By Jennifer Horney, Colten Strickland, and Caroline-Dwyer

Community members provide vital insights into the best ways to protect their cities and towns from the ravages of hazards and climate-related disasters. But planning processes that only include a portion of the community can only be partially successful. To reap the greatest benefits from hazard mitigation and climate adaptation planning, everyone must have a seat at the table.

For several decades, academic researchers and planning practitioners have worked to increase resident participation in local mitigation planning processes. The understanding of community members is a critical element in proactively assessing risk, directing safe development, raising awareness of hazards, and building consensus on equitable responses to risks. However, research shows that, regardless of efforts to include the experiences of socially vulnerable community members, some groups—including African-Americans, mobile home residents, the poor, the elderly, and short-term residents—are consistently less likely to be represented local hazard mitigation planning. They are also generally less aware of the actions, policies, and investments that are prioritized such plans. This representation gap lessens our ability to support communities and to integrate climate adaptation into hazard mitigation planning.

Addressing the Problem

Disasters, by definition, are the result of a combination of hazard and vulnerability. With natural hazards increasing in frequency and severity worldwide—and vulnerability intensifying due to changes in land use and demographics—the most vulnerable residents will face increased food insecurity, be more susceptible to environmental risk, and could experience residential and occupational displacement.

These hazards will not only impact infrastructure and economies but health systems and population health programs, as well. If hazard mitigation planning dynamics do not shift in response to community changes such as aging, increased racial and ethnic diversity, and income inequality, they will not reflect the needs of at-risk populations or provide them with timely and adequate support.

Research indicates that several key issues impede efforts to engage vulnerable populations in the mitigation planning process. These include access to information (specifically the digital divide), social barriers such as racism, lack of trust, and language and cultural barriers. Mismatches between engagement opportunities and the lived experiences of vulnerable populations are also a problem. One approach communities are using to meet these challenges is an equitable engagement blueprint—a guide that identifies best practices, like holding meetings at times and in locations that are accessible to all, for all municipal planning in order to expand engagement opportunities. Cities like Minneapolis, Minnesota and Durham, North Carolina have already created these social contracts that acknowledge the many challenges of comprehensive community engagement with good results.

The City of Durham’s Equitable Community Engagement Blueprint, for example, details several types of barriers that obstruct robust community engagement. These include both practical barriers (such as lack of child care or transportation), as well as less commonly acknowledged barriers such as a historic lack of transparency, inauthentic engagement, and inequitable development. To overcome physical barriers, the City identified potential solutions that included offering childcare during city-hosted events, hosting engagement opportunities in the targeted communities, and visiting residents at their homes. Efforts like these can promote active change and more inclusive hazard mitigation planning that reduce vulnerability more equitably and should be a key outcome of planning processes.

A Call to Action

While not all obstacles to participation can be removed, there are strategies that can help repair damaged relationships and make planning for the future more inclusive. Risk-based planning that engages communities and involves partners such as public and mental health agencies and healthcare systems can reinforce an understanding of the physical and mental health impacts of disasters on individuals and communities. Long-standing, mutually beneficial partnerships that progress on a community’s timeline, rather than the academic or grant funding cycle, can engender trust and authentic engagement. Including green infrastructure and low impact development in all communities can allay concerns about green gentrification. Whatever the topic, authentic partnerships with trusted neighborhood organizations are key. Focusing on engagements that aren’t limited to one-time projects are essential for promoting trust and making hazard mitigation planning more equitable.

Equitable engagement is gaining traction in conventional planning, but it is less certain that these practices are gaining a foothold in hazard mitigation and disaster planning. If we do not move to quickly adapt to the increasing pressures on vulnerable populations, it will be increasingly difficult to minimize the representation gap. It is now more important than ever to involve vulnerable populations in our planning efforts and to actively solicit, manage, and maintain equitable outreach and engagement opportunities in hazard mitigation planning for the communities we represent and serve.

If you are interested in your community’s Hazard Mitigation Plan or the status of the plan, you can view an interactive map on the Federal Emergency Management Agency website.