Incorporating natural disasters with social landscapes is imperative in advancing equity and justice. People and place must be examined together, as two issues that intersect and collectively create outcomes. More specifically, areas with high levels of flood risk and low resilience exemplify normative power dynamics, exploitation, and oppression. 

In the United States, Black Americans have systemically been excluded from land, resources, mobility, and representation. Following Emancipation, discrimination led to heightened flood risk through housing markets, building conditions, infrastructure and more. Consequently, communities are perpetually and disproportionately impacted by economic, health, and well-being losses from flooding. 

Findings from The Evolution of Race and Place in Geographies of Risk and Resilience suggest that ethnicity and race correlate to patterns of heighted flood risk and weakened flood resilience globally. Progress in addressing the inequities of people and place, coinciding with resilience and risk, is rooted in community-based reparations across a broad spectrum of areas. 


The authors of The Evolution of Race and Place in Geographies of Risk and Resilience, Julie Arbit and Brad Bottoms, are both essential members of the Water, Equity, and Security initiative at the Center for Social Solutions (CSS). 

Arbit is a research associate who works with geospatial data on place-based equity at intersections of the natural environment, water and food systems, housing and labor markets, and more. Beyond her research, Julie facilitates research project management, development efforts, and collaboration within the Center and with external partners. Prior to this role, Julie completed an internship with the Great Lakes Observing System, and a fellowship with the Midwest Big Data Hub.

Bottoms, a data scientist at CSS, works to turn data into usable information and find unseen connections and correlations with this information. Brad has worked as a geographer and data scientist in roles with the federal government, local government, private industry, and consultancies to NGOs. With over 10 years of experience, he has worked across six continents on projects ranging from data collection techniques and web development to flood exposure and habitat modeling.

Q & A

Q: What are the key takeaways you are hoping readers will walk away with?

Arbit: The effects of climate change on natural disaster frequency and severity has been gaining attention rapidly in the past few decades, and slowly research is revealing trends in disproportionate risk and resilience for historically oppressed communities. This is true for minoritized communities globally, but the history and legacy of slavery in the U.S. provides a discrete lens into how discrimination has dictated geographical risk and resilience by selectively denying access to place and space. These issues of access are personified in areas like housing, transportation, and healthcare, which highlight the historic and present day injustices that leave marginalized communities more at risk and less resilient to the growing threat of natural disasters. These intersections are critical to consider when moving towards equitable disaster mitigation and relief policy.

Bottoms: I hope readers take away the complexity of the underlying systems that lead to our environmental risk. As climate change continues to raise the level of risk for humanity the effects will not be borne equally and that has little to do with nature and more to do with our political systems and society. Racially charged housing policies, unfair financial systems, and lack of representation have created a higher risk landscape for Black Americans and solving that issue is not simple. It requires looking back and a comprehension of how we got into this situation.


Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge in getting policy and lawmakers to make the systemic changes listed in the paper?

Arbit: My sense is that the politicization of race and ethnicity in the U.S. is the biggest modern challenge facing reparative justice in “place,” including in housing, employment, criminal justice, and education. Political issues like these are accompanied by polarization and the cyclical nature of our elections and decision-making bodies makes sustained change that much more difficult. 

In this same vein, many relevant issues - emergency management, housing, healthcare, etc. - are somewhat siloed federally to be more manageable, and have varying processes at state and county levels depending on geographies. Even research around flood exposure (i.e. risk) and flood resilience (i.e. the ability to respond and recover from a flood) is isolated within the same field. These separations, along with limited data and data resolution, leave gaps in working towards systemic change in access for historically oppressed demographics. 

This is also relevant for large-scale decision-making at global levels across widely varied regional and national contexts. Disaster risk and socioeconomic resilience are often treated independently, but across wide geographies that don’t consider the how and why behind them, which makes it impossible to move towards reparative justice and disaster equity.

Bottoms: The biggest challenge I see is getting policymakers to take climate change seriously. They need to understand the urgency of the issue and the gravity of the consequences if we do not act now. To overcome this challenge, we need to educate policymakers about climate change. We need to provide them with accurate information about the science of climate change and the potential impacts of climate change. We also need to help them understand the economic and social costs of inaction. Once we get to that position, we need to start to undo the systems that created inequality in our risk. It will take more than throwing money at the issue and that will be difficult to translate to a vast majority of lawmakers. 


Q: Anything else you wanted to add to the paper or for context?

Arbit: A lot of scholarship in flood risk and resilience is moving towards data-centric approaches and novel methods. These methods often reveal quantifiable inequity and priority areas, which can be useful for decision-making, as numbers make policies easier to “sell” politically. But they also often omit the humanistic research needed to advance agency for marginalized communities and validate results. The field as a whole would benefit from more participatory methods that better center the perspectives of disenfranchised peoples and promote ownership in defining the resources and values that make up their resilience.

Bottoms: The historical and present-day issues we talk about are static, as in they have already happened or are happening, however the future is malleable and with proper course correction we can provide equity in resilience to climate hazards. To address this problem, we need to address the underlying social and economic inequities that contribute to climate vulnerability. This means investing in communities that are most at risk, such as by providing affordable housing, improving access to healthcare, and developing sustainable infrastructure. It also means working to change the systems that create these inequities, such as by reforming our housing and financial systems. We have the power to shape the future and to create a more just and equitable world.