Confronting the Dual Challenges of Climate Change and Poverty: A Case Study of Cleveland

Boaters and swimmers cool off in Lake Erie at Edgewater Beach in Cleveland on September 10, 2013.

As the effects of climate change grow more frequent and severe across the country, it is becoming clear that climate change does not harm all Americans equally. Instead, it takes a particular toll on those who are already struggling with social or financial burdens.

To confront this climate inequality, the city of Cleveland—which faces staggering rates of poverty rivaled only by Detroit—has developed a strong focus on initiatives that address the immediate needs of the most challenged communities while simultaneously building climate resilience. With the seventh annual Sustainable Cleveland Summit currently underway, now is an opportune moment to highlight a selection of Cleveland’s initiatives—as well as its progressive, integrated approach to addressing climate change and poverty—in the hope that they might serve as templates for other urban areas.

Regional effects of climate change and the link to poverty

Cleveland faces serious climate effects despite being outranked by cities such as Miami and Sacramento in terms of climate vulnerability. The Midwest region has already experienced increases in average annual temperature and intense precipitation—which has contributed to the decline of Cleveland’s aging infrastructure. These temperature and precipitation trends will persist in the coming years, according to the National Climate Assessment. Meanwhile, air and water quality are expected to deteriorate. In the Cleveland-Toledo area, which spans the northern swath of the state adjacent to Lake Erie, electricity demand and energy costs are projected to rise over the course of the century while labor productivity is projected to decline.

One of the most troubling aspects of climate change is the potential for extreme heat, reduced air quality, and other climate effects to disproportionately harm populations that are already grappling with social and economic inequalities. Children, the elderly, low-income communities, and communities of color, for example, may be at particular risk because of existing economic or health disadvantages.

In Cleveland, more than one-third of total residents and half of all children live in poverty. Furthermore, African American children are more likely than white children to grow up poor. More than 50 percent of Cleveland is African American, and the greater Cleveland metropolitan region is extremely segregated geographically.

Progressive principles and initiatives

In the course of surveying climate initiatives in Cleveland and interviewing local leaders, it quickly becomes clear that the city has embraced a holistic approach to climate and poverty.* Over the past several years, Cleveland has developed initiatives that respond to the most-immediate challenges of low-income communities—such as food insecurity, vacant lots, and unemployment—while also empowering its residents and integrating the objective of climate resilience. “There has been a major focus on climate equity and neighborhood engagement,” says Matthew Gray, director of the Cleveland Office of Sustainability. This is evident in the city’s 2013 Climate Action Plan, which also reflects the city’s dedication to transition to a low-carbon economy.

Applied cultural anthropologist Jennifer Hirsch, who has consulted with the city of Cleveland, described this holistic approach to climate and poverty as one in which communities are encouraged to “build on their own knowledge, culture, and experiences to develop innovative solutions tailored to their community culture” in an article co-authored with Alexis Winter. This model of climate action has the benefit of connecting climate solutions to residents who may not be in the mainstream environmental movement’s typical demographic. “It is important that climate solutions not be seen as luxuries,” says Hirsch.

Cleveland’s focus on the needs of the community and community empowerment also promotes social cohesion. “Social cohesion is such an important part of resilience,” says David Beach, director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute. “Cleveland has a network of neighborhood development organizations. I see this as the first line of defense against climate change.” Several of these organizations—including Burten, Bell, Carr Development and Slavic Village Development—have been involved in initiatives such as the selection highlighted below.

Innovative finance for neighborhood-level action 

Cleveland was the first municipality to establish a fund—the Cleveland Climate Action Fund—to which anyone can contribute, including both corporations and individuals seeking to offset their carbon emissions. The fund runs free climate action workshops in Cleveland neighborhoods, many of which are low income, and provides grant opportunities to residents. “We would like to reach all 33 neighborhoods of Cleveland by the end of 2017,” says Michele Kilroy, neighborhood specialist at the fund. The fund has recently announced eight new grants to neighborhood projects on topics such as water reclamation.

Urban agriculture

“There is a very strong local foods movement here,” says GreenCityBlueLake Director Beach. “More attention is being paid to food deserts, and initiatives are underway to help low-income communities gain access to healthy food.” These initiatives can have multiple climate and poverty co-benefits: They can promote food security, transform vacant lots, combat the urban heat island effect through the replacement of pavement with vegetation, and promote economic development by attracting businesses or providing employment. “Community gardens have been successful in reducing the amount of pavement and taking back the landscape,” says Marie Kittredge, project director of the Opportunity Corridor Partnership and former executive director of Slavic Village Development, which has been involved in many urban agriculture initiatives.

With more than 300 community gardens and urban farms now in the city, there are many more innovative urban agriculture projects than can be highlighted here. One notable example, however, is the Urban Agricultural Innovation Zone in the Kinsman neighborhood, which has converted more than 20 acres of vacant land into an inner-city agricultural district. Within this district is the Rid-All Green Partnership, an urban farm that produces vegetables, compost, and tilapia fish via four large tanks. It also provides education to adults and children. The agricultural zone also contains Kinsman Farm, a so-called incubator farm that provides land to gardeners who are learning to farm at scale and who sell their produce at local markets and restaurants.

Trees and parks

There are other initiatives aside from urban agriculture underway to combat the urban heat island effect. In 2014, for example, the city launched the Cleveland Tree Plan, as envisioned in its Climate Action Plan, which aims to plant an additional 1,300 trees over a three-year period. “We’ve assessed which neighborhoods are most vulnerable because of a lack of tree canopy,” says Cleveland Office of Sustainability Director Gray. “Climate equity concerns are being integrated into city planning.” In addition, Re-Imagining Cleveland, which is an initiative of Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, has focused on transforming vacant land into green spaces, such as parks. The initiative has also focused on urban agriculture projects with economic opportunities, such as market gardens and an inner-city vineyard. 

Weatherization, energy costs, and indoor air quality

Weatherization not only decreases energy use and costs but also protects against the worst effects of extreme weather. In Cleveland, the Warm & Healthy Homes initiative partnered with the city’s weatherization program to provide health hazard remediation for nearly 200 homes in low-income communities, which added a focus on improving indoor air quality. “This has saved money for the residents, reduced energy use, and promoted health,” says Kim Foreman, executive director of Environmental Health Watch, which ran the Warm & Healthy Homes initiative.

Conclusion

More traditional strategies to build resilience in low-income communities are in progress as well. “The area has been proactive with respect to establishing cooling centers throughout the city,” says Maureen M. Mitchell, associate professor of nursing at Cleveland State University. Centers such as these are vital during times of extreme heat, particularly for socioeconomically disadvantaged populations.

Cleveland has a long way to go in combating social and economic inequality, as census data reveal. But the initiatives underway have been showing genuine progress and, one hopes, sparking ideas for similar actions across the country.

Gwynne Taraska is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Center for American Progress. Hannah Flesch was an intern with the Center’s Energy Policy team.

Thanks to the many experts and leaders in climate resilience in Cleveland who were interviewed for this column. Thanks also to Danielle Baussan, Managing Director of Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress, for reviewing an earlier version.

* Quotations in this column without a reference hyperlink are from interviews conducted by the authors.