As part of the Cities Taking Action to Address Health, Equity, and Climate Change grant, six U.S. cities received support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and C40 Cities to create transformative community-led projects.
What is the connection between health, equity and climate risk?
Climate breakdown is the greatest threat to global public health. Rising temperatures, sea-level rise and poor air quality are just some of the climate impacts that pose health risks, especially for already vulnerable people and communities. These groups include young people, older populations, ethnic minorities, low-income communities, and those with underlying health problems.
To be truly inclusive, climate action must address the interconnected issues of health and equity. This means making sure the voices and needs of the most discriminated-against and marginalised are heard. It means creating thriving societies that improve quality of life for everyone, while protecting the natural world around us.
There is no climate justice without social justice, and action at the city level that engages communities is critical to achieve both.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Grant
Through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF)’s grant-funded project, Cities Taking Action to Address Health, Equity and Climate Change, six U.S. cities have been supported to respond to the interconnected challenges of health, equity and the climate crisis with innovative, community-led projects.
RWJF has partnered with C40 to support these cities to foster global learning and lead innovative, community-driven approaches that mitigate the health and equity risks posed by climate change.
The projects in each city have united grassroots organisations, residents, young people, academia and city governments. Most importantly, the projects have empowered communities themselves to drive innovative and transformative change.
Which cities are benefiting from the RWJF grant?
Six U.S. cities and community-based organisations applied and were awarded funding from the RWJF and targeted support from C40.
The cities and their focus areas are:
- Cleveland, Ohio – the circular economy
- Detroit, Michigan – composting and waste management
- Jackson, Mississippi – mitigating heat with nature-based solutions
- Lawrence, Massachusetts – mitigating heat with walkable spaces and cool roofs
- Seattle, Washington – sea-level adaptation and anti-displacement efforts
- Tempe, Arizona – mitigating heat with Indigenous knowledge and nature-based solutions
Each of these cities experiences its own unique health, equity and climate challenges. However, they have a shared past of industrialisation, racial inequality, and environmental injustice for residents past and present.
Due to their well-connected geographies, many of the six cities have been a hub for manufacturing and industry, fuelling population booms and migration. People from around the world, as well as African Americans from across the U.S., relocated to these cities in search of jobs and economic opportunity.
Industrialisation has led to lack of green space and an abundance of surfaces that retain heat, such as concrete. These combine to create what is known as the urban heat island effect, as well as poor air quality.
In Eastern Detroit, a majority African-American area of the city, people live in close proximity to air pollution and lead contamination from automotive assembly plants and hazardous waste facilities. The asthma rate in the neighbourhood is three times higher than the state average. Cleveland’s poor air quality disproportionately impacts low-income communities, and the city was ranked the fourth worst U.S. city for asthma sufferers in 2023.
However, oppression and discrimination also produces agency and resistance. Many of these cities have a strong history of environmental and social activism – such as the famous Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence in 1912; the successful campaign to close a dangerous incinerator in Detroit in 2018; and campaigning against the dumping of industry waste into the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, which led to the introduction of the federal Clean Water Act.
The RWJF grant builds upon the history of environmental activism and the power of community in these cities.
What has been the impact of the grant?
With the RWJF grant and support from C40, the six U.S. cities have spent the last two years planning, designing, and implementing a range of community-led projects inspired by projects across the world to address the interconnected issues of health, equity and climate change.
Circular Cleveland | Global inspiration: Toronto, Canada
In Cleveland, a collaborative project to advance the circular economy has been led by Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, the City of Cleveland, and Neighborhood Connections. Through community-led initiatives and circular-economy-focused grants, the Circular Cleveland team is empowering residents, community organisations and businesses to advance a more sustainable, healthier, and just Cleveland.
Detroit Composting for Community Health | Global inspiration: Malabon City, Philippines
In Detroit, a series of composting pilot projects have been introduced around the city, led by community-based organisations, including Eastside Community Network, Georgia Street Community Collective, and Sustainable Community Farms. Together, these organisations are working to increase access to urban farming and composting to improve the quality of life for people living in some of Detroit’s most polluted areas.
Going Green for a Cool, Healthy Jackson | Global inspiration: Velenje, Slovenia
In Jackson, local non-profit organisation 2ºC Mississippi came together with Mississippi State University’s Jackson Community Design Center, the National League of Cities, and local consultants from Jackson State University. Together, they work with residents on the Going Green for a Cool, Healthy Jackson project. Through a community-led design process, three sites in the historic Farish Street district will be transformed into green spaces to reduce temperatures and improve health and wellbeing for Jacksonians.
Lawrence Pa’lante: Safer Cooler Streets | Global inspiration: Paris, France
In Lawrence, a collaborative community-led team united to create a cooler, more walkable and connected Lawrence. The project, led by the Conservation Law Foundation, Groundwork Lawrence, and the newly-established Pa’lante resident taskforce, has created a valuable community garden and cool roofs campaign. The project has engaged residents of Lawrence to create safer, cooler streets, and fostered spaces for community and knowledge.
Duwamish Valley Resilience District | Global inspiration: São Paulo, Brazil
In Seattle, the Duwamish Valley Resilience District advisory group has been established to foster shared decision-making and community action against displacement and sea-level rise. The group represents diverse communities and interests, including from two priority neighbourhoods – South Park and Georgetown. The advisory group has hosted community engagement events to reach residents who are usually excluded from decision-making.
Cool Kids, Cool Places, Cool Futures | Global inspiration: Christchurch, New Zealand
In Tempe, the City of Tempe’s Office of Sustainability and Resilience united with local high school students and teachers to create the Cool Kids, Cool Places, Cool Futures project, centred on youth education, dialogue, and activism in response to extreme heat. With support from Arizona State University and the Indigenous Design Collaborative, the team has empowered young people to be community advocates and changemakers.
What’s next for these cities?
The grant period is until 2024, but each project has fostered community engagement, collaboration and connections that will endure long into the future. The new physical spaces, such as community gardens, bring people together to share the benefits of community-led climate action. Most of all, everyone involved in the projects across the six cities has been empowered to make change, and to engage in climate action as a community effort.
C40 is working to create resources and case studies to share the success of these projects and empower more community organisations and cities around the world.
Access the case studies to learn more:
- Circular Cleveland
- Detroit Composting for Community Health
- Going Green for a Cool, Healthy Jackson
- Lawrence Pa’lante: Safer Cooler Streets
- Duwamish Valley Resilience District, Seattle
- Cool Kids, Cool Places, Cool Futures, Tempe
As part of the ‘Cities Taking Action to Address Health, Equity, and Climate Change’ grant, these six U.S. cities received support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.