Underserved Miami-Dade residents designed climate justice solutions. Local government staff listened

Walk, bike, or drive on almost any major road in Miami, and you can see how the built environment reflects disparities that are being amplified by the climate crisis.

A lack of covered bus stops and shade trees in Allapattah, Little Havana, and Liberty City makes residents vulnerable to rising temperatures and decreasing air quality. Heavy rainfall causes flooding in parts of Overtown where litter clogs storm drains. Gentrification pressures are mounting in Little Haiti as seas rise and developers look to build on higher ground.

An online workshop series hosted this spring by the University of Miami, the CLEO Institute, and Catalyst Miami brought together residents and local government representatives to respond to these kinds of environmental justice challenges. Participants say they think the program, known as HyLo, is a promising step toward open communication between the government and some of the Miami neighborhoods that are most vulnerable to the climate crisis.

Some of the challenges and solutions identified by Allapattah residents. (Credit: CLEO Institute)

“HyLo” is short for “Hyper-localism: Transforming the Paradigm for Climate Adaptation.” The program is funded by U-LINK, a University of Miami initiative that supports interdisciplinary research and collaboration.

In HyLo, residents use photography and storytelling to document issues such as flooding, inadequate street lighting, a lack of crosswalks, or the absence of trees and sheltered bus stops to protect against heat.

Through a process called “design thinking,” they come together with neighbors to identify common challenges and create solutions based on their knowledge of their community. In the final workshop, they present their proposals to local government staff.

Participants say HyLo creates a space where government representatives listen to the concerns of residents. They say that’s significant because there’s often been poor communication and mistrust between local government and lower-income communities in Miami-Dade.

“You see politicians out there in these neighborhoods when they’re trying to get elected, and then they disappear,” said Pam Ndah, a Little River resident, expressing a feeling of betrayal that many lower-income Miami-Dade residents say they feel in interactions with local government. Ms. Ndah was a participant in the HyLo workshops last year; she was invited to return this year as a facilitator.

Participants in the final workshop for the Allapattah group. (Credit: CLEO Institute)

In HyLo, “you feel like someone really does care about the concerns of low-income people,” she said. “They make sure they get the right people in the room.”

Government representatives came from the offices of resilience for the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County, the County Mayor’s Office, the office of District 3 County Commissioner Keon Hardemon, and a number of staff from the County Parks Department. Nonprofits who attended the final workshops included Miami Homes for All, the Community Justice Project, the Transit Alliance, and the Allapattah Community CDC.

Speaking to these audiences, residents proposed initiatives ranging from enhanced green space in parks to pre-hurricane neighborhood outreach teams. Their concerns about equity and inclusion resonated with Danilo Vargas, the small business innovation manager for the Miami-Dade County Mayor’s Office.

“One of the things that was impactful from these meetings is that folks feel unappreciated and ignored,” Mr. Vargas said. “Garbage piles up, simple things are denied to folks because we don’t have those bridges of compassion and empathy built up.”

Mr. Vargas says a priority of the county mayor, who took office in November, is to increase residents’ sense of being supported by local government. Efforts to date have included a countywide online survey about residents’ key concerns, canvassing in lower-income neighborhoods to collect input from residents without regular computer access, and a “Thrive305 Civic Week” that featured town hall events where residents weighed in on topics such as health, housing, and trust in government.

“You’re not going to, like Moses from the mount, figure out what the right thing is for folks,” Mr. Vargas said. “You have to go to folks, talk with them, in order to co-create solutions with them.”

Martha Whisby, an aide to District 3 County Commissioner Keon Hardemon who works closely with the Overtown community, said residents’ concerns about neighborhood beautification and homelessness particularly resonated with her. She added that HyLo underscored the importance of long-term engagement and information sharing with residents, not just “pop-ups” or “temporary fixes.”

Ongoing engagement “is priceless, it’s crucial,” Ms. Whisby said.

Residents’ discussion included thinking about what community partners needed to be engaged to make the proposed solutions a reality. (Credit: CLEO Institute)

Ms. Ndah, the facilitator, noted that one challenge of the HyLo program is that it can be hard to get residents to participate in workshops in the first place since trust in government is low. This year, approximately 25 residents participated from the three neighborhoods. CLEO Institute staff say the ideal number would be about 12 people per neighborhood — large enough to ensure a broad range of concerns come to light, but not so large that it’s hard for every participant to meaningfully contribute to the conversation.

Daniela Rivero, a student at Miami-Dade College who participated in the Allapattah cohort, said one solution this year’s HyLo participants proposed was to convene a regular meeting between residents and government representatives. Similar to the HyLo program itself, the group would empower neighborhood residents to recommend solutions to concerns about safety and beautification. It would also facilitate sharing information about longer-run climate change risks.

“Education is the basis of everything,” Ms. Rivero said. “Little by little, we can help a lot.”

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