City hall sign

In Miami, Florida, global warming has become an increasingly common topic of conversation over the past few years. As concern over rising waters grows, residents are demanding to know how local government will protect their communities.

“We constantly, constantly, constantly, constantly are getting emails and calls and things saying, ‘What is the city doing about climate change?’” said Alissa Farina, who works in the city’s Office of Resilience and Sustainability. In response, her team has developed a number of initiatives aimed at informing and engaging the public on climate.

Variations of that experience can be found across the nation. With the federal retreat on environmental leadership during the Trump era, American cities are taking a lead role in addressing climate change. Public outreach generally is a big part of the effort. City governments, with their limited manpower and resources, can’t tackle the problem alone; in addition to keeping their constituents informed about their climate actions, they need to motivate them to be part of the solution.

As communications director of the nonprofit Urban Sustainability Directors Network, Julia Trezona Peek helps city officials throughout the U.S. and Canada develop outreach strategies. She said that while all the municipalities she works with understand the importance of connecting with their citizens, these efforts play out very differently from place to place.

“Everyone is working on communications and public engagement in some way,” she said. “But they also have widely varying time, staff, and financial resources to do that – and, of course, varying political realities and contexts.”

In Miami, digital and physical outreach

In South Florida, as elsewhere, substantial numbers of conservative residents deny that global warming is caused by human activity. All the same, Miamians across the political spectrum see an urgent need to adapt to the changing climate.

Flooded street
Sunny-day flooding in Miami. (Photo credit: B137 / Wikimedia)

Late in 2018, the municipality launched a biweekly email newsletter covering its resilience initiatives to help meet the public demand for information. It now reaches more than 3,000 subscribers, and is also promoted via social media.

While digital communications are important, they alone are not enough, Farina said. Some Miamians don’t have reliable internet connection or a smartphone; others simply aren’t interested in engaging with the government online.

“It seems very old-school to have a public meeting or go door-to-door and do canvassing and door hangers, but it really is impactful for the neighborhoods that probably need the information the most,” she said. To this end, the four-person Office of Resiliency and Sustainability recently held workshops in eight neighborhoods, sharing information about specific climate hazards facing each, and gathering opinions about how the city should respond. This feedback will then be incorporated into Miami’s adaptation plan.

The workshops are also helping Farina and her colleagues forge new connections with people and organizations throughout the city, laying a foundation for future outreach. “Part of our planning for this is doing deep research into all of our neighborhoods and saying, What are the community groups that would help push the message? What’s the big church? What’s the big HOA [homeowners association] meeting that happens once a month?”

Partnering with trusted groups is particularly important in parts of the city where the government can be viewed with suspicion. The hope, Farina said, is that “people can see us as a resource and not something to be nervous about.”

App-based education in Miami Beach

Just across Biscayne Bay from mainland Miami, the independent island city of Miami Beach (population 91,718) is also threatened by rising water.

The municipality has developed an ambitious climate program, complete with a multifaceted outreach campaign that includes, among other things, a detailed website, public workshops, and advertisements in trolleys and other places.

Some of the city’s climate communications are directed to outsiders as well as locals. As word of its innovative adaptation work spreads, the city’s Environment & Sustainability Department has found itself fielding frequent requests for tours of project sites. “We were getting a lot of interest, not just from the local community, but also the international community – from engineers, universities,” said sustainability specialist Yanira Pineda. Eventually, the small team became overwhelmed. “That’s where the idea to create the Rising Above app came in,” she said.

Anyone now can download the free app and take a self-guided walking tour of the Sunset Harbour neighborhood, the site of a major adaptation project that raised roads, added pump stations, and increased stormwater system capacity. Another tour, this one by kayak, offers insights into ecosystem services provided by Biscayne Bay.

Coalition-building in Cleveland

Climate change has already brought warmer temperatures, more extreme heat events, and increased heavy precipitation to Cleveland, but these impacts aren’t nearly so clear-cut as those in South Florida. In a city with one-third of the population at or near poverty levels, jobs and education rank higher on the priority list.

That reality makes coalition-building around climate particularly critical, said the city’s chief of sustainability, Matt Gray. “To get people motivated to act, it really is about connecting climate action to all the other things people care about.”

Working at the neighborhood level is one way that Gray’s team achieves this goal. The sustainability team starts by asking residents and businesses in particular districts about their needs, then proposing tailored interventions that also offer climate benefits. Trees, for example: “They help with safety, they help with traffic calming, they can help with mental health. And they also help with climate,” he said.

In Cleveland, ‘connecting climate action to all the other things people care about.’

The government also hosts an annual conference called the Sustainable Cleveland Summit, most recently on October 16, 2019. The first was held in 2009, during the financial crisis. In a time of particularly scarce resources, the city government realized that making progress on ambitious environmental goals would require fostering a sense of shared ownership within the broader community. To this end, Grey said, the summits “have some keynotes, but the vast majority of the time is actually working together in groups, having people who normally wouldn’t talk to each other talk to each other.”

At the 2018 two-day event, more than 500 people gathered to discuss issues like water, equity, and the recently updated Cleveland Climate Action Plan. This plan was itself a group effort – the advisory committee included more than 90 representatives from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, and a series of neighborhood workshops brought in voices from underserved communities.

“There really is no point in doing a climate action plan in Cleveland unless some of these partners are engaged in it,” Gray said. Reaching the 100% renewable energy goal, for example, “is going to take a lot of big organizations, institutions, utilities, as well as the city, county, and down the line.”

Somerville, Massachusetts: Culture and community

In Somerville (population 81,562), communication is key to building the local participation necessary for many mitigation and adaptation initiatives – for example, programs aimed at reducing emissions generated by heating homes in the winter.

Hannah Payne joined the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment after writing a graduate thesis on urban climate communications at MIT. Today, public engagement is one of her many responsibilities as one member of the three-person team.

Somerville’s outreach efforts include a week-long annual festival celebrating Earth Day.

Partnering with local organizations like the Arts Council and the Council on Aging, Payne and her colleagues plan activities like vegan cooking classes and tours of renewable energy infrastructure. “[We] try to make the events more fun than what a traditional community meeting would be and try to partner with different groups who are reaching new audiences,” she said.

Somerville is now piloting a climate ambassadors program in which 20 local volunteers, ranging in age from high school students to senior citizens, learn about global warming and the city’s climate plan.

Somerville’s climate ambassadors during a role-play exercise focusing on UN climate change negotiations. (Photo credit: City of Somerville)

Over the course of the six-month program, the volunteer participants will develop a project of their choosing to share information with others. “That could be anything from hosting a dinner party and conversation with their neighbors [to] doing an art installation,” Payne said. “We’re pretty open.”

In designing the program, Payne and her colleagues drew inspiration from related efforts in cities like Boston and Salt Lake City. Compared to these precedents, however, Payne says Somerville has placed more emphasis on encouraging social ties within the ambassador cohort.

“We wanted to create a program that allowed more community relationship-building,” Payne said, “so that the folks participating could get to know each other better, as well as another piece of building a more resilient community and more engaged residents.”

Sarah Wesseler is a Brooklyn-based writer focusing on cities, culture, and climate change.