Climate Ambassadors: street-level environmental activism

Climate change is a growing concern not only for the world at large, but for Northeast Ohio in particular. Average annual temperatures in the region are rising, resulting in scorching summers and extreme precipitation events. By the end of the century, temperatures statewide are projected to increase between seven and 12 degrees Fahrenheit in winter and six to 14 degrees during warmer months.

An initiative orchestrated by regional organizations and led on the street level by Cleveland residents seeks to counteract climate change effects that disproportionately impact lower income citizens. Through community-driven programming and projects, the "Climate Ambassadors" effort aims to build an army of nature-loving warriors willing to fight for environmental and social change.

The Climate Ambassadors program stems from a three-year initiative to implement Cleveland’s Climate Resilience and Urban Opportunity Plan (CRUO), which was developed by Cleveland Neighborhood Progress (CNP) in collaboration with the City of Cleveland, Kent State University's Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC), Environmental Health Watch, and the University of Buffalo.

<span class="content-image-text">Slavic Village Climate Fair</span>Slavic Village Climate FairWork began last year to combat the adverse impacts of climate variability in the Glenville, Slavic Village, Central-Kinsman, and Detroit Shoreway neighborhoods. These communities were chosen due to shared social and land use patterns thought to amplify existing climate-related issues, namely aging housing stock, a depleted tree canopy and outdated infrastructure.

"These areas are microcosms of the rest of the city," says Chad Stephens, a climate resiliency and urban greening coordinator with CNP.

Bringing Awareness, Working Together

A three-year, $660,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation, paired with another $40,000 in support from The George Gund Foundation, provides basic climate science and project development training to Cleveland's ambassador network. Funding is further utilized to coordinate with regional officials and convert the city's inventory of vacant land into green-friendly assets.

Community development corporations (CDCs) and ambassador teams collectively brainstormed programs. While each area has its own specific programming needs, home weatherization is one example of a green technique that can be promoted in all the involved neighborhoods.

"These are low-hanging fruit – like getting people to understand why they should use energy-efficient light bulbs, and surveying citizens to track greenhouse gas emissions," says Stephens. "We're bringing awareness about climate change as well as working with those who want to be more involved."

Rather than dole out answers, program leaders build dialogue around solutions with long-lasting impacts. Ambassadors have a hand in project planning along with recruiting participants for workshops and other programs that advance climate resiliency on a neighborhood scale.

Central-Kinsman is deemed one of Cleveland's most distressed districts due to its abandoned buildings, empty brownfields and a sparse tree canopy. Though the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority has made upgrades to public housing, residents are sprucing up the streets with new leafy green growth. 

The Central-Kinsman project engages 16 students in grades three through eight in planting trees at Anton Grdina Elementary School on East 71st Street. Five trees have taken root through the community-wide endeavor thus far, with plans for another ten in the offing.

Stephens says plantings teach contributors the important environmental benefits trees provide, like reduction of stormwater runoff and absorption of climate-harming carbon dioxide. Urban areas with a low tree canopy have higher concentrations of "heat island effect," making them warmer than greener rural regions and suburbs.

"People are seeing how to reduce their carbon footprint while acting as an example for their neighbors," says Stephens.

<span class="content-image-text">Quiana Singleton</span>Quiana SingletonCentral-Kinsman ambassador Quiana Singleton is a community leader on the tree-planting activities. She's also involved with a gardening project focused on healthy eating. She believes teaching folks how to grow fruits and vegetables expands their minds while also getting them to respect the delicate nature of their surroundings.

"We're getting people out of their neighborhoods and showing them what's out there," says Singleton. "They can appreciate what's in the community and beautify what they already have. It's wonderful."

Glenville is another community seeking to reforest Cleveland. The east side neighborhood's solution is nut trees, with cultivation plans for five to 10 trees slated for next year. Ambassadors got word out about the project this summer at street fairs and other events. Spreading goodwill about climate adaptation strategies is a critical component of the overall initiative, notes Stephens.

"It's an opportunity to make sure that, no matter the weather conditions, we're checking on each other and building bonds within the neighborhood," he says.

The Simple Things

Global warming is typically considered a problem for coastal cities, but inland metros on the Great Lakes are also at risk for the extreme weather, lengthy heat waves and increased precipitation associated with the hot-button issue.

Cleveland's specific social conditions and land use patterns exacerbate the adverse effects of climate change, observers say. According to the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments Program (GLISA), temperatures are rising three times faster in Cleveland than elsewhere in the U.S.

Safety concerns for residents living in more vulnerable communities are not only related to health, but also include disruptions in essential infrastructure services impacted by ever-changing weather conditions. The CRUO plan seeks to identify the city's most at-risk areas, building projects, policies and social harmony to better prepare these neighborhoods for future climate shocks.

Slavic Village has four climate ambassadors representing the community on tree plantings in the Hyacinth and North Broadway neighborhoods. For the North Broadway project, ambassadors secured a small grant that will result in 25-30 new trees along an exit ramp at I-77 and Pershing Avenue.

While the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) will plant the trees, it was citizens on the ground who saw the need, says Pat Shields, a Slavic Village resident and climate leader.

"Our role is assessing what has to be done in our neighborhood," Shields says. "How do we help people understand and prepare for climate change? You can't just ignore it."

In August, Shields and her compatriots held a climate fair at Cleveland Central Catholic High School, assembling displays and activities to educate parents and students.

"There was a carbon footprint worksheet that asked about turning the light off when you left a room, or turning off the water when you brush your teeth," says Shields. "These are simple things kids can do."

It's this kind of enthusiasm that has initiative planners jazzed for the future. Out of over 250 initial applicants to the CRUO initiative, Cleveland was one of only 12 cities to be selected for implementation funding and the only city in the Great Lakes to receive this support.

Proponents like Stephens of CNP expect the plan to act as a template for other communities struggling to overcome systemic social and economic pressures that are intensified by climate problems.

"Environmental and social justice should tie together," says Stephens. "You can't have one without the other."

Douglas J. Guth
Douglas J. Guth

About the Author: Douglas J. Guth

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Crain’s Cleveland Business, Ideastream, and Middle Market Growth. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.