s coastal waters. His presentation examined a variety of governance models, highlighting that governance, rooted in relationships, should support climate adaptation, and capacity building, and necessarily evolves and adapts with changing climate projections. He also discussed how language choices facilitate or undermine effective governance, noting the negative responses that policymakers’ use of freighted terms such as climate, risk, and retreat can elicit within climate-affected communities. This issue of framing proved a fruitful basis for discussion across the panels.

Laxmi Ramasubramanian, Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Policy at Hunter College (CUNY), doctoral faculty member in the Geography and Environmental Psychology programs at The CUNY Graduate Center, and Deputy Director of CUNY’s Institute for Sustainable Cities, spoke about her post-Sandy research on communities living in the Jamaica Bay watershed. She documented a range of community relationships with Jamaica Bay, the importance of informal channels of communication, and the value of popular education approaches to encourage community participation in climate governance. Both Laxmi and Adam drew on chapters they authored in Prospects for Resilience: Insights from New York City’s Jamaica Bay (Island Press 2016), which Adam coedited.

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