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Richmond Planning Adaptations to Address Climate Change

Richmond skyline
Richmond's skyline from over the James River. (Photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

National and local governments worldwide are beginning to adopt climate change adaptation plans. The UN has a process for developing nations to adopt national adaptation programs, and cities like Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia have introduced their own goals in recent years.

Richmond has RVAgreen 2050, a climate-action and resilience planning initiative carried out by the Office of Sustainability which will result in a roadmap in 2022 covering the initial goals of the program.

Those goals include bringing the city’s emissions to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and helping the community adapt to Richmond’s climate impacts - namely extreme heat, precipitation and flood risk. Sustainability staff say that the most important goal, however, has been centering equity in every step of the process.

Alicia Zatcoff is the city’s sustainability manager. She says most climate action planning processes start by trying to solve problems without asking people what they need. But, “We started with, let’s go out and talk to the residents and the people in the community who we know are being impacted first and worst,” Zatcoff said.

Sustainability staff developed a publicly available Climate Equity Index to see where the most vulnerable people live, and where different risk factors exist. The index tracks indicators like extreme heat, precipitation and tree cover.

Kendra Norrell coordinates community outreach for the office. She said the next step was to talk to organizations in those areas about their general priorities and needs without centering the discussion on climate.

“And then, with a lot of internal office work, [we] identified how those community priorities connect to climate change and climate action,” she said.

That gave the office some ways to engage with people over climate. For instance, one of the priorities identified through community discussions is affordable housing. Norrell says they try to stay on that subject.

“We’ll talk about how weatherization and energy bills are all connected to greenhouse gas emissions without necessarily talking about greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.

That approach was inspired by RVAgreen 2050’s core focus on equity, Norrell says. Meetings with community organizations and community residents led to seven priorities in total.

They are community wealth, health and well-being, government accountability, engagement and communication, housing and buildings, neighborhoods, racial equity and environmental justice - which received a definition under state law this year.

RVAgreen 2050’s Racial Equity and Environmental Justice Roundtable, composed of residents from frontline communities, convened several times this year. It’s a central part of the planning process, along with working groups of community stakeholders, technical experts and roundtable members.

Next year, the roundtable and working groups will continue the decision making process and build a framework for the roadmap.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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