OPINION: Smart climate action? Minneapolis creates its first environmental justice plan

by Kim W. Havey | City of Minneapolis
Friday, 6 March 2020 15:47 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Abdirizak Bihi, Director of Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center, talks about his neighborhood, one of the largest concentrations of Somali immigrants in the country, ahead of the NFL's Super Bowl in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 19, 2018. REUTERS/Craig Lassig

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

To effectively serve everyone, climate action needs to be people-centered, people-informed, and people-led

Kim W. Havey is director of the U.S. city of Minneapolis' Division of Sustainability.

It is time for cities to take environmental and climate justice work seriously. There’s been a lot of talk in the climate community about the importance of this work, but often too little action. We’re trying to change that here in Minneapolis, as we want to address this issue head-on.

Environmental disparities in our city, as our community has noted, have been “institutionalized through decades of planning, decision-making and investment patterns,” sacrificing the health and well-being of our most vulnerable residents. They’re right.

Marginalized communities in our city’s south side have been experiencing health disparities for years, but pollution-related deaths have only recently been getting the attention they deserve by the city and the state.

It’s about time. These environmental and health disparities have been neglected for far too long, which is why we’re doing everything we can to fix it now. But how? By listening to the community.

A citizen-run council recently approved a 5-year work plan on how we can do better on a range of environmental health issues. This environmental justice plan was created by community members in south Minneapolis with the lived experience of legacy industrial pollution, disinvestment, and racialized oppression. It is started with a climate vulnerability study and now, after a yearlong process, establishes a work plan for the city.

What’s in it? It covers everything from self-determination and accountability, to land use (with a big focus on transportation’s health impacts), to healthy food access, energy and housing – and lastly, a green economy and anti-displacement.

This community-led effort – called the Southside Green Zone Council and appointed by the City Council – is just the beginning of a complete rethink on how we’re tackling climate and sustainability issues in Minneapolis. No longer can we be top-down in our planning. Our climate work needs to be people-centered, people-informed, and people-led.

When the city is working on soil, air, housing stock, or food access improvements they need to benefit current residents and not result in green gentrification. When the city is making industrial and traffic decisions for the south side, they should be made by the people who live, work, play and pray in this community. When the city is identifying environmental priorities, they must also be mindful of social and economic priorities, since air, soil, food, housing, and energy are all interconnected.

For example, Minneapolis is now partnering with a local organization – called the Center for Earth Energy and Democracy, which works on environmental, racial and class justice issues – to rethink community energy planning and building decarbonization.

The community is helping to ensure equity in the decision-making process and an actionable and equitable roadmap for zero-net-carbon buildings. The community is establishing our goals and priorities, which is a game changer in building decarbonization; it hasn’t been done before.

This is what intersectional climate work must look like in cities. The people living in these impacted zones are the ones who should be designing and benefiting from the city’s climate policies.

It also means, again to quote our community, that the “next generation of investments by government, philanthropy and private capital” must be done in partnership with “critical local groups already doing work in the area” – like the Southside Green Zone Council.

That’s what a transition grounded in justice looks like. That’s also what environmental policy, mindful of socio-economic policy, looks like. Now, for the work.

Yes, it takes time to address the historic legacy of environmental racism in the city.  And yes, it takes time to transition hotspot pollution areas into healthy, regenerative spaces. The implementation of the plan, which will take 2 - 5 years, is only the start of an effort that will span many years. It's the first step towards an environmentally just future. We still have a long way ahead of us.

Now we have the political and public will to tackle this legacy of environmental justice. We have the technological, policy, and financial levers to solve it. It’s up to us, in the city, to hold and maintain the community’s trust that it will get done together. We’re hopeful. And we’re ready.

This is what the next generation of climate work looks like in Minneapolis. And the answer was always right in front of us, in our community.

This is part of a series focused on climate equity, justice and inclusion, written by members of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, a collaboration of global cities achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 or sooner.