Reimagining planning – the need to prioritize community led climate resilience initiatives

By Carolyn Yvellez and Michael McCormick

​The concept of resilience has gained popularity in the last year as we begin to recover from compounding crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and killing of many others at the hands of police, and the worst wildfire season on record in California. Resilience has historically been defined as the ability to return to normal after a singular disrupting event. However, in this day and age, resilience has taken a new form, and “normal” is harder to define. To effectively respond to these complex yet interrelated crises, this last year has made clear the need to fundamentally shift how we build the core capacity of our communities to respond to acute shocks and long term stress. It is in this context that Farallon Strategies was founded to support a transformation in our communities and regions needed to meet these challenges and leverage the moment to support true systems change. 

Of course, the practice of resilience is not new, especially for low-income communities of color who know no other way but to continuously adapt to hardships and barriers brought about by perpetrated discrimination and institutional racism. The climate adaptation and resilience field, however, is relatively new. It has occupied a niche, but burgeoning space within the urban planning field–planning being the de facto process through which statesregional collaboratives, and local governments opted to address climate impacts. But as it gains popularity and importance, it is worth reflecting on the history and evolution of the planning field, identifying its shortfalls, and ultimately reimagine what the practice of resilience should be moving forward to bring about the transformative change our communities need. 

Climate adaptation and resilience plans too often do not reflect or address the needs of frontline communities. Traditional planning processes often feature a top-down approach to community engagement. In many instances, draft plans are written by the time the community has an opportunity to engage and provide feedback. This challenging dynamic can be destructive to building trust in communities that have already experienced first hand the consequences of planning without community consent. It is time to support a paradigm shift around climate resilience planning to center community priorities by empowering frontline communities to not only participate in, but lead decision-making processes to support the transition from incremental progress to transformational change.

In order to facilitate this shift in climate resiliency planning, practitioners must first acknowledge, as many already already have, the discriminatory history of planning, and its contribution to many of the challenges communities face throughout California. The racist legacy of land dispossessing, redlining, and housing discimination has directly contributed to the heightened vulnerability of low income, communities of color to the impacts of climate change. Previously dispossessed communities face dire climate-warming impacts and redlined communities, to this day, have fewer trees and higher concentrations of impervious pavement (concrete/asphalt) compared to non-redlined communities. And yet, the practice of planning, quite ironically, has assumed the responsibility of (re)building resilient communities in the face of climate change. 

California has been at the forefront of policies designed to combat climate change. However, for some cities and counties, State legislation mandating planning for climate impacts has increased the burden on low-resource communities that still lack basic infrastructure and services, while local governments do not have staff capacity to navigate complex planning processes. Moreover, the push for plan integration has left many local governments scrambling to navigate a complex regulatory environment with ambiguous (and at times conflicting) guidance, resulting in the explosion of the for-profit consulting sector. Consultants, as a result, are tasked with developing not only tools and frameworks to support local planning, but also the plans themselves. The average general plan update cycle for a jurisdiction in California can cost several million dollars–an expense that is rooted in the lack of capacity for local governments to do the work in house, and exacerbating a cycle of outsourcing that leaves communities with a well-polished document, but little direction on how to implement policies and programs. And even more challenging is that jurisdictions doing it well (jurisdictions that have met and exceeded regulatory mandates around climate action and adaptation, and have allocated the funds to hire planning consultants) have not progressed to the implementation phase, often due to lack of governance structures or funding.

Given these realities, resilience practitioners need to categorically rethink the existing planning paradigm wherein cities outsource plan development to consulting firms with little awareness or accountability to the communities impacted by the plans. Equitable planning processes are only made equitable by meeting communities where they are, with timely and meaningful engagement by those with a stake in the plan and capacity to engage. In order to achieve the transformational change that yields resilient, empowered communities, we need to flip the paradigm. This change in approach could be facilitated by defunding the traditional “fee for service”, consultant-led model of delivering template based documents with a focus on statutory compliance and limited regard for community need. This shift would create capacity and provide funding for other levers of change, including community visioning and capacity-building where the consultant’s expertise is given as-needed to the community-led planning process. 

The responsibility of this paradigm shift does not fall solely on consultants. We recognize that planning consultants are typically required to respond to and execute a scope of work that is laid out in a request for proposals (RFP), typically written by local jurisdictions whose priority is to ensure regulatory compliance through standard practices. Firms that propose alternate scopes of work outside of what is specified in the RFP rarely win contracts, much less are invited to interview. This leads to hesitancy by consultants to support an evolution of standard practices, and the simultaneous reinforcement of standard practices that do not meet the needs of our communities. Local jurisdictions must also take responsibility for issuing RFPs with input from the community that reflect community needs and a commitment to an equitable and inclusive planning process. 

Many of our colleagues are locked into these inadequate practices and systems even though they see the change that needs to take place. Farallon Strategies was founded to address the systems change needed to serve our communities better, and bring resources and capacity to communities in support of the paradigm shift we need to build community resilience  in the face of overlapping and worsening shocks and stresses. Farallon Strategies is committed to advancing community-driven planning processes at the regional and local scale by supporting community based organizations and regional collaboratives with technical assistance and facilitation support in an as-needed capacity. We don’t just want to identify the issues facing our areas of practice, Farallon Strategies also supports disruption in standard RFP practices, and is working to support more innovative RFPs and technical assistance alternatives to traditional planning practices.

Farallon Strategies is supporting the Sustainable Economies Law Center in the development of The Oakland People’s Plan proposal for the City of Oakland’s General Plan. Their proposal seeks to turn the planning paradigm on its head. Instead of a planning firm subcontracting to community based organizations (CBOs), the CBOs would lead a truly community-driven planning process, and sub-contract out as necessary the required technical analysis in support of specific general plan elements required by the state. The Oakland People’s Plan (TOPP) offers Oakland an opportunity to center the community in Oakland’s General Plan development. TOPP has no agenda other than to allow the people of Oakland to plan. TOPP intends to make space for infinite possibilities for the General Plan, not control its content. TOPP has obtained informal commitments from planning firms that may become subcontractors, and community groups will determine planning firms’ involvement, not the other way around.

Farallon Strategies, in partnership with Consero Solutions, is also supporting implementation of Yolo County’s Climate Emergency Resolution, which sets an ambitious goal of carbon negative by 2030. We are helping to lift voices into the process and build capacity in the County and community to respond to this potentially transformative effort to stand up a diverse community focused climate action commission, develop and implement an updated climate action plan, and create a more resilient community. We see our role as facilitators and capacity builders supporting partnerships between community leaders, local government, and technical experts helping to plan and implement climate initiatives and solutions that address community needs and priorities. We are serving as an extension of the County team by assisting with the recruitment and hiring of critical staff, bringing forward AmeriCorps CivicSpark members to build capacity to move quickly, supporting the development of an advisory commission, and providing guidance to support inclusive decision-making processes.

In the status quo, private firms are doing the work that responds to standard engagement practices.  In many instances, private firms are serving clients who view responsiveness to request for proposals, statutory compliance, and legal defensibility as the primary drivers of the work, and not community accountability and outcomes of the planning process as the driver. An equity-driven approach to building resilience to climate impacts should seek to dismantle structures that reinforce the status quo planning service delivery methods, which are failing to address the needs in our communities. 

As we reimagine the future of resilience planning, we should think of planning consultants as capacity builders within the resilience movement, not as the resilience movement itself. Consulting firms, as organizations that support technical assistance, capacity-building, and facilitation between the community and local jurisdictions should be a partner in a community-driven resilience movement. There are obviously exceptions to this critique of our industry, but as the resilience community of practice comes of age we must not repeat the planning mistakes of the past. We must consider, not just what seems to be the most technically efficient solution to community challenges, and rather ask the question, in partnership with the communities we serve: “What modes of planning and governance do we want in our communities and how do we expedite implementation and reorient budgets to reflect the urgency of the climate crisis?” There are no easy answers to this question and we also must recognize that equity readiness varies across organizations. Thus this post should not be read as a prescription on the “right” way to plan, but as an invitation to join us and the others working to evolve our practice, and think about what other possibilities exist that empower communities to chart their own future.

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