Let’s Lead Case Study: A Just, Sustainable Providence

How are leaders across the country stepping up to take action on climate change? ecoAmerica has released Let’s Lead On Climate, a brand-new guide that features nine success stories of initiatives by local organizations who are inspiring and engaging communities around them to make climate solutions a priority.

In the guide, you’ll hear from local health, faith, and community leaders who are promoting climate leadership and action. Each case study offers an inside look at why these individuals and organizations decided to lead on climate, how they developed their programs and initiatives, and what it took to overcome challenges along the way. Over coming weeks, the ecoAmerica blog will feature edited excerpts from these Let’s Lead stories. We hope they inspire you and stimulate ideas you can apply in your own profession, organization, and community.

Providence, RI

This week, our climate leader is the City of Providence, Rhode Island.

A more resilient city for all

With an ever-growing threat to its coastal communities from increases in hurricanes and flooding, the city of Providence, Rhode Island, began to turn the wheels on climate action to better prepare, plan, and adapt for its already-changing climate. Providence’s Director of Sustainability, Leah Bamberger, explains that while the city had been making efforts to increase sustainability, it was not until 2015 that it decided to tackle the wave of impacts head on.

Two years ago, with  funding from the American Institute of Architects and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, the city hosted its first-ever resilience charrette, a meeting held with a variety of stakeholders including community members and a group of architects, designers, and city planners from the county to map out solutions to increase climate resilience.

The city had high hopes this forum would help catalyze a comprehensive strategy that implemented the input that embodied the needs of the city’s diverse population. To achieve this, the city went to great lengths to ensure that participants reflected the city’s diversity and not just the usual suspects. As Bamberger explains, the main goals of the charrette were to gain a clear picture of who the players were in developing and implementing any sort of climate plan and take stock of areas they could improve on.

Relationship-building over roadblocks

While the city took the time to carefully construct its initial charrette, 87 percent of the participants were Caucasian. This signaled to Bamberger “the need to create better relationship between communities of color and the city” when it came to planning for climate resilience.

Bamberger admits that government officials often struggle to engage with their communities and procure meaningful participation. Community members are accustomed to not being heard and not having their interests factored into the decision-making process, “They check out,” says Bamberger. To overcome this, Providence decided to center its work around communities of color and those who are most impacted by climate change, inviting them to co-lead the process to develop an adaptation strategy.

People taking back the power

It was critical for the city to develop a “co-creation process” that involved the city itself, but ultimately let community members drive the strategy to arrive at solutions. Bamberger explains, “We need to rethink how we are working with communities on this issue and how to take the back-seat listening role.”

In collaboration with the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, Groundwork Rhode Island, Partners for Places, the Rhode Island Foundation, and the National League of Cities, the city has been able to gain the broad organizational and financial support and guidance necessary to implement a strategy built by the people for the people. The Equity in Sustainability initiative aims to reach the city’s population of more than 179,000 residents.

Putting their plans into practice, the city organized goals the community helped develop into categories—climate, energy, water, zero waste, transportation, food, and land use and development. Within each category is a broad set of goals mapped to a list of specific actions, all of which are available online to the public through the city’s Sustainability Dashboard. To date, the city has completed 14 priority actions and continually works toward its broader goals, such as carbon neutrality by 2050.

Top Recommendations

  • A diversity of key community members must be involved from the beginning of the process and feel like they have a meaningful role in climate preparation and action planning. This builds in greater intelligence and support for the final plans.
  • Ensure that decisions regarding the planning include special considerations for the people who are most impacted by climate change. Listen to their ideas on how to prepare for and respond to climate impacts.


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