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View details about the New Tools that Will Promote Justice and Equity in Climate Adaptation plans on the project page.

Dr. Sara Hughes (Assistant Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning, School for Environment and Sustainability) talked with the Graham Sustainability Institute about her catalyst grant project. The goals of the project were to introduce decision-makers to the considerations involved in developing a justice-oriented adaptation plan and to create a public resource guide for cities addressing justice in their adaptation planning. The following excerpt of the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


How did the project start?

The idea for the project came from attending a workshop in the summer of 2019. It was an NSF workshop designed to generate ideas for urban sustainability planning broadly—and it was really a practitioner-led workshop. The Urban Sustainability Directors Network was involved, so there were a lot of sustainability directors from cities all over the country at this workshop.

One thing that came up was that there's this increasing awareness among all of us—researchers, practitioners—that justice and equity need to be at the center of what we do, and that became a theme of the workshop. But we also heard that it wasn't always clear to practitioners where to start, what tools were available, how to measure progress, and how to integrate justice and equity with what each city was already doing.

I was one of only a few academics at this workshop. Another was Kirsten Schwarz from UCLA. when I saw the call from Graham for projects that were aiming to generate new partnerships and collaborations, I was thinking about this workshop. We got Kirsten involved, and some of the practitioners from the workshop, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, and the director of the Sustainability Office for the City of Detroit.

We put together the project and the proposal with the idea that we would really focus on filling that gap. How could we better understand the need? And what could we do to help? Yes, justice and equity matter in urban sustainability work. But how do we get started? What role can academics play?

We got started on the project in the spring of 2020—right before COVID hit and also before George Floyd was killed and a lot of the recentering of the Black Lives Matter movement happened. So [after those things] we ended up focusing more explicitly on racial justice to respond to the moment.


How would you like to see your research products used?

We talked about the materials we put out (the report, the brief, the one-pagers) being used in two ways. We saw the report (along with the spreadsheet of tools and resources) as a resource that policymakers, planners, decision-makers, and cities can use to inform their own work. In the report and through the development of the principles at the heart of the report, we really tried to synthesize the work that's already out there. That's a lot of what we were trying to do—take this burgeoning set of information and ideas and see if we could synthesize it in some way that is useful for city practitioners.

The principles do that. They take a lot of that information and say, here are the five top ways that you can work to center justice in your own programs/office/project, unpacking what that means. Here’s a place where you can one-stop shop, find tools that are already out there to support [your work in this area] instead of having to go and dig through the internet and different people's websites and that kind of thing. And a lot of urban sustainability work involves meetings, stakeholder roundtables, trainings, and we envisioned the one-pagers as things that could be brought to those meetings as references and conversation starters.

For the City of Detroit—and this is one way we’re actually building on the project right now—we’re trying to think about how, going forward, Detroit specifically can address some of the governance and institutional and planning challenges behind stormwater-driven flooding. One thing we’re thinking about and trying to study is this idea of “extreme event policy windows.” It’s the idea that when we do have events like [flooding], they can be an opportunity to rethink the way we do things. But they can also prompt us to double-down on the status quo, if we don’t think more carefully about it.

In other words, one thing we’re going to study is this: What happens during extreme events like flooding and when do they lead to the kind of changes that help to forward equity and justice and sustainability and climate resilience? And conversely, when do these events just channel more money into pumps and not get at any of the underlying issues? Is it media coverage? Is it residents? Is it decision-makers changing their own minds on an issue? That’s something we’re looking to follow up on.

If nothing else, the [recent flooding] events highlight the need for this kind of work. The question is whether it leads to change, how, and why.


Talk about working with Graham.

I enjoyed the experience very much. I really appreciated the flexibility through COVID because things really did take longer and required adjustments.

In some ways, the project was really new for me in being more practitioner-oriented and focused on creating those relationships. I remember feeling like it was taking a really long time to have those conversations. I didn’t know if we're going to have them, and I really wanted to make good on the [catalyst grant] resources and create something useful and worth all of our time.

But overall, it's a fairly low stakes way to try to make those connections and do that kind of work. And it also created a great research collaboration! Kirsten and I are working on these follow-up proposals together, so that’s a really nice outcome. And I think it provided really good experience for the students.