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Natural Awakenings Rhode Island

Rhode Island Health Equity Zones: Incorporating Community Resilience

Mar 30, 2020 01:35PM ● By Rachel Calabro

Climate change affects vulnerable, low-income populations the most. Empowering those communities most affected to design their own resiliency programs is what the Climate Change and Health Program at the Rhode Island Department of Health has worked with Health Equity Zones (HEZ) in Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, and Newport to do. Health Equity Zones use the power of community members to channel public support to neighborhoods impacted by health disparities.

Through community workshops, HEZ has helped residents to assess their strengths and vulnerabilities associated with climate change and to identify strategies to reduce climate hazards. After the workshops, each team surveyed their own communities to identify strategies and develop a community-led intervention.


In the case of Newport, this meant building resiliency in response to the natural gas outage that occurred during January, 2019. During the gas outage, National Grid was forced to shut down a portion of its gas distribution system to more than 7,000 customers for more than a week. Evacuations forced people from their homes and information was limited and inconsistent. The chaos that resulted was fueled by underlying inequities that are often revealed in times of crisis. While Newport may have a reputation as a vacation destination, it is also an area of widespread poverty.

During this time, the Newport Health Equity Zone became an important part of the effort to share information and reach vulnerable community members. They realized a well-defined emergency response plan was missing, nor was there the capacity to carry out such a plan. After the event, community conversations about climate change provided opportunities for residents to receive disaster-preparedness training and supplies and to establish relationships with public officials.

Today, Newport is in a much stronger position to respond to a potential future emergency. Creating these connections between agencies, officials and communities increases cohesion and leads, both directly and indirectly, to better health outcomes.


The Health Equity Zone in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence chose to create a film about the historic 2010 floods. The film aims to raise awareness of the dangers presented by the increasing frequency of natural disasters. It works to transform the threat of a major disaster into a tangible reality so that residents feel a greater sense of urgency regarding emergency preparation. The film was screened at multiple events and will continue to be used in schools and with community groups.

Ryan Sherwood, director of photography for filmmakers Steer PVD, said it was the first time that he had worked on a story that highlights the impacts of climate change on a vulnerable population. Sherwood states, “It makes a lot of sense that populations already struggling could be impacted in a major way by the climate—even more so than others.”


In Pawtucket and Central Falls, the nonprofit group Groundwork RI partnered with Southside Community Land Trust and Farm Fresh RI’s Harvest Kitchen for a six-week summer youth program. These community partners employed and trained 24 youth on how to grow, process, and cook their own local produce. The youth also worked to engage residents and gather data regarding climate resilient mitigation strategies.

By the end of the summer, they completed 25 green home assessments, planted 21 trees at Baldwin Elementary school, in Pawtucket, installed nine raised garden beds at resident homes and collaborated with the City of Pawtucket to install and deliver seven residential rain barrels to reduce flooding and utility bills. As a result of these initiatives, residents created the Climate Safe Neighborhoods Alliance to further engage families and youth.


Momentum is building by engaging youth, with a new project for RI Youth Tree Protectors. Through this pilot, youth will receive hands-on urban tree education and help increase the greenery in urban areas. These trees can help reduce peak summer temperatures by as much as 10 degrees. 


Whether it is building raised vegetable beds, training in emergency preparedness, or filmmaking, the experience of the Rhode Island Health Equity Zones shows that locally-led resiliency projects are the most effective and durable.

HEZ believes that these projects can serve as a model for change beyond Rhode Island, as communities seek to engage with climate change. Locally specific responses are the key to demonstrating both how we are affected by climate change today and how we can respond to its effects in the future.


Rachel Calabro is the Climate Change and Health Program manager at the Rhode Island Department of Health. In that role, she helps Rhode Islanders prepare for the health effects of climate change through education, research and supporting policy change. She is an environmental scientist with a background in community outreach and planning. Connect at [email protected]