Photo from Newport, Rhode Island Health Equity Zone resilience workshop.

Rachel Calabro is the Climate Change and Health Program Manager at the Rhode Island Department of Health.

How can your community be more resilient in the face of climate change? 

For each community, the answer will be different and will depend on who lives there, the networks and relationships between its residents, and the resources available. If resilience is partly a function of how connected and collaborative its residents are— known as social cohesion— it is important to empower communities to develop and design programs that work for them. It is also critical to community resilience to make sure that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be healthier, in other words, that we are promoting health equity. 

The Rhode Island Department of Health is using a community-led, collaborative process through what we call Health Equity Zones to address conditions that prevent people from being as healthy as possible. Health Equity Zones (HEZ) channel public support to neighborhoods impacted by health disparities. We use the power of connected community members to address underlying factors that have the greatest impact on health outcomes. One of those factors is climate change, which is growing in importance with each year. 

The Rhode Island Climate Change and Health Program, with support from a CDC Preventive Block Grant, worked with the HEZ in the cities of Providence, Newport, Pawtucket, and Central Falls to support efforts to build community resilience to the effects of climate change through workshops and community-led interventions.

Through community workshops, we helped residents assess their strengths and vulnerabilities associated with climate change and identify strategies to reduce climate hazards. After an initial workshop, each team surveyed their own communities and developed a number of initiatives from disaster preparedness training and outreach, to tree planting and homeowner education. The communities’ needs and priorities drove these efforts and produced a range of diverse initiatives. 

Responding to Local Events

In the case of Newport, an extreme weather event that occurred in the middle of the HEZ project provided a real-time example of the need to build better resilience.

January 21, 2019 was one of the coldest days of the last decade in Rhode Island. On that same day, in Newport, the state’s gas utility, National Grid, was forced to shut down a portion of its gas distribution system to over 7,000 customers. The system was shut down for seven days, and every home had to be manually turned back on. During those seven days, there was no heat, and no ability to cook food. Residents were evacuated from their homes and told to stay with relatives or in hotels and shelters. Information about how to receive services was limited and inconsistent.

The chaos that resulted from the gas outage was fueled by underlying inequities that are often revealed in times of crisis. While Newport may have a reputation as a vacation destination, it is also an area of widespread poverty.

The Newport HEZ became an important part of the effort to share information and reach vulnerable community members. Many HEZ members worked to assist those without access to heat and food. Through this effort, the HEZ realized that there was not a well-defined emergency response plan, nor was there the capacity to carry a plan out.

Learning from their experience with the gas outage, the Newport HEZ held community conversations about climate change in workshops and at farmer’s markets, provided opportunities for residents to receive disaster-preparedness training and supplies, and educated their staff about disaster response. They also established relationships with public officials for ongoing discussions about meaningful community involvement.

Today, Newport is in a much stronger position to respond to a potential future emergency. Having HEZ members in place allowed the community to make the National Grid shutdown an instructive experience to prepare for the future. The new connections between agencies, officials, and communities has increased cohesion and will lead, both directly and indirectly, to better health outcomes because community needs will be heard, and people will know how to get the help they need.

Engaging Community Partners

In another successful example, the Pawtucket and Central Falls HEZ surveyed their residents and found that people were most concerned about flooding, the lack of parks and open spaces, a lack of trees, and limited access to healthy food. Climate change is increasing both localized flooding and extreme heat in these urban neighborhoods. 

As a result of the survey, 24 young people worked to engage residents and gather data regarding climate resilient mitigation strategies. By the end of the summer, they completed 25 green home assessments, planted 21 trees at Baldwin Elementary school in Pawtucket, installed 9 raised garden beds at resident homes, and collaborated with the City of Pawtucket to install and deliver 7 residential rain barrels to reduce flooding and utility bills.

As a result of these initiatives, residents created the Climate Safe Neighborhoods Alliance to further engage families and youth. They plan to hold monthly meetings and do spring plantings. They will also return to the families that received raised beds and help them plant vegetables.

In activating existing networks, these initiatives create their own momentum for sustainable, community-led change and will lead to better health outcomes for residents.

Storytelling and Awareness Raising

Similar to Pawtucket and Central Falls, the neighborhood of Olneyville, located along the Woonasquatucket River in Providence, experiences periodic flooding events that primarily affect low-income residents. These flooding events block access to grocery stores, and endanger local business and the health of residents. Community surveys revealed that residents were not prepared for future flooding events.

In response to the surveys, the Olneyville HEZ chose to create a film about a large flood event that occurred in 2010. The film includes a presentation of tips for preparing for an emergency in an affordable way. The film aims to raise awareness of the dangers presented by the increasing frequency of localized flooding and natural disasters. By using local voices and first-hand stories, it works to transform the threat of a major disaster into a tangible reality so that residents feel a greater sense of urgency regarding emergency preparation. The film was screened at multiple events and will continue to be used in schools and with community groups.

Models for Change

Whether it is building raised vegetable beds, training in emergency preparedness, or filmmaking, the experience of the Rhode Island Health Equity Zones shows that locally-led resilience projects that give community members power and resources are the most effective and durable.

We believe that these projects can serve as a model for change beyond Rhode Island, as communities seek to engage with climate change. Locally-specific responses are the key to demonstrating both how we are affected by climate change today and how we can respond to its effects in the future.

Contact Info: Rachel Calabro, Climate Change Program Manager, RIDOH Rachel.calabro@health.ri.gov

Olneyville video https://vimeo.com/359888817/6c75fdddfe [vimeo.com]