In Ida’s wake, America’s rural communities need better protection—cities can’t hog climate adaptation

Town and Country

In Ida’s wake, America’s rural communities need better protection—cities can’t hog climate adaptation

In July 2021, Louisiana’s Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE) launched a stormwater pilot project in Gretna, Louisiana. (Courtesy State of Louisiana Office of Community Development and Waggonner & Ball Architecture/Environment)

In one of the innumerable news reports following Hurricane Ida, a reporter talks to a young Black woman in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, whose electricity still hasn’t been restored three weeks after the storm.

“You’re feeling a bit forgotten,” the reporter says.

“We are forgotten,” the woman, Brittany Gauno, responds. “It’s not a feeling. It’s factual.”

Gauno was referring to the state and federal agencies, the local electricity provider, and the public housing authority, which for weeks left her family in the dark, without any kind of assistance. But she also could have been talking about the general status of climate adaptation planning in the U.S., which has, with some notable exceptions, tended to focus on large metropolitan areas, particularly in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. As Susan Cutter, one of the country’s leading experts on disaster recovery, has pointed out, even our basic understanding of disaster recovery and resilience is largely based on cities.

A row of flood damaged houses in rural louisiana
Launched in 2017, LA SAFE has worked with communities in parishes across the state. (Courtesy Louisiana Office of Community Development)

Within this context, Hurricane Ida served as a harsh reminder that the nation’s rural and smaller coastal communities often bear the brunt of the effects of climate change, suffering extensive flooding and other damage, yet lack the resources to rebuild or to implement measures that could prevent future disasters. Located outside the levees and planning boundaries that protect their urban counterparts, these communities are fast becoming part of what could be thought of as a national climate sacrifice zone.

“Rural communities are vastly underserved,” said Karen McGlathery, director of the University of Virginia’s Environmental Resilience Institute, which is currently leading a $5 million initiative to study the needs of the state’s smaller coastal villages.

At stake is a part of the country that is both more populous and more racially diverse than is suggested by politicians and pundits. According to the U.S. Census, some 60 million people—1 in 5 Americans—live in rural areas. But that total increases when one takes into account so-called “urban clusters,” the counterintuitive term by which the census refers to towns of between 2,500 to 50,000 people. These areas have a collective population of closer to 90 million, or 1 in 4 Americans.

People of color make up 20 percent of the nation’s rural population, and just like in cities, they are often at greater risk from climate impacts. Indeed, many of the areas that have suffered damage from climate disasters over the past few years are disproportionately Black and Brown, from the flood-prone colonias along the Texas border to the vanishing homelands of Indigenous communities in states from Louisiana to Alaska.

Kate Orff, founder of the New York City–based landscape architecture firm SCAPE, said the lack of investment in small, rural communities stems from a “brutal political calculus” that leaves these areas fending for themselves. “And then there’s a brutal funding reality, because there’s not really a tax base for this kind of work,” Orff added.

A map of coastal flooding
An example of the CDDL’s mapping methodology (Courtesy Coastal Dynamics Design Lab)

Among the many barriers such communities face is a lack of access to the kinds of technical assistance design professionals provide to urban resilience projects. “The biggest factor that we face is capacity,” explained Andrew Fox, a professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University and the co-director of the Coastal Dynamics Design Lab (CDDL). “Capacity could be defined as resources—dollars and cents—or people in chairs. Many of the places we work might have one part-time staff member. Design can be very challenging when you’re worried about keeping the lights on.”

Fox, who grew up in rural Michigan, co-founded the CDDL with David Hill in 2013. Their goal was to find a way to provide design and planning services to underserved areas, specifically around issues of disaster recovery and resilience. Over the years, they have developed an approach they call “longitudinal engagement”: The CDDL works only in communities that have invited it and then continues that work indefinitely. “We’re committed for the long haul,” Fox said. “As long as communities invite us back, we’ll be there.”

The CDDL, which is part of NC State’s College of Design, uses state and federal grants to work alongside small and rural communities like Princeville, North Carolina—the first town in the U.S. chartered by freed slaves—through multiple phases of long-term resilience planning. At the end of each phase is a deliverable, such as a detailed assessment of a town’s climate vulnerabilities and assets—what Fox and his team refer to as a “floodprint”—that doubles as an application for further grant funding. “In some ways, we’re acting as town staff,” Fox said. “We’re ghostwriting grants. We’re turning each phase into the next step. And for all the technical assistance we’ve provided, it’s cost the community zero. Not one penny.”

A prime example is the CDDL’s work in Lumberton, North Carolina, a town of approximately 20,000 people (one of the Census Bureau’s “urban clusters”) that straddles the Lumber River. Like many communities in the South, the town is visibly segregated, with lower-income people of color, including Black residents and members of the Lumbee tribe, disproportionately living in the most flood-prone areas. After Hurricane Matthew, in 2016, at least 107 properties in these neighborhoods were approved for FEMA assistance, 47 of them eligible for a buyout. Fox’s team mapped out each of the eligible parcels, then marked properties that were already state-owned, city-owned, or reserved for conservation and, in so doing, hoped to identify routes for a potential greenway that would naturally protect the town from floods. “We found a route that required only nine parcels to be acquired to connect an 8.5-mile loop,” Fox said.

a map of the mississippi river delta stretching across the united states
A mapping project by LA Safe (Courtesy State of Louisiana Office of Community Development and Waggonner & Ball Architecture/Environment)

The plan was approved unanimously by town leadership, and the Lumberton Loop, as the proposal is called, went on to become the basis for an application for FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program, which was created in 2020. In September 2021, the Lumberton Loop was selected as one of 22 inaugural projects. Including the forthcoming $1.93 million award from FEMA, Fox said the CDDL’s work in Lumberton has helped the town bring in close to $5 million, more than 20 times the value of the center’s donated design services.

The CDDL isn’t alone in piloting creative ways to address resilience in rural communities. McGlathery, of the Environmental Resilience Institute, recently received a $5 million research grant from the National Science Foundation’s Coastlines and People program to create what she’s calling a Climate Equity Atlas for communities along Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Led by a multidisciplinary team with expertise in everything from behaviorial psychology to public policy, the atlas will visualize flood risk as well as social and institutional connectivity in order to provide community members—and policymakers in Richmond—with a finely detailed picture of both their assets and vulnerabilities. “There’s something at the end that’s scaffolded by all this science and community engagement but is something that people can actually use,” McGlathery said.

These efforts point to the value of university-affiliated design studios and research hubs, which at times offer smaller communities the only avenue through which they can access climate adaptation planning assistance. The same is true for architects and landscape architects, who are limited by a fee-for-service model. “The things that we should be doing are not necessarily what we are being asked to do,” said Orff, who this year used a design studio at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, where she teaches to engage underserved and Indigenous communities on Sapelo Island, Georgia; in Shishmaref, Alaska; and on the Shinnecock reservation on Long Island.

At the state level, Louisiana’s Office of Community Development recently piloted a community-informed resilience planning process in six of the state’s most vulnerable parishes. Launched in 2017, the $47 million program, known as Louisiana’s Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments, or LA SAFE, is reportedly a first-of-its-kind collaboration between the state and the Foundation for Louisiana, a nonprofit working toward racial and social justice. Through an extensive and transparent engagement process, communities were put in charge of the program, with local leaders tapped to guide discussions and residents voting on which projects should move forward. As a result, funded interventions will include traditional green infrastructure projects that will mitigate flooding, experimental housing prototypes, and expanded mental health and substance abuse services. (New Orleans architecture firm Waggonner & Ball served as LA SAFE’s design lead.)

A chart depicting scaled climate change mitigation solutions along a watershed
Based at the North Carolina State University, the CDDL uses state and federal grants to work alongside small and rural communities. (Courtesy Coastal Dynamics Design Lab)

In August, President Biden announced a nearly $5 billion infusion into FEMA, with $1 billion earmarked for the BRIC program. This is welcome news for rural communities and the design programs that assist them, yet exactly how those dollars will be appropriated remains an open question. Already, the program has been criticized for awarding just $36 million of its initial $500 million to small, low-income communities.

Awareness of what these communities face is growing, however. “Whether it be drought or floods or wildfires, there’s so much that happens out in rural lands, the conversation is gaining speed,” the CDDL’s Fox said. That’s a good thing, not only for the communities in question, but for architects and planners and for cities, too. Because while smaller communities can stymie traditional design and planning models, they can serve as important testing grounds for how to work sensitively in other under-resourced places. “You can learn: How did this place with so little make this work?” Fox said. “And I think that can translate into a neighborhood or into historically marginalized areas. These are all places that might not have access to resources and power.”

Timothy A. Schuler is an award-winning magazine journalist based in Honolulu.