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Equity and Justice in Coastal Planning

NOAA Ocean Podcast: Episode 60

Our ocean and coasts affect us — and we affect them. Almost 40 percent of the country’s population lives in coastal shoreline counties. And these counties contribute more than 9 trillion dollars to the U.S. economy. But there are many challenges facing our coasts, like climate change, sea level rise, more intense storms, and population growth. So we need to make good decisions today to help our coasts continue to thrive tomorrow. This is the first podcast in a three-part series from the U.S. Global Change Research Program that explores how we make these decisions. In this episode, hear an interview with coastal consultant Adam Parris on the topic of equity and justice in coastal planning.

Volunteers plant natural grasses safely behind a newly constructed breakwater

Volunteers plant natural grasses safely behind a newly constructed breakwater, which is part of a living shoreline project, at Camp Wilkes in Biloxi, Mississippi. The breakwater’s role is to reduce erosion on the shoreline by decreasing the wave energy and allowing plants to grow on the shore. (Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant). View Transcript

Gyami Shrestha

Gyami Shrestha

Dr. Gyami Shrestha led the U.S. Carbon Cycle Science Program Office from 2011-2022, catalyzing multi-disciplinary interagency opportunities and collaborations spanning terrestrial, oceanic, atmospheric and societal dimensions of carbon, climate change and pertinent environmental themes with the U.S. and global science community. She currently serves as program director at Lynker Corporation for its carbon/greenhouse gas portfolio and NOAA Center for Environmental Modeling contract.

Adam Parris

Adam Parris

Adam Parris helps people build equitable, just, and science-informed solutions to adapt to climate and societal change. Over the past 20 years, he has worked collaboratively with diverse coastal communities across the US as part of city, state, and federal government agencies.

Libby Larson

Libby Larson

Dr. Libby Larson is a support scientist in the Carbon Cycle & Ecosystems Office at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. She represents NASA in several interagency working groups at the U.S. Global Change Research Program, helping to envision and coordinate federal government research investments. She is also the coordinator for the North American Carbon Program, a community of practice for researchers studying carbon sources and sinks in North America and its adjacent oceans.


HOST:This is the NOAA Ocean Podcast, I’m Troy Kitch. Our ocean and coasts affect us — and we affect them. Almost 40 percent of the country’s population lives in coastal shoreline counties. And these counties contribute more than 9 trillion dollars to the U.S. economy. But there are so many challenges facing our coasts, like climate change, sea level rise, more intense storms, and population growth. So we need to make good decisions today to help our coasts continue to thrive tomorrow. We’re kicking off a special three-part series exploring how we make these decisions.

The interviews we’re sharing in this series were conducted by participants in the U.S. Global Change Research Program. This is a federal program mandated by Congress to coordinate research and investments in understanding the human and natural forces shaping the global environment and their impacts on society. Members of this program include people from NOAA, along with NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and several other federal agencies. More specifically, these interviews come to us from a subset of the U.S. Global Change Research Program: the Coasts Interagency Group. The folks in this group, as you might guess from their name, focus on meeting the needs of coastal decision-makers. In 2021, this group hosted a series of seminars on coastal planning, this led to many interesting discussions, and those discussions led to this series of formal interviews.

In our first episode, we hear an interview with coastal consultant Adam Parris on the topic of equity and justice in coastal planning. Adam helps people build equitable, just, and science-informed solutions to adapt to climate and societal change. He is interviewed by two people: Libby Larson, a scientist in the Carbon Cycle & Ecosystems Office at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; and Gyami Shrestha, former director of the U.S. Carbon Cycle Science Program Office and current program director with NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Prediction. You’ll hear Gyami ask the first question. Check our show notes for more detailed bios on all our guests, as well as links to more information. We hope you enjoy the first episode in this series – we’re excited to share it with you.

GYAMI SHRESTHA: What role does federal science tools and training play in supporting equitable outcomes?

ADAM PARRIS: All levels of government should act in the public interest. The federal government can provide resources to people in communities that have been marginalized to help them surpass the status quo. There are so many ways to do that. Funding, people power, access to facilities, information, et cetera. But we should really be using all of those mechanisms. But what's equally, if not more important, is how we use them. It's not enough to say, "This information on flooding in your neighborhood is publicly available on a website." For many communities, you need to make sure people know what to do with that information and then help them follow through, all the while acting in the interest of that community and the surrounding community. "Here are the federal resources to empower you to achieve your vision for a higher quality of life." There are immediate life threatening situations where it is about saving people.

Our hearts right now as we're recording this, are with the people in Kentucky, and in Las Vegas who are experiencing these devastating floods. But for most of the time, the federal government should help get people on the road to success. There's a gray area in there that can be hard to discern because it's hard to navigate the system of government. So we have to make that easier as well. How do you help people apply to funding in FEMA during and immediately after a disaster. And then how do you navigate the other programs that complement FEMA? The Community Development Block grants from the Housing and Urban Development programs that connect to the U.S. Global Change Research program that have a lot of scientific and capacity building tools and trainings to help them use science, not just understand science, but use science to anticipate the problems of tomorrow.

LIBBY LARSON: Those are some very interesting points. How does foregrounding justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion change our approaches to coastal research and decision making?

ADAM PARRIS: That's a big question. There's a lot of words in there. Big words that are really impactful. First of all, in addressing this question and really justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, I just have to acknowledge I am a white male. So I am coming from a place of privilege even without intention. So in some respects I'm an unlikely person to speak to these issues, but I firmly believe that white men need to change too and need to be a part of the solution. There are a lot of different elements of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. I'll touch on three that have really helped me in my practice.

So the first I think about is process. Do you have good process? Are you working proactively or intentionally to make sure that you not only have diverse participation, but all of those diverse participants are able to speak up in whatever means they communicate, whatever language they communicate, whatever means that they require to communicate. More and more folks are using games and citing their ability to help people grasp complex topics in a less daunting way, for example. I like games, because I think they remove power dynamics between government officials, scientists, and community members. We all wear different hats when we walk in a room, and sometimes those hats can be intimidating or create dynamics that aren't really great for working towards public interest or a common good. So when people are playing a game together about learning about flooding in their community, learning about heat, they're on the same team and they can learn from each other. And learning from each other is such an important part of a good process.

The second thing is are you prioritizing the people who need the help the most? This is where data can help fight bias and discrimination, even bias and discrimination that we don't know we have. It's not just where it floods most frequently, but where that flooding exacerbates other problems like a lack of jobs, a lower income, crime, hazardous chemicals. So are you using data to help make sure people get help, especially those people who need it the most.

And the third one is context. This is so important and it's difficult because it's harder to quantify and in some cases it's not quantifiable. What are the intangible factors that keep people at the status quo or make it worse or make it hard for them to speak up in that moment? Those factors can really have an impact on people's mental health, something that we're not really looking at in depth, an area of research we really need to expand. But when it has an impact on their mental health, it affects their will to act and everybody's gonna need to act and be a part of the climate solution. So that's where we have a lot to learn from social and behavioral science, but also civic people who think about civic engagement, community organizers. So it's not just the scientific community who knows a lot about how to understand context and really factor that into a process.

I'll just say the last thing is it just starts with listening and respect. If you have those things, then you can incorporate good process. You can think about where people need help the most and you can really understand context. If you have listening and respect, you can learn how to undo what's been done.

GYAMI SHRESTHA: Thank you, that was quite enlightening. Are there any opportunities and challenges for addressing justice and just transitions from local to regional to national scales?

ADAM PARRIS: There are. I think really the most important thing is trust. We tend to think about scaling as something related to the approach. "What is the piece, the one piece of information that we can scale that everybody needs to have? What's the one tool that everyone needs to have access to? What's the one program that we just need to do everywhere?" But really the most important thing is trust. You can't exactly scale trust. It's not something you innovate, at least. So rather than think about short, medium, and long-term outcomes and how you scale over time, we need to be thinking about how things will progress if we all act as individuals, what happens when we work in groups, and what happens when we all work together? So if government staff, scientists and communities work together on a project to address flooding in one locality and they build trust over time, how are the interests of that community reflected in regional conversations about energy, transportation, housing, things that occur on a system scale and transcend the immediate decisions of that local community? What are the ways we build trust between that local partnership and the regional partnerships? And then how are those reflected in national conversations?

ICF, the company I work for, works with local municipalities like Miami-Dade [County], but we also work with the Federal Highways Administration. So we helped connect those scales. We're not the only organization, but we certainly do work that can help connect those scales. There's no ready made solution, but I think moving beyond the two to three year grant and making long term investments and partnerships where you can sustain trust through multiway engagement and exchange and through community organizing is the way to go. I believe there's a role for the public and private sector in that endeavor.

LIBBY LARSON: Thank you. That's an important perspective I hadn't really considered before. What are the most impactful efforts you are aware of in the coastal zone? At the state and federal levels? Locally?

ADAM PARRIS: It's hard to pick favorites because again, you know, it's not a one size fits all solution. But I think the efforts that have been most impactful are the ones that center communities, that involve partnerships, where trust is built, and that think about outcomes beyond just "how do we reduce our risks to physical climate conditions". So where have we been able to say a community is frequently flooded along the coast, and how do we make sure that that community not just reduces the flooding (that one sort of climate driver), but where do we improve housing? Where do we improve transportation, people's ability to get to and from work? Where do we maintain and even improve public services like water quality?

I can say from my own experience, I've worked in the communities around Jamaica Bay, which is in southern Brooklyn and South Queens, and the Rockaways here in New York City. I could pick one or another project, but what I think has really been impactful is for the past two decades you have a number of different community organizations. Some focused more on kind of the traditional environmental concerns, some focused on more community concerns, but all of which were impacted by Hurricane Sandy. They really had been talking and working towards a healthier bay and resource, long before Hurricane Sandy occurred.

So the fact that you have frameworks and partnerships for say the city of New York, the state of New York, the National Park Service, and the EPA working together with community organizations and the whole host of universities... That really creates, I think, the greatest impact. Because you're working, again, to build trust, sustain trust, and then from there you can work towards these outcomes. And there have been tremendous improvements in water quality. There's been a lot of work done to make people more aware of flood risks. They're taking measures now to elevate their homes, develop mechanisms to cope with flooding, but then also think about long term adaptation and how the actions they take can minimize or avoid impacts in the future. This includes restoring wetlands and using nature, but also thinking about how the template of their community changes over time.

GYAMI SHRESTHA: Now I'd like to ask you about your experience working with New York City. New York City is uniquely large, but also local. How does that affect the ability to connect with local communities and constituencies? How does working in New York compare with working with other cities? Do you get the same connection with communities? Does the bureaucracy or better funding make a difference?

ADAM PARRIS: New York City is large in terms of the population and it's dense. You have 8 million or 8 to 9 million residents in the city, 20 million people living in the New York City metro area. It just makes everything sort of hyperkinetic. And you're absolutely right to contrast local versus the city scale versus the regional scale, that metro area and even Northeast scale. For example, the communities that I worked with around Jamaica Bay in southern Brooklyn and Queens, if you take the area of the storm water or sewer shed that drains to Jamaica Bay, the people living within that area (which is a subset of the city of New York City as a whole), the population would be the 15th largest city in the United States. So this is a very local setting when you're talking about the New York City as a whole, or New York City government. But then if you think about the number of people, if you think about JFK, John F. Kennedy International Airport (which is a major, major economic asset in terms of the movement of goods and services from coast to inland), it's a regional or even nationally significant setting.

So there are so many different things to navigate there in terms of the local dynamics, the perception that these communities are very local, that this is just sort of a one-off setting, versus the idea that this is a setting that matters in terms of our regional and national decision making. And it can be a bit stultifying or complex, but I think, you know, you can very much connect with communities in New York City because they're very vocal. People in New York City have a strong spirit. And because there are so many folks, the population is so dense, there's enough voices to really make a difference in, say, city council or in the mayor's office. And of course, New York City does play a role in sort of signaling what cities are doing to adapt to coastal flood risk.

So it makes all these people make those points of equity, justice, diversity, and inclusion that I mentioned also challenging, right? So if you're working with one community, the community next door would say, "Well, why don't we have that same level of support?" And so it can make those kinds of points more challenging, but at the end of the day, I think that strong spirit and that willingness to want to be involved is really the key ingredient.

And I'll just say a couple more things about, being able to work with communities, particularly connecting science to decision making on climate change in New York City. So we're able to work with communities connecting science to decision making in New York City, specifically with regard to climate change, because we have some invaluable resources.

First we have the New York City panel on climate change. That's a mayoral advisory body. It's legislated by law. It does periodic assessments of what climate looks like today and what it will look like in the future, what we can expect, how that will impact all the different working parts of our city: the roads, buildings, et cetera. Even public health and how to use that in decision making. So that is really helpful because a lot of times the global and national scientific information is too broad or too coarse for people to be able to use in their neck of the woods. It doesn't connect enough to what they are most concerned about, which is, you know, "how hot is my neighborhood today and how hot is it gonna get? Or how much is it flood today and how much is it gonna flood?" And NPCC [the New York Panel on Climate Change] helps provide that information to bridge that gap. So that's a really useful resource.

Another really useful resource is the fact that there is tremendous scientific expertise in New York City agencies. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection has fabulous engineers and people who do a lot of work on flooding and water quality. And we have a lot of really fantastic epidemiologists in the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene. And we have folks who are really experts in buildings, experts in roads. So we have a lot of what I would say is embedded expertise in the different agencies. And then you have a thriving set of universities and research scientists at universities, and you have a lot of companies like ICF where folks are really trying to take that science, trying to work with government, and increasingly trying to connect with communities to really put it all together. So what I'm trying to do is paint a picture of a support system that's oriented to the public interest and elevating communities. All about helping people climb up the ladder of civic engagement and participation.

LIBBY LARSON: Thank you. That's wonderful.

GYAMI SHRESTHA: Thank you so much, Adam. This was so inspiring. I already feel so motivated and so much more knowledgeable about everything that you've been working on now. Libby and I are just so thankful for the insight and the wisdom that you've shared, and for sharing your experiences. In closing, what would you like to tell the audience? How would you like to end this conversation? What would you tell everyone?

ADAM PARRIS: I think the most important thing is: be brave and be brave enough to help each other. I was in a workshop that I helped organize where we had scientists, really well known scientists, very well regarded scientists. We had government officials from multiple different kinds of agencies and we had community leaders, really well-respected community leaders, environmental justice leaders. And the topic of having safe spaces came up. And this colleague of mine sort of flipped that on its head and said, "We need brave spaces". We need brave spaces to overcome the trauma of the past. And the moment. Let's not forget, we've been through a lot over the past few years, but brave enough also, I think, to really face up to the challenges that we have. And one of the biggest ways that we can do that is not by pretending that we have the one size fits all approach the perfect solution, but we have the ability to help each other.

HOST: That was Adam Parris, a climate planning consultant who helps people build equitable and just solutions to adapt to climate and societal change. Adam was interviewed by Gyami Shrestha and Libby Larson. And a reminder to head to our show notes for more details on our guests, all well as links to learn more. The interview shared in this episode was edited and produced by Ashley Scarlett of Absolutely Smashing Events and Consulting. It was developed in collaboration with the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Coasts Interagency Group. Ideas expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Global Change Research Program or its member agencies. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next month with the second episode in this series: a talk with a behavioral scientist about how we make environmental and conservation decisions.