Columbia’s original climate plan lacked provisions for equity and justice. Now the city’s trying to catch up

In June 2019, the city of Columbia adopted its Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, a document over a year in the making. It was to serve as a roadmap as Columbia took its place among the ranks of cities, states and nations trying to curb the global impacts of climate change.

For the city, the plan was a massive step forward — prior to its adoption, all of Columbia’s climate initiatives could fit onto two pages. Now, the 105-page document provides a wide range of recommendations and goals, including reducing vehicle usage, increasing renewable energy and reducing greenhouse emissions; decreasing water usage and proposing plans for more energy-efficient infrastructure and housing. It even includes two poems from local high schoolers about the future of the planet.

But as adopted, one critical aspect is absent from the majority of Columbia’s plan — climate justice and equity, or actions and programs specifically designed to ease the climate burden on low income communities and communities of color. Now, city officials are working to further integrate those values into any and all climate efforts and programs, aiming to catch up with other cities.

“We realized in order to make the kind of aggressive, timely, encompassing changes we need to make to achieve our climate action plan, we have to get equity inserted into the decision-making and budgeting process,” says Carolyn Amparan, the chair of the city’s climate and environment commission that advises staff on the plan’s implementation. The challenge for the volunteer climate commission, she says, is to make climate equity the norm going forward.

The evolution of the climate plan

In recent decades, the vast majority of policymaking and discussion surrounding climate action has focused on resources — natural gases, water, air and energy. The lens of climate justice or climate equity instead focuses those policies and conversations on people, specifically low income people and people of color who often disproportionately feel the real-time impacts of climate change. 

That impact can take the form of higher temperatures in urban centers due to the heat island effect; natural disasters that exacerbate poverty in low-income regions and resource shortages. Officials and advocates have in recent years argued that climate justice-centric policies should not just be an add-on to cities’ plans, but its core.

“We want to keep that thinking front and center moving forward in our mind when we’re coming up with any new policy,” Amparan says. “We want to make sure that we think about unintended consequences, that we think about if we come up with an incentive, for example, is it only going to be accessible to people who have money?” 

Columbia’s plan, in its early pages, introduces the intertwining of climate and equity and pledges that its actions will “be implemented in a manner that promotes equity and mitigates structural racism and historic inequality.” It lays out several considerations and questions, drawn from Portland’s climate plan, and includes a half-page chart detailing specific actions “for which equity considerations will be critical.” 

But the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, as adopted, never details how those policies should be specifically implemented in a fair and just way, and only includes nine clauses in which equity should be emphasized. 

Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, president of activist group Race Matters, Friends, said the add-on nature of these policies in the city’s plan are representative of a larger disconnect between the officials and their community. Wilson-Kleekamp said she asked Columbia City Manager John Glascock how he planned to connect the climate action plan with the work of the Community Garden Coalition, and he didn’t have an answer.

“Many of the things the city does are performative,” she said. “We build things in ways that don’t pay attention to the needs of people.”

Wilson-Kleekamp cited a recent scandal in which four members of the IT Department were asked to resign for speaking on a pay equity issue at a City Council meeting as an example of the City leadership’s unwillingness to change. 

“The ‘leadership’ has created an environment where risk and creative collaboration are not valued. Until the council ‘wakes up’ from their own complicity in hiring ‘the same old staff (white) guy’ they will have the same results. Leadership isn’t just one person. It’s a team endeavor.” Wilson-Kleekamp said in a text message.

Lawrence Simonson, Chief Executive Officer of Columbia’s Pednet Coalition, a nonprofit focused on pedestrian and public transportation, said solutions to climate problems are based on convenience rather than equity. 

“Our budget doesn’t reflect the things citizens are asking for,” he said. “Unless solutions are made for the members of our society that struggle the most, they’re simply not going to work.”

Simonson cited the willingness of the city to fund large infrastructure projects in affluent areas of town, while defunding public transportation, which low income community members heavily rely on, as an issue. Public transportation has also been shown to reduce emissions when utilized by commuters who drive more than a couple of miles each day.

Amparan says an upcoming pilot program between the city’s climate commission and staff will bring equity concerns to the center stage in decision making.

‘People, planet, prosperity’

The “triple bottom line” project — for “people, planet, prosperity,” according to Amparan – is expected to begin its pilot phase in the coming months, aiming to make climate equity a central focus for any and all city projects. It’s a concept that abandons previous notions of a single consideration for climate plans — finances — and instead focuses on people and the planet at large. 

Any project subject to the triple bottom line pilot program will have to answer a number of questions relating to each of the three areas, many of which focus directly on climate equity. For example, here are several drafted questions project managers would need to answer regarding the “people” impact:

  • To what extent could this project impact the economic conditions of underrepresented populations?
  • To what extent could this project promote a welcoming and diverse community for all?
  • To what extent could this project impact the ability of underrepresented populations to participate and influence city processes, programs and services?

The “planet” section will focus on traditional climate and sustainability indicators — greenhouse gas emissions, energy usage and more. While “prosperity” will focus primarily on the project’s economic impact, it is also planned to include questions rooted in equity — including potential impact on cost of living in an area, as well as the local diversity of jobs and business opportunities.

“We want to make sure that to the extent possible, any new policies don’t carry (inequity) forward, and that we do what we can to make up for any past inequities,” Amparan says. “We’re trying to implement this to keep it front and center for all of the city staff as they go about their business and make decisions on a daily basis.”

Although city staff is developing the triple bottom line decision model following the recommendation of the commission, it has not yet been approved by city management or the city council for implementation.  The results of the staff pilots will be presented to management in the coming months.

The concept was borrowed from Fort Collins, Colorado’s climate plan, Amparan says, which uses similar metrics for managing city projects. It echoes a recent international push to evolve climate action and blueprints past simple money management, instead envisioning it as a new era of justice and equity. It’s an encouraging step for the city and commission, whose most recent climate report to city council was focused almost entirely on traditional climate metrics.

Climate equity “insists on a shift from a discourse on greenhouse gases and melting ice caps into a civil rights movement with the people and communities most vulnerable to climate impacts at its heart,” Mary Robinson, president of Ireland and chair of The Elders, told the United Nations in 2019. 

Some U.S. cities have gone all in on that shift, hoping to be ahead of the curve and to serve as a model for others. Portland, Oregon stands out as exhibit A — and plenty of ink has been spilled about how exactly that plan was implemented. “Our priority is really twofold at all times — it’s not just about reducing emissions, but it’s about doing it in a way that prioritizes those of us who have been left behind,” Portland climate action program coordinator Kyle Diesner wrote in an email.

How Columbia got here

The development of Columbia’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan took place over years, with several public input workshops, a mayor’s task force (of which Amparan was a part), online surveys and hundreds of policy recommendations from the public. 

That task force evaluated each policy on five criteria, Amparan said, all weighted equally:

  • Effectiveness: How likely is it the action will work to address the goal? Is this addressing a high-priority vulnerability or a major source of emissions?
  • Affordability: What is the relative ease of covering the costs of the action with City budget, grants, etc.? How affordable is the action to residents/businesses? 
  • Technical feasibility: Is it possible to implement the action with current technical capacities within the City? Or would we need further research, information, or outside expertise?
  • Co-benefits: Does the action address multiple goals, or other City or community objectives?
  • Equity: Does the action address the needs of vulnerable and historically marginalized populations? Does the action reduce vulnerability for all populations? Is it fair? Any actions that are rated low on equity but otherwise score highly will be adjusted to address equity concerns. (Emphasis is commission’s.)

Amparan says with hundreds of recommendations, it wasn’t always possible to perform in-depth research into every single one, but the task force often considered the “long-term impacts” of recommendations. She also acknowledges the difficulty of reaching many communities and populations during the process.

“A lot of the time, people that you need most to talk to are not going to come to a community workshop,” Amparan says. “You’ve got to find other ways to reach them.”

Community engagement and ongoing initiatives

In order to reach those communities, the commission is prioritizing partnerships with other organizations around Columbia and has launched a pilot program to localize their climate action even further.

The pandemic dealt a significant blow to the city’s climate commission in its infancy, as it stopped meeting for several months last year after its inaugural meeting in December 2019. But with the brunt of COVID-19 slowly fading, the commission is now turning to local organizations such as the PedNet Coalition and the Kiwanis Club to tackle specialized programs beyond the traditional scope of the city’s climate commission.

The commission approved a recommendation to begin developing a new “complete streets” policy, a process for which PedNet has received a grant. Complete streets aim for equity in transportation — for those walking, biking, navigating in wheelchairs or with service animals and more. And although Amparan says Columbia has already taken steps to make streets more accessible and equitable, “experts on this tell us they need to be updated, and there’s a lot further we can go.” 

Simonson said one reason transportation issues are so widespread is that most people don’t know there’s an issue with the status quo. Most people assume the transportation systems in our cities have always been designed this way, he said, but it’s been less than 100 years since we’ve designed cities for cars rather than people. 

Simsonson cited I-70 as an example of roadways hostile to pedestrian and non motorized traffic.

“You can think of it as a wall or a river, or whatever you want, but it is a huge divide in Columbia that makes it very difficult to cross – you essentially are cut off from one side of town to the other,” he said. “We have a large unhoused population in that whole area, and we know from traffic data that there are a lot of people who are walking who get hit by cars in those areas.”

Simonson also said the design of roundabouts in Columbia minimize deceleration of drivers, which makes it more dangerous for people walking or riding bicycles. 

“Engineers will say all roundabouts are safe for people walking and biking, but the research is very mixed – find a young person, a six or eight year old, and try walking with an eight year old through the roundabouts by Aldi and Cosmo-Bethel Park. Because they are seen as threatening, the rates of walking and bicycling go way down.”

He said because the existing infrastructure is hostile to alternative transportation, less people utilize it, and the city uses that as further justification for defunding those alternatives to cars.

Another priority for the commission is addressing the city’s rental housing energy efficiency — an issue that Amparan says is critical for both traditional climate metrics and equitable living. Much of the rental housing is “old and not updated for efficient energy,” driving up utility bills and producing further emissions. She says there’s been discussions about the best ways to “force landlords to improve efficiency in their rental stock.”

Wilson-Kleekamp said that human infrastructure is just as important to consider when evaluating equity solutions, and cited the basic policy solutions of Policy Link’s guide for advancing racial equity through the American Rescue Plan. 

“There’s no need for the city to reinvent the wheel, to distract,” she said. “It’s not enough to just build twenty houses a year and say that’s affordable housing, we’re never gonna fix the issue – holding landlords accountable for not doing anything – but they (city officials) seem to have a very hands off approach to those issues.”

Wilson-Kleekamp also noted that outreach, and engagement with marginalized communities within Columbia, has been difficult for the city, and raised concern that various city officials are out of touch with the community they serve. She cited a December transcript of the Housing and Community Development Commission in which Paul Whatley said, “I was surprised that –that Food Security, you know, truly is an issue in Columbia.” 

Columbia currently has a food insecurity rate of 12.8% according to Feeding America, which means 22,660 community members lack sufficient food to live a healthy, active lifestyle.

Knowing full well they can’t reach all 120,000 Columbians themselves, the city has in recent months piloted a Climate Ambassadors program, which Amparan says will focus on “neighborhood resilience.” The pilot program includes one climate ambassador fellow who has focused on the Quail Creek neighborhood as a starting point — a community that features an unwalled creek that has been known to flood with an abundance of rain. The commission is scheduled to receive an update from the city on the future of the program in the coming months.

Galen Bacharier

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