Resiliency Hubs Help Baltimore Plan for Climate Emergency in Vulnerable Neighborhoods

Resiliency Hubs Help Baltimore Plan for Climate Emergency in Vulnerable Neighborhoods

(Photo courtesy Stillmeadow Community Fellowship)

At the beginning of 2017, Pastor Michael Martin left Los Angeles for a chance to lead Stillmeadow Community Fellowship, a small congregation in Southwest Baltimore near the Howard County line. Martin had spent some years in Baltimore a few decades prior, and his wife, Gail, was raised there. Over the years, the neighborhood around Stillmeadow had gradually transitioned from a mostly white neighborhood to a primarily Black one, and many Black families had moved across the county line as well. Historically, Martin says, the church had not been very involved with the surrounding community.

“They asked me to consider pastoring, and the idea was to refurbish and renew, all of that,” Martin says. “And part of their vision for the church was to be a place where people got to see Christianity at work.”

In the spring and summer of 2018, the neighborhood was hit with a series of floods that caused major damage to many homes in the area. The spring floods also devastated a business corridor in Ellicott City, Maryland, across the Howard County line, and made national news. But little attention was paid to the damage in Southwest Baltimore, compounding a sense among residents that the authorities didn’t consider their community to be important.

“They have a strong sense of being ignored,” Martin says. “They have a strong sense that Southwest doesn’t matter, it doesn’t count, it gets no love.”

In the wake of the floods, Martin says, the Stillmeadow Community Fellowship started hosting weekly cookouts in the neighborhood and helping to coordinate the flood response with the Red Cross and other service providers. Sometime that fall, someone from Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability approached the congregation about joining the city’s nascent Community Resiliency Hub Program.

“They basically said, ‘You’re already doing the resilience hub. You should just let us give you funding and partner with you so that you get some physical help,’” Martin says.

Baltimore’s Community Resiliency Hub Program is a partnership between local groups such as Stillmeadow Community Fellowship and the city’s Office of Sustainability (BoS), Office of Emergency Management (OEM), and Department of Health (BCHD). So far, according to Aubrey Germ, a climate and resilience planner with the Office of Sustainability, there are 12 neighborhood-based community organizations acting as resiliency hubs, located in neighborhoods that are vulnerable to “disproportionate and inequitable impacts from climate change.” According to the city, which is among the first in the nation to begin establishing resiliency hubs in vulnerable neighborhoods, the program is meant to improve “community capacity to prepare for, withstand, and respond to natural hazard impacts and emergency situations.”

The Green New Deal for Cities, a bill introduced in April by Reps. Cori Bush (D-MO) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), includes among the list of projects eligible for funding those that “build capacity for communities to endure extreme weather events, such as investments to cooling and heating centers and disaster preparedness.” That bill has not advanced. But as the impacts of climate change become increasingly severe, more cities are considering ways to plan ahead for emergencies, especially in neighborhoods that are disadvantaged in terms of climate vulnerability — as well as poverty, segregation, and disinvestment going back decades.

In Baltimore, according to Germ, Resiliency Hubs have acted as cooling centers during heat waves, distributed water bottles and fans for residents without air conditioning, provided sandbags in flood-prone areas, provided charging stations during power outages, and “served as post-disaster recovery staging areas for emergency and recovery personnel to meet with residents in need of assistance.” Resiliency Hubs have also distributed food and hosted testing and vaccination clinics during the COVID-19 pandemic. The program has created more trust and cooperation between community groups and the city, says Stephanie R. Smith, assistant director for equity, engagement and communications in the Department of Planning.

“It has also improved Baltimore City’s understanding of what community definitions of resilience are, which helps the city better support capacity-building at the community level and improve collaborative and community-centered hazard mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery efforts,” Smith said in an email.

Martin agrees that, for Stillmeadow, the Resiliency Hub program has helped establish more partnership between the congregation and the city. The Office of Sustainability has occasionally acted as an “ombudsman” between the community group and the city at large, helping Martin and others navigate city services that go well beyond the scope of the Resiliency Hub. And it’s been a benefit to the community, he says, because many residents “seem to have a limited scope of where they want to get services” — people who might not go get tested for COVID-19 at a stadium downtown are more likely to stop by the local church for the same service. It’s also given the church a greater sense of responsibility to the neighborhood, he says.

But Martin says it can be awkward to partner with city agencies when there are so many ways that the city has, through both neglect and planning, put communities like Southwest Baltimore in a vulnerable position to begin with. He noted that in Ellicott City, officials are moving ahead with a plan to manage future floodwaters and protect businesses along Main Street. The Resiliency Hubs in Baltimore can help communities organize their response to disasters, but they don’t replace the work of city planning and infrastructure development, Martin says.

“If I’m honest, I’m frustrated with the lack of structured planning and action,” he says.

The annual budget for the city program has varied with the availability of grant funding from the state, including the Maryland Energy Administration. Germ says the Office of Sustainability is hoping to establish a stable funding source for the Resiliency Hub program, and that it’s expecting more community organizations to sign on as hubs every year.

For Martin, the work with the Resiliency Hub is just one aspect of a broader rethinking of what it means to serve the neighborhood during the uncertainty of climate change. Instead of just reacting to excessive heat, he says, the church is asking why it’s too hot in the first place, and what it can do about it. That includes everything from rethinking a large parking lot that contributes to the heat island effect to developing a 10-acre forest on its property, which is known as the Stillmeadow Peacepark.

“We’re more comprehensive in our thinking and in our vision than we’ve ever been,” Martin says. “Resiliency, you know — you keep bouncing it around in your mind and you realize it means way more than what happens after a flood.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of a Next City miniseries on local Green New Deal initiatives that can be scaled up. This series is generously supported by the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Fund for Environmental Journalism.

Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.

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Tags: environmentclimate changebaltimoregreen new deal

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