Building Equitable Climate Resilience: Learnings from Policy and Systems Change Academy Convening


  • Megan Greig
April 23, 2024 - (5 min read)

From greenhouse gases and wildfire smoke leading to reduced air quality to rising temperatures impacting agricultural productivity and the food supply chain, the impacts of climate change on cities are complex and widespread. In responding to these challenges, cities need to consider the perspectives and interests of a wide range of groups, developing solutions that stem from an understanding of the root cause and working through municipal systems and public policy to create change. Policy and systems change that protects cities from these negative climate outcomes must prioritize equity and work across sectors for comprehensive solutions.

In 2023, NLC’s Cities of Opportunity initiative partnered with the Urban Institute to develop the Policy and Systems Change Compass (the Compass), a tool that supports cities in identifying the root cause of a given challenge and creating policy solutions at the systems level.

The Compass is now being used by the inaugural Policy Academy cohort to promote equitable climate resilience in their cities in the interest of improving public health. This year’s cohort includes Dearborn, MI; Grand Rapids, MI; Kansas City, MO; and Mount Vernon, NY.

Collaborative Discussions on Equitable Climate Resilience in Public Health

On March 18 and 19, 2024, team members from the cohort of 4 cities traveled to Washington, DC, for an in-person workshop and convening at NLC’s offices. These teams, comprising city staff, elected officials, and regional partners, spent the two-day workshop working together to identify the root causes of the climate resilience issues their cities faced, including a contaminated water supply, low air quality, inaccessible public transportation, and deteriorating infrastructure. City teams took on the work with a comprehensive approach, considering health and racial equity in local policy development for areas like transportation, zoning, and energy monitoring. Along the way, the group uncovered some critical takeaways for developing equitable solutions for improving public health through climate resilience:

Starting at the Root

The Policy Academy workshop was an intensive demonstration of the importance of taking time to focus on the cause of key issues before running to a solution.

Each step of the process was an exercise in challenging the problem-solving instincts of city teams and bringing focus to the most impactful outcomes.

Participants spent time exploring and discussing the challenges in their communities, working backward to understand gaps in local policy and identifying proof of concept before building out a model in response. This changed perspective opened the door for identifying links between issues like outdoor air quality, public transportation access, and zoning laws. In turn, city team members discussed the ways in which an element of one system or policy approach has the capacity to deliver an outcome in a different sector.

Equity as a Lens, Not a Catch-All

The Academy’s focus on equitable climate resilience called for a level-set at the beginning of the two-day workshop regarding the true definition of equity. LaDonna McCullough, Chief Equity Officer for the Office of the City Manager in Kansas City, MO, gave a presentation on the role of equity in climate resilience work.

McCullough highlighted that equity does not have a one-size-fits-all approach in municipal work. Instead, practitioners must consider all their work through an equity lens, questioning how each aspect of a project might impact equitable outcomes.

Community-oriented solutions do not always work exactly the way a city may expect them to on paper. Part of implementing this equity lens, McCullough noted, is a willingness to be flexible. “It may be your baby, but if it isn’t working, you need to pivot.” When developing equitable solutions to challenges within your community, you need to be willing to adjust your plans to accommodate new information and insights from the partners you are working with, specifically because of their different perspectives.

Don’t Fear the Friction

Throughout the workshop’s discussions, participants and facilitators alike brought up the importance of cross-sector collaboration.

“Public health is only as strong as our prediction of human behavior is correct.” – Ali Abazeed, Director of Public Health for the City of Dearborn, MI

Improving the accuracy of those predictions requires strong relationships with other city government entities and community partners to gain better insight.

In acknowledging this critical aspect of systems change work, city team members also discussed the natural friction and conflict that may come from working together with parties of mixed interests and priorities.  In the face of conflicting instincts among stakeholders, Abazeed recommends beginning from a place of empowerment. It will always be a stronger approach to identify and celebrate the areas of shared value between stakeholders than those of division.

Next Steps for the Policy Academy

The road to improved climate resilience in cities across the United States is long and requires creative collaboration from all parties. The work participating cities are doing as part of the 2024 Policy Academy is evidence of the importance of bringing all parties to the table in building policy solutions for equitable climate resilience. This cohort of the Policy Academy will progress through the remainder of the program until June 2024, when they will have developed a comprehensive, evidence-based strategy for policy and systems change in their city utilizing strengths and insights across sectors.

To learn more about the Policy and Systems Change Compass process, read the full brief here or contact the Cities of Opportunity team at

Attend the Cities of Opportunity Solutions Forum

Wednesday, May 8, 1:00 – 4:00 PM EST

This virtual event brings together city leaders and their partners who’ve taken part in the Cities of Opportunity initiative programs to celebrate their transformative progress, share tools, and highlight the sustainable changes they are making to systems that impact health and racial disparities in their cities. In doing so, they demonstrate to peer city leaders that change is possible and happening, and future efforts can be informed by best practices.

About the Author

Megan Greig

About the Author

Megan Greig is the Senior Program Specialist, Health & Well-Being, The Center Leadership, Education, Advancement & Development at the National League of Cities.