The City of Vancouver wanted to better understand the needs of city residents who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change—specifically extreme heat and wildfire smoke. To do so, it partnered with Evergreen, a non-profit organization, to engage groups whose voices are not often heard in public decision-making on climate change. Seniors, low-income citizens, those with physical and mental health conditions and people who are homeless, are more likely to be exposed to climate hazards and are less able to adapt to climate change. By engaging these groups, Evergreen was able to produce practical recommendations that will inform the city’s current adaptation measures and feed into the next update of its Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, strengthening the strategy’s equity component. The project was part of the Municipalities for Climate Innovation Program (MCIP).
Read this case study to learn how engaging with marginalized community members can help you develop better municipal climate adaptation strategies.
Key success factors
- Community service organizations provided critically important information about challenges facing communities and advice on the best ways to engage them.
- The interactions were designed to maximize engagement and get quality feedback by carefully tailoring each activity’s location, format and questions to suit the particular group.
- The customized process resulted in valuable input from groups that don’t normally participate in traditional engagement processes like meetings and surveys.
- Gathering input on the lived experience of vulnerable groups was a key step in building a business case for specific adaptation actions.
What was the aim of the project?
Although Vancouver was one of the first cities in Canada to adopt a climate adaptation strategy (in 2012), the city recognized that it still needed to learn more about vulnerable populations and address equity more deliberately within its climate work. In 2017, Vancouver partnered with Evergreen to consult with city residents who are most vulnerable to heat and poor air quality, in a project funded by MCIP. The aim was to better understand the challenges, needs and preferences of these groups and use that information to inform the city’s climate adaptation planning, policies and actions and its extreme heat response. The research and consultations addressed three main topics: current experiences of climate change, concerns over future risks, and priorities for addressing climate change impacts.
What steps were involved in the project?
The planning and implementation of the project proceeded in two main phases. In Phase 1, Evergreen did a literature review of adaptation solutions in North American cities that address the needs of vulnerable populations. The project report includes 13 detailed examples as well as the full list of solutions. They then developed a stakeholder engagement plan in partnership with local community service organizations. After identifying key principles for engagement, Evergreen developed a menu of options that could be customized for each group, and drafted questions for interviews and group sessions—all in consultation with the city.
In Phase 2 of the initiative, Evergreen conducted the engagement activities, starting with interviews of staff from local community service organizations to obtain context and advice for community engagement. The interviews focused on the major climate issues faced by their constituents, current adaptation strategies, priorities and possible solutions for helping their constituents with climate adaptation.
The next part of Phase 2, which took place from June to November 2019, involved guided discussions with nine groups of community members, and customized surveys with 306 community members at local events. Evergreen engaged 546 people in total, including homeless and marginally housed individuals, people living in supportive housing, residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, people with low income, people with disabilities, women, LGBTQ people and seniors. The discussions also included people who spoke languages other than English, veterans and newcomers.
These engagement events were used to gather input on the lived experiences of vulnerable groups and work with the groups to identify the most helpful tools, programs and strategies. Each activity was customized to meet the specific socio-cultural needs and interests of the particular group and events were offered in five different languages. These events were built around activities and topics that the groups were already interested in and were held at familiar locations. For example, one group of seniors liked to go for walks, so Evergreen organized an urban forest walk through neighbourhood parks to observe signs of climate change and discuss how the seniors coped with extreme heat. Another activity gathered input from participants through a carnival-themed spinning wheel at a community block party.
What was achieved?
The process yielded valuable insights about factors affecting vulnerability of residents and their current challenges and behaviour when dealing with heat and smoke. Much was learned about their needs in relation to matters like indoor and outdoor cooling areas, education and awareness, transportation and access to water.
With this feedback, Evergreen prepared key recommendations for the City of Vancouver in a number of areas. These recommendations included topics such as engagement strategies, the design of public and green spaces, options for funding and resourcing, optimizing cooling rooms and clean air shelters, building design and policies, and public drinking water and washrooms. Evergreen also highlighted the importance of outreach and communication and integrating principles of reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.
Notable insights included the value of tailoring adaptive features to reflect the way vulnerable groups use public spaces—such as increasing tree canopies and other sources of shade in places where people stand in line for food and services. City staff also learned more about where people spend their time during heat waves, including public buildings and arenas—and that people who are homeless may visit malls to cool off, but are not always welcome there. This information will help to build the business case for funding public cooling spaces. The consultations also revealed that it may make sense to design segmented solutions for different groups and prioritize those with the greatest need. For example, each group uses cooling spaces differently: seniors prefer quiet, which may not be compatible with the needs of residents with children. People who are homeless need places to store their belongings and may be accompanied by pets.
Insight and lessons learned
- Consultation with community agencies is an important step in designing appropriate engagement activities: Stakeholder interviews with frontline staff provided context and informed the development of engagement activities for each community.
- Seeking input on communities’ lived experiences supports effective planning: The quotes from residents and the statistics about their behavior and needs have proven to be powerful when communicating with senior management—for example, they can help improve plans relating to heat response and provide justification for specific interventions.
- Proper engagement and outreach takes time: Initially, the project was planned to last for six months, but it ultimately took about a year—and would have benefitted from an additional year. This would have allowed more time for all the project steps as well as a chance to get feedback from groups about the usefulness of proposed interventions.
- The seasonal timing of climate adaptation conversations matters: Interviews with city staff and partner organizations started in October 2018. It was difficult to get input on issues related to extreme heat and wildfire smoke when people were focused on preparing for winter; the community engagement was therefore planned for the next summer.
- Customized engagement yields results: The engagement activities and questions were targeted to reflect the socio-cultural values and interests of each community. This attracted people who don’t normally participate in traditional meetings or surveys and resulted in more in-depth feedback. Offering multiple pathways for engagement was a key to success.
- Tailored adaptation solutions for different groups can help to address equity concerns: It quickly became apparent that the very diverse targeted population wasn’t a monolith, both in terms of how individuals currently experience the impacts of heat and smoke, and in terms of how they might make use of adaptation solutions in future.
- Unusual suspects can support fostering resilience within vulnerable communities: Building managers can be important conveyors of information to the residents they interact with and can also support the effective and safe operation of buildings to better manage heat.
“The project’s recommendations will improve our response. For example, by catering to different groups who use cooling centres, or by placing trees and awnings in places where people are lining up for services and gathering—these are really tangible things we had not thought of before.”
– Brad Badelt, Assistant Director, Sustainability, City of Vancouver
City staff have reported on the outcomes to council, and in February 2020 the consultation results and recommendations were presented to the City of Vancouver's Climate Change Adaptation Steering Committee. The presentation was well-received, as were some of the practical suggestions, such as the idea of adjusting drinking water fountains to have a higher water arc, making them more hygienic.
Timing issues meant that the community input was not gathered in time to feed directly into the 2018 update to the city’s Climate Change Adaptation Strategy. However, the recommendations are beginning to shape and improve the city’s current adaptation actions, for example relating to thermal comfort in non-market housing, urban tree canopy and cooling rooms. In the summer of 2020, the city set up temporary shaded areas in outdoor spaces where people could gather and located a series of cooling centres based on input from the consultations.
The project’s recommendations will be incorporated into the next update of the strategy, which happens every five years. The feedback will also be used to inform updates to other city plans: most notably the city-wide Vancouver Plan, but also sector specific strategies (relating to health and housing among others) and heat response plans. Because of the shift to online engagement platforms due to COVID-19, the city has not yet reported back to the community on the actions taken in relation to their feedback, but plans to do so at in-person gatherings in the future.
By the numbers
community members engaged
from initiation to completion
languages used to communicate with groups
13 case studies
of city adaptation addressing vulnerable populations
21 key stakeholders
from community service organizations interviewed
Assistant Director, Sustainability, City of Vancouver
This project was part of the Municipalities for Climate Innovation Program (MCIP), a five-year, $75 million program funded by Infrastructure Canada and delivered by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM).