How to work with underserved communities on climate change

November 17, 2015 John Malueg

Leveraging the experiences of vulnerable people makes for an even stronger community


Resiliency, recovery, disasters – what do these terms mean to you? Your income, gender, ethnicity, and geographic location all influence the way you interpret the threat of and repercussions from disasters. At the recent Rising Seas Summit in Boston, hosted by the Association of Climate Change Officers, I was invited to be part of a panel that addresses just this issue – how those of us invested in resilience planning can not only help underserved and at-risk communities, but also leverage their experiences and world view to create stronger, more long-lasting change.

When working with less-advantaged communities, one of the biggest challenges is the lack of trust between the residents and those swooping in to “fix” things. Imagine somebody walking onto your property and telling you they’re going to tear it down and rebuild it – and that it’s really in your best interest. Many residents are skeptical, and rightly so. This barrier of trust hampers the ability to take actions to adapt to climate change, so it is essential that adaptation professionals work with affected residents in defining their needs and values, and gaining the necessary support to implement a plan that truly will benefit the entire community.

Involving and engaging residents is key to a successful, long-term strategy for climate change


After Superstorm Sandy, the Jersey City Housing Authority understood that rebuilding its vulnerable housing developments had to be a community effort. They focused first on the Booker T. Washington development, one of the hardest hit during the storm, to create a pilot project for resiliency planning across their properties. Although Sandy provided the worst flooding the area had ever seen, flooding was a usual occurrence for this particular housing development. With financial constraints and an incessant list of repairs after Sandy struck, the Housing Authority and the Booker T. residents have been working with planners to implement a creative yet practical series of strategies to protect against future storms. By talking with residents, the team was able to determine the nature of past flooding and how we can prevent future flooding, all in a way that also improved the general livability of their neighborhood.

That communication and sense of partnership with residents was key, including strategies like:

Setting a collaborative tone – In order to come up with a community-based solution, you must partner with its members in a two-way relationship. Working closely with the Booker T. residents established a collaborative environment that built trust. Residents were involved in selecting which mitigation strategies would serve the community best.

Taking a holistic approach – Rebuilding Booker T. Washington wasn’t just about fixing the flooding problem; it was also about creating a happy, livable, resilient community that extended well into the surrounding neighborhoods. Resident input on neighborhood behavior, creating improved outdoor spaces and activities, and other desires all influenced the ultimate design. Now the entire site is designed with the dual goals of climate change resistance and building a community that buoys and supports its members in times of distress.


Stantec's John Malueg looks at HUD’s National Disaster Resilience Competition as a way for communities to fund their resilience efforts.

We want to do more than simply fix what is damaged or broken. Resiliency establishes a foundation for the way we think about and carry out our work and our lives, ultimately providing a better, smarter way forward.

About the Author

John Malueg

As an expert in FEMA, USACE, and HUD risk identification, disaster response, and hazard mitigation programs, John is Stantec’s global leader in resiliency, recovery, and disaster management. Building his skills over a 30-plus year career, John is an essential partner to both communities and public agencies needing fast, efficient, and effective disaster response and recovery services.

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