Planner Kristin Baja graduated from the University of Michigan in 2011, with a dual degree from Taubman College and the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, and really hit the ground running in the seven years since. Baja worked for the City of Ann Arbor, developing their Climate Action Plan and Sustainability Framework, and now works as the Climate and Resilience Planner for Baltimore, Maryland’s Office of Sustainability. Baja visited her alma mater last Friday, March 24, to deliver a lecture titled “Climate Change Through the Lens of Social Equity” — two concepts that are inextricably linked for any planner aiming to promote urban sustainability in the United States.
The Office of Sustainability combines two essential strands of environmental planning under one banner. The first is hazard mitigation, or the action taken to reduce or eliminate long-term risks to people and their property from hazards. The second is climate adaptation, or changes made to urban systems to better respond to the new conditions brought by global climate change. Baltimore was the first city to combine these two plans into a single Resilience Plan, intended to bolster the city against shocks (single-event disasters, such as floods and heat waves) and stressors (factors that pressure the city on a daily or recurring basis, such as homelessness and unemployment).
As the effects of climate change become more apparent, low-income communities are expected to be hit the hardest by extreme weather events such as heat waves, increases in precipitation, and storm surges, and social equity thus needs to be a priority in any climate adaptation plan. Much like Detroit, and myriad cities throughout the nation, Baltimore has a history of systemic and explicit segregation. A 1910 ordinance, the first of its kind in the nation, mandated the segregation of residential blocks into black and white neighborhoods, and black residents were denied loans for homes in white neighborhoods, a practice commonly known as redlining.
The effects of these policies are apparent in the Baltimore cityscape to this day, through what has become known as the “Black Butterfly” and the “White L.” Historically black neighborhoods spread out across the city map in two “wings,” while white neighborhoods form an “L” that runs north-south through downtown and the scenic riverfront north of the Patapsco River. The Butterfly and the L are practically two parallel realities within the same urban boundaries. In terms of transit, the L features the Charm City Circulator, which is free for riders, whereas in the Butterfly is served only by the Maryland Transit Authority, where riders must pay. The L is home to numerous traditional banks, and the Butterfly is home to pawn shops and check cashing and payday lending facilities. The list goes on and on, painting a picture of two different Baltimores.
For this reason, Baja argued, equity should serve as a lens for both climate and sustainability planning, and planners aiming to bolster cities’ resilience should prioritize their most vulnerable and historically disinvested neighborhoods and populations. Emergency response practices often completely ignore aspects of everyday life that more privileged communities take for granted. For example, Baltimore public schools were closed for a week in 2015 in response to the riots surrounding the death of Freddie Gray, and children who relied on school lunches for their daily nourishment were left without a key part of their daily diet. The same would be true during extreme flooding events or blizzards (heavy snow literally completely shuts the city down), underscoring the need to think about the needs of marginalized communities on a system-wide scale during climate adaptation planning.
Also critical to incorporating equity into planning for resilience, Baja said, is relying on active listening, and not just planning from the ivory tower. Environmental planning suffers from an over-reliance on preexisting plans or toolkits, when such plans should emerge organically, from the community up. This means making people comfortable and letting community members identify the location to meet. The city’s stormwater management initiative has a community involvement component in which residents can take “ownership” of storm drains, educating residents through public art about how stormwater infrastructure impacts their everyday lives.
Baja also gave the example of “Game of Floods,” an accessible participatory planning game intended to educate residents about the intricacies and challenges of floodplain management. Participants are assigned roles (City Council member, power company representative, homeowners association representative), given a municipal budget, and a sea level rise scenario that they’re instructed to plan for. The budget and scenarios vary by group, with some teams forced to make tough decisions, based on their judgment of how infrastructure needs intersect with residential health and safety and the local economy. In reality, climate adaptation planners have to plan for a wide range of simultaneous climate change stressors, not just sea level rise and extreme flood events, but the game serves as an effective starting point toward thinking about how climate change affects cities on a system-wide basis.
Baltimore is also emphasizing community emergency preparedness, which Baja says is “a little bit of a Band-Aid” in place of fixing the root causes of climate vulnerability, but is nonetheless an important component of planning for uncertainty. Under the mantra “Make a Plan, Build a Kit, Help Each Other,” the city holds community workshops providing emergency kits and making sure residents know how to use every item in them. Additionally, a series of “Resiliency Hubs” is currently in the pilot phase, consisting of buildings or sets of buildings chosen by the community that provide shelter, fresh water, food, ice, and charging stations in case of emergency.
The thematic throughline to Baja’s lecture was an approach to climate adaptation planning that envisions the city as an organism. Before Baltimore’s resilience plan, many adaptation plans outlined goals and objectives on a hazard-by-hazard basis. This doesn’t reflect the institutional realities of municipal planning, Baja said — cities don’t have a “Flood Department,” “Blizzard Department” or “Heat Wave Department.” Instead, Baltimore builds resilience into its planning efforts through the lens of infrastructure, development, natural systems, public services - in other words, the types of departments that a city actually has. This approach turns building resilience against climate change into a process that improves the health of a city instead of fighting the symptoms of individual diseases — and process that more naturally addresses important issues of social equity.