Linking Social Cohesion and Climate Change in the West End

by Ximena Carranza Risco ‘17, Angelica Arellano ‘18, Vaughn Campbell ‘18
April 29, 2015

We’re representatives from No Vacancy, one of three student groups in the Swearer Center’s Teaching, Research, and Impact Lab (TRI-Lab) on climate change and environmental justice. TRI-Lab is an engaged research program that allows students, faculty, and community members to collectively study and address social issues in the Providence area. For this particular TRI-Lab on climate justice issues, researchers are working on increasing resilience in the West End area of Providence.     

Our group name, “No Vacancy,” was coined at our first team meeting as we started brainstorming ideas to revitalize and repurpose the many paved, vacant spaces we had observed throughout the West End. What first seemed like a crucial vulnerability in the neighborhood – large paved lots that increased the likelihood of flooding and urban heat island effect – quickly became assets in our eyes: they held great potential to be transformed into community spaces that both increased social cohesion in the neighborhood and decreased climate-change related vulnerabilities.

Yet very early on in our project development process we found substantial obstacles that made us shift away from our initial idea. Representatives from West Elmwood Housing, Groundwork Providence, and other community organizations that our TRI-Lab is partnering with, were adamant that getting hold of a vacant lot and repurposing it was a highly laborious and bureaucratic process that might not be feasible for us to approach in our time frame. Challenged to start from scratch and re-envision our project, several ideas were thrown around, from doing policy research to analyze the barriers of accessing vacant lots, to supporting work to revitalize pocket parks in the neighborhood. We struggled to find a direction, and as we discussed our options one main question kept coming up:

How relevant is this for climate change adaptation?

Often times, climate adaptation projects focus on concrete and measurable climate impacts. Vulnerabilities are often assessed by analyzing the built environment, and addressed by investing in projects that have a quantifiable effect. Yet, social structures are equally as relevant to increase resilience, although certainly the links to climate change can be hard to grasp.

What does social cohesion have to do with climate change, and why does it matter?

Coping with climate stresses is more effective when communities can get together and respond collectively to the challenges presented. This requires neighbors to know each other and care for one another in times of need, and for residents to feel connected to their built environment. When people feel connected and attached to the place where they live, they will be more likely to want to improve on it in a way that ensures its sustainability.

A people-focused approach to climate resilience is thus crucial and valuable, and certainly relevant in a neighborhood like the West End, where perceptions of the neighborhood as unsafe and dirty persist. Moreover, clear divides exist between the wealthy and the poor, and this is visibly correlated with ethnicity and race. This also means there is a great gap between those who are able to adapt to climate change, and those who don’t have the means or the knowledge to do so.

Searching for ways to increase climate resilience in the neighborhood and improving the relationship that residents have between themselves and their built environment, we finally settled on a new project focus: mobility.

Meeting with Ellen Cynar, Providence’s Healthy Communities Program Manager, was instrumental to better ground our project. We learned about several city initiatives, such as the Health Equity Zone Grant, that were linking climate change to broader issues, one of them being mobility. Our project will now be focused on assessing mobility to and around the West End recreation center in Bucklin Street. Our project will entail community surveys, route mapping, and other forms of engaged research within a half mile radius of the park. By analyzing commonly used routes, potential spaces for green infrastructure and flood and heat prone areas, we hope to identify roads that could be revitalized and improved upon to increase pedestrian mobility towards important community spaces for social cohesion, and generate a more positive feeling towards the built environment in the West End.

Ultimately, the switch to focus on mobility rather than vacant spaces has been positive for our project.  Not only do we now have a much more viable plan, but we have also been able to expand our goals and increase our impact. Our project will investigate and work to improve access to a community center, which will improve public health and could also provide a crucial resource to the people of the West End in the event of  a climate-related disaster.  This change will be lasting, as we plan to hand over our work to the city government to be integrated into the Health Equity Zones project.  Through the difficulties we had in planning, or project has grown to become more sustainable and inclusive than improving a single empty lot could have ever been.