Eighteen years ago, on a hot August evening, a fire broke out in a huge, old warehouse on Evans Street in the Lower Price Hill neighborhood of Cincinnati.
It didn’t take long for fire to engulf the decrepit structure as it was piled high with thousands of metal and plastic barrels containing traces of some of the most dangerous chemicals known to man.
Every few minutes, explosions were heard from inside the building, as firefighters from more than 20 departments tried to contain the inferno, according to an after-action report from the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Around 9:30 p.m., the building collapsed. The Queen City Barrel fire was an environmental disaster for Lower Price Hill. Residents were urged to stay indoors as the plume of smoke released benzene, toluene, xylene and other toxins into the air. These same chemicals were also found in runoff that had collected on the streets and flowed down the drain.
It was a cataclysmic event in a neighborhood that has always lived with environmental degradation.
Lower Price Hill is a largely Appalachian community, with nearly half of its residents living below the poverty line. It is bordered to the east by Mill Creek, which, as its name suggests, was used by factories along its watercourse to dispose of industrial waste. The neighborhood’s southern border is US 50, a highway that sees thousands of vehicles daily. It is home to the largest wastewater treatment plant in the region, where approximately 100 million gallons per day are treated. The Bengals once practiced at Lower Price Hill on Spinney Field, but left in 2000, complaining of foul odors and bad air.
So where better to start greening the urban jungle?
“Lower Price Hill has an incredible legacy of environmental injustice,” says Tanner Yess. “It’s a tough place to live.”
yes led Ohio River Valley, a non-profit organization that moved into the neighborhood and immersed itself in its history of housing and environmental abuse. He engaged residents in developing a climate resilience plan, assembled and paid a small labor force of neighborhood youth, and began creating what he says is the world’s first climate-safe neighborhood. Ohio climate.
The effort started small, but its plans are big.
Tanner Yess, Ohio River Valley FoundationBy working with the people who live there, the team has developed a detailed climate resilience plan for the community.
It calls for increasing the tree canopy in the neighborhood, where public spaces are largely asphalt and concrete. He calls for green roofs, or rooftop gardens, on top of some of the large corporate flat roofs to cool building temperatures and reduce the urban heat island effect. And it offers locations for community gardens and green spaces.
His team participated in the construction of a rainwater retention basin. (The lower-lying community, at the confluence of Mill Creek and the Ohio River, is prone to flooding.) They helped develop and maintain a walking trail and planted fruit trees in vacant lots.
Next comes an intensive monitoring project of the quality of the air that residents breathe. With grants from the US EPA and the University of Cincinnati, they will install air monitors near ground level in a dozen or more businesses. They plan to pay residents to wear wearable air quality monitors to get data on the air they’re actually breathing, instead of the air several floors up, where the monitors of air are usually located.
“We’ll get a true picture of particulate matter and other air quality indicators,” Yess says.
There is also a more important objective: to help guide public policy and influence Cincinnati Green Planwhich is a climate-smart city framework that was first drafted in 2008 and is due for its third five-year update next year.
“We want short-term and long-term solutions, but we also want to connect with politics,” Yess says.
On March 17, Cincinnati officials announced they would begin updating the plan and committed to meeting with community members to get their feedback on the content of the 2023 update. a blueprint tucked away in a desk drawer, says Michael Forrester, director of the city’s Office of Environment and Sustainability.
“The Green Cincinnati Plan is a plan of action,” he says. “This is an essential guidance document.” The 2018 plan “was a community-built plan,” he says, and the updated version will be too.
Groundwork’s strength is in the way it engages the community and involves neighbors, empowering them to be the experts and encouraging them to be advocates for greener communities.
“We saw how they wanted their neighborhood to develop, the possibilities,” says Carla Walker, who worked on the project when she was climate adviser at the town hall. “We were all at the table to find out together.”
Residents were compensated for their time and were valued for their expertise in, among other things, identifying hyperlocal climate hotspots. “They were telling us about places where they had to walk across the street in the summer because it was too hot,” says Walker. “We compared their personal experience with the data we had collected.”
It was an inclusive way of approaching issues, quite different from how plans have often been drawn up, especially in low-income neighborhoods like Lower Price Hill.
“In the past, these communities haven’t had the opportunity to be at the table to help create solutions,” says Walker, who is now in the United States. Director of Environmental Justice and Equity for the World Resources Institute.
For Groundwork, engaging the community around the issue of climate change is a way to create long-term change. “We use climate-friendly neighborhoods to be the driving force and reason for what we do: community development and workforce development, especially for youth and diverse people,” says Yes.
People like Mohagany Wooten, who heard a Yess presentation when she was a first grader at Oyler School, the public school in Lower Price Hill.
She got involved, seeing it as a chance to do something outdoors and an opportunity to learn more about the environment. Now 17 and a student at Oyler, she helped remove invasive species from vacant land, planted trees there and worked on a roof garden at her school.
“It’s fun to be part of it,” she says.
Working from the bottom up rather than the top down will be important in developing climate change adaptation strategies, especially in cities. More than half of the world’s populations live in urban areas built on concrete that absorbs heat but not heavy rain. Cities are major contributors to climate change. That’s why they’ll be on the front lines as the world tries to get greener and adapt. As states and nations continue to debate, it may be cities that are taking the lead.
Cincinnati in 2018 was one of 20 U.S. cities named winners of the Climate challenge of American cities sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies. With the award, the city’s program was accepted into a two-year accelerator program, funding of approximately $2.5 million, and access to experts from the National Resource Defense Council.
Since then, City Hall has agreed to participate in a solar installation in rural Highland County that could generate up to 100 megawatts of electricity. The city agreed to purchase electricity for city buildings for 20 years from the project. And in announcing Cincinnati’s green plan update, Mayor Aftab Pureval also set a goal for all city-owned vehicles to be electric by 2035, “as we work to make Cincinnati a model national on the climate”.
“Climate change poses an existential threat, not just to our city, but to the planet,” Pureval says.
Answering it starts in neighborhoods like Lower Price Hill.
To participate in a climate change survey and make recommendations for the Cincinnati 2023 Green Plan, click here.
You can read previous articles in The Case for Cities series here.
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The Case for Cities: Cities of Choice are Cities of Justice series is a partnership between UC School of Planning and Soapbox Cincinnati, made possible through the support of Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. Foundation.