Photo credit: Eric Kilby

Small-group community conversations, where information can be shared and relationships built, can be powerful levers for change and mobilization in the face of climate change. Research undertaken post-Superstorm Sandy showed that a community’s resilience to climate change effects is in no small part determined by the strength of the community’s social fabric and norms. Communities where people aren’t connected to one another are less able to plan for a shared future or work through crises. Municipal leaders seeking to reduce emissions and build local resilience to climate change impacts therefore face the challenge of building and strengthening community engagement. Municipal leaders are beginning to realize that they need to invest in networks and facilitate conversations to help build a culture of understanding and action.  

Somerville, Massachusetts, a dense urban city in the Boston metro area (and my hometown) recently produced its first climate plan, Somerville Climate Forward. One of the 13 action areas outlined in this plan is to create a “culture of climate action.” But where to begin? While it is not uncommon for nonprofits to undertake community building, this is a new task for sustainability offices that have traditionally focused on policy.

My colleague Osamu Kumasaka and I have had the pleasure of helping Somerville develop a pilot program that aims to foster relationships, share information, and learn with residents. We were hired by the Office of Sustainability and Environment to research models for community engagement, present options for staff consideration, and then refine and develop one approach into a pilot project.

Models of Community Engagement on Climate Change

Municipal focus on community engagement is new in the field of climate resilience, and Somerville’s initiative complements bold experiments sprouting up across the United States. Our research surfaced several other pilot projects: Salt Lake City Climate Communication Leadership Series and Climate Leaders; Greenovate Boston; the Climate Readiness Institute Leader Training in the Bay Area; the Neighborhood Resilience Liaisons program in the Village of Piermont, NY; and the Climate Reality Project, which travels between different global cities. From this research, we determined that most community engagement efforts on climate are “information out” models, where cities are disseminating information for community consumption, rather than generating community engagement. Such initiatives are in some ways robust marketing campaigns.

We also researched a broad range of strategies and tactics for involving the public in civic action, including community-based social marketing and community-engagement approaches of organizations such as Toastmasters, Swing Left, the Eagle River Youth Coalition in Edwards, CO, and NYC Neighborhood Health Action Centers. Social media platforms and online toolkits, examples of self-organizing chapter- or working-group models, and other training programs to build a cadre of community liaisons were also examined. Some of these have very specific topic or skill focus areas, whereas Somerville needed something more open-ended.

Finally, we conducted a focus group with community leaders. One of the key learnings from this focus group is the importance of being clear on goals (information sharing or joint action, for example) and audience. Regarding target audience, the focus group pointed out that cities should determine if they want to focus on people who are knowledgeable about climate change, those who are concerned and want to know more, or those with limited knowledge.

Our major takeaway from this research was that there is no perfect model. Given the pressing nature of local challenges related to climate change, municipalities are going to need to try different strategies, learn as they go, and hopefully share their successes and failures. Building community so that community fabric is strong (or weaving community, as David Brooks has recently described in The New York Times) is a place-based task of commitment and love. This is different from typical municipal work.

Guiding Questions

We offer municipalities interested in engaging their community members in their resilience strategy the following set of questions to help them determine the best approach. 

  1. Purpose - What is the purpose of the engagement? Build relationships, raise awareness, spur action, or more than one of these goals? Consider the International Association for Public Participation’s spectrum of public participation and where this effort will fall: inform – consult – involve – collaborate – empower. Being clear on intention will help you craft implementation approaches that deliver on goals.
  2. Type of Participants – Who would you like to participate, and how can you tailor your communications to them? Based on goals/purpose, determine if there are particular types of people you most want to involve and then craft an outreach plan based on the needs and interests of these participants. For example, working with high school students would require a different engagement strategy than that for working with families with young children or the elderly.
  3. Program Benefits - What benefits are desired for the community (e.g. broader awareness of necessary action, stronger community relationships)? What benefits would be appealing for participants themselves (e.g. becoming knowledgeable, being seen as a leader, getting to know city staff, building relationships with other residents)? Leverage these benefits when communicating with key audiences.
  4. Content Control – To what degree will the group’s conversations be dictated by city staff versus by the participants themselves?
  5. Level of Effort - What level of effort will be required of both staff and participants in a successful process? What costs will be associated with running the program well?
  6. Number of Participants - How many participants will the program engage?  Do you want to involve more people just a bit or fewer people at a deep level?
  7. Program Duration and Scalability - How long will the program last? Is this a stand-alone effort or the first of many? Should the process be scalable or repeatable?
  8. Setting – What context will foster the desired tone and interactions? Will participants be meeting at city hall or in someone’s living room? Who will manage the group’s gatherings (co-chair, facilitator, city staff member)? Will participants eat meals together or attend formal presentations?

Somerville’s Approach

The Somerville staff worked through these questions over several meetings and decided they wanted to focus on people who are informed about climate change and want to know more. They wanted an approach that would enable participants to deeply understand their Climate Forward plan and the need for local action, build relationships among participants and city staff, and help participants inspire and motivate others to support city-wide resilience efforts. Staff also wanted participants to help select the topics of their discussions and for this effort to inform staff approaches to community engagement.   

Somerville’s Climate Forward Ambassadors Program, as they have named it, will be a six-month project in which up to 20 participants (who apply to participate) will meet monthly in the evening to learn about global and local climate threats and then explore local challenges and opportunities for taking action.  The process will culminate with small projects, led by participants and with other residents, and a public celebration with the community and mayor.

We look forward to helping municipalities foster community and resilience and would be happy to talk with municipal leaders or residents interested in learning how to launch effective engagement around climate resilience.

Photo credit: Eric Kilby, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Please click here to see more content from CBI Reports: Summer 2019.


Please click here to read more about research CBI did with the Barr Foundation on climate adaptation approaches in Greater Boston.