Leading up to this year’s Earth Day celebrations, Cincinnati’s City Council voted to approve the newly unveiled, updated version of the Green Cincinnati Plan (GCP). The GCP is the City’s guiding document for climate action in the critical years to come. Over the past year, I was fortunate to serve on the GCP Steering Committee. Throughout the planning process, I was impressed by the City’s commitment to advancing climate equity.

For 15 years, the City of Cincinnati has been measuring its carbon emissions and implementing a range of carbon-reduction strategies. In that time, the city has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 37.8% through measurement, community visioning, analysis, and planning. But climate vulnerability and sustainability cannot be measured by emissions alone. Increasingly, social, economic, environmental, and health data show that Cincinnati has much work to do when it comes to addressing longstanding inequities that will be—and already are—exacerbated by climate change.

As head of the Collaborative Sustainability Lab, my research aims to bring visibility to and work against the inequitable impacts of climate change, socially and geographically. Since 2021, I have been collaborating with the City of Cincinnati’s Office of Environment and Sustainability, Adaptation International, Groundwork Ohio River Valley, and Green Umbrella to build the procedural and distributional equity tools needed to inform local climate planning and action in ways that center the needs of frontline community members, especially youth, low-income residents, and communities of color.

Climate Equity Indicators Report

Alongside these partners, I co-authored Cincinnati’s first-ever Climate Equity Indicators report in 2021, which provides neighborhood-level sociodemographic and environmental data to lay the groundwork for an equity-informed approach to local climate policy. Prior to this collaboration, no comprehensive effort to update social vulnerability and equity statistics for the city had been undertaken for five years, during which time numerous critical processes had reshaped many parts of the city. The report drew upon up-to-date, geocoded datasets to provide city-wide maps and rank-ordered statistics displaying inequitable social, environmental, economic, and health conditions across the city. The report also provides neighborhood profiles summarizing findings for each of the city’s 52 neighborhoods. This report was used by the City to target outreach efforts in the process of updating the Green Cincinnati Plan.

Neighborhood Profile Diagram for Cincinnati Neighborhoods

Climate Safe Neighborhoods Partnership

The report also informed community-engaged research I led in 2022, funded in part by UC’s Community Change Collaborative (C3) and the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI, Division 9 of the American Psychological Association), with supplemental support from PEWS. This project used surveys and interviews to examine the personal- to community-level impacts of the Climate Safe Neighborhoods (CSN) partnership.

CSN brings together community residents to facilitate neighborhood-level climate planning, where residents set the agenda for what climate resilience should look like in their neighborhoods. Specifically, the CSN process convenes community residents in meetings aimed to explore, expose, and address the intersections of climate change and structural racism through critical dialogue and community-led action planning. This results in community-designed, neighborhood climate resiliency plans reflecting the specific needs and goals of community members. CSN was spearheaded by Groundwork Ohio River Valley—a Cincinnati non-profit working at the intersections of sustainability, justice, and social equity—and was co-facilitated alongside key partners including the City of Cincinnati Office of Environment and Sustainability and Green Umbrella.

With aims to partner with Cincinnati residents facing disproportionate climate impacts and guided by the Climate Equity Indicators report, CSN was carried out with residents of the Roselawn and Bond Hill neighborhoods of Cincinnati. Survey and interview analyses showed that CSN was effective in:

(1) Raising residents’ awareness about climate change, its impact on Cincinnati neighborhoods, and climate justice—understanding that the impacts of climate change are not equally distributed, including across Cincinnati neighborhoods;

(2) Enhancing community participation by residents enrolled in CSN;

(3) Increasing residents’ sense of self-efficacy to act on climate change and to affect climate policy.

Following Climate Safe Neighborhoods, community residents held a showcase to discuss their views and experiences as well as the climate resiliency plans they generated for their neighborhoods.

Bond Hill Climate Resilience Plan, featuring green space, community gardens, green roofs, and street trees.
Roselawn Climate Resilience Plan, featuring green space, community gardens, green roofs, and street trees.

Policy and Community Impact

At the core of this collaborative research has been a commitment among all project partners to identify and address the specific needs and interests of frontline community members in Cincinnati. In particular, a chief aim was for the views, experiences, and desires of historically-disinvested and disproportionately climate-affected communities (i.e., low-income residents and communities of color) to guide the newly updated GCP and the City’s actions to follow. This is a critical time to shape the future of Cincinnati, and this should be done with climate equity at the center.

More broadly, a guiding aim of this collaborative project has been to amplify community voices to build capacity for a range of efforts across the city to foster equitable and sustainable land use, planning, policy, and social change in Cincinnati communities. And the associated research begins to fill important gaps in the literature on equitable approaches to climate resiliency planning while taking tangible steps to address real-world problems affecting Cincinnati and other cities around the globe.