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Residents of At-Risk Neighborhoods Help Shape Cincinnati’s Green Plan

A big slice of Inflation Reduction Act funding comes with a mandate to help underserved communities. Cincinnati is already delivering on the promise.

Community Meeting 2.jpg
The 2023 Green Cincinnati Plan is informed by more than 40 meetings with neighborhood residents and 3,000 of their ideas for making their communities climate resilient. (Groundwork ORV)
In Brief:
  • Seventy-four programs within the Inflation Reduction Act require that funds benefit underserved communities.
  • Many of Cincinnati’s neighborhoods fall within federal definitions of “underserved and overburdened.”
  • For the last 15 years, Cincinnati has been consulting resident needs when developing its green plans. Its own investments are being enhanced by federal funds that are changing the scale of its sustainability work.

  • Scores of programs funded by the Inflation Reduction Act, representing $118 billion in funding, fall within the Biden administration’s Justice40 program. Forty percent of these investments must benefit underserved communities. Few cities have a better handle on how to accomplish this than Cincinnati.

    The first Green Cincinnati Plan, adopted in 2008, was built through an extended public engagement process. It’s been updated every five years since, and each update has involved consultation with the community on its needs and wishes.

    The federal government developed a Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool as part of its guidance for Justice40, an interactive map which highlights census tracts considered to be underserved and overburdened. “Virtually every community here qualifies,” says Oliver Kroner, director of the city’s Office of Environment and Sustainability.

    The most recent version of the Green Cincinnati Plan, published in 2023, was informed by more than 40 public meetings with people who live in these communities. Residents, including young people, who actively engaged in this process were paid for their time through grants from the city and nonprofits.

    City Councilwoman Meeka Owens chaired the steering committee for work that spanned an entire year. More participants and more neighborhoods participated than ever, she says. It’s a unique moment, with the city devoting more resources to the plan, the nonprofits that work with it seeing funding bumps and federal dollars beginning to flow.

    Mayor Aftab Pureval says that every issue that comes across his desk is looked at through two lenses: equity first, then climate. “When I look at the time horizon of the next 50 years, the cities that get those issues right are poised for incredible growth and success,” he says.
    A map of Cincinnati with different sections in different colors to indicate levels of poverty.
    A map of Cincinnati with different sections in different colors to indicate levels of air pollution.
    Two maps from Cincinnati's Climate Equity Indicators Report illustrate the relationships between social determinants and environmental risk. (City of Cincinnati)

    Understanding Equity Indicators

    Like other cities in the Midwest, Cincinnati was part of the Rust Belt, formerly the Steel Belt, where manufacturing powered the world’s greatest economy. Between 1969 and 2015, however, the number of people in Hamilton County with manufacturing jobs shrank from nearly 150,000 to 48,000.

    “We’re dealing with pretty significant post-industrial poverty,” Kroner says. It’s highly concentrated in the Black population who account for 4 in 10 residents. The transition to a clean energy economy, and the new job and wealth generation possibilities it brings, could help bring things into balance — but only if those at risk are included.

    Kroner was one of the authors of a 2018 neighborhood vulnerability assessment that was never published, but provided the foundation for a 2021 Cincinnati Climate Equity Indicators Report. The city partnered with the University of Cincinnati, Adaptation International, and the nonprofits Groundwork Ohio River Valley and Green Umbrella on the project and the 320-plus page document it produced.

    Its intent, the authors said, was “to create the foundation for equity driven work in Cincinnati, including updating the Green Cincinnati Plan to ensure it truly addresses the needs of frontline community members in all the neighborhoods of the city.” Toward this end, it assembled neighborhood-by-neighborhood data regarding indicators in six categories: people, health, ecosystems and infrastructure, built environment hazards, socioeconomic indicators and neighborhood planning.

    The report includes a series of maps reflecting the distribution of a wide range of data points in the city’s neighborhoods, from tree canopy and racial demographics to the prevalence of diabetes, persons living in poverty and walkability. It also includes a profile for each neighborhood summarizing where it stands regarding these indicators.

    This data set brought a new tool to the development of the latest iteration of the plan.
    Aerial view of Green Corps members laying on a green rooftop they just installed.
    Green Corps members take a break after installing a green roof on Cincinnati's Olyer School. (Groundwork ORV)


    The 2023 plan calls out three pillars, Owens says — sustainability, resilience and equity. Big goals include a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and 100 percent carbon neutrality by 2050. (Residents can explore the pathway to net-zero and track the progress of elements of the city’s plan through an online platform.) The plan encompasses eight focus areas, from buildings and energy to food and mobility.

    Goals, strategy and priority actions are outlined for each focus area. Job creation is a cross-cutting theme, a core metric of economic equity. One of the plan’s recommendations is 4,000 newly trained green workforce jobs by 2035, says Owens. The city is talking to educational institutions such as Cincinnati State about training programs. In 2023, the city invested $4 million in green projects that would create jobs, the mayor says. The vice mayor is working to bring in a pre-apprenticeship program that can diversify the pipeline into apprenticeships in local trades.

    A focus on green infrastructure and green space is already creating jobs. The nonprofit Groundwork Ohio River Valley (ORV) is a major partner in the city’s efforts. Its summer Green Team program gives youth ages 14-18 opportunities to develop skills that prepare them for green jobs with training that ranges from natural resource management and urban agriculture to soft skills. A Green Corps workforce development program offers young adults work in habitat and wetland restoration, tree planting and other field work as well as outreach and education efforts.

    Workforce opportunities will be further shaped by the outcome of grant applications for IRA funding. These amount to around $280 million, says Kroner. He’s not expecting to get everything he’s asked for, but there’s no doubt there will be a historic infusion of energy for the city’s sustainability work.

    Kroner believes the city’s focus on equity has positioned it well to meet R40 criteria. As evidence of this, two applications to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Solar for All program were funded recently. This brings millions to the city to be used to deliver solar energy to low-income households and lower their energy bills, he says.
    Oliver Kroner, director of Cincinatti's office of environment & sustainability, facilitates a discussion among neighborhood residents to elicit their input for the city's climate resiliency planning.
    (Groundwork CRV)

    Change at the Speed of Trust

    The green plan notes that in the coming decades, warming and severe weather will have “far-reaching health and safety consequences” for residents. Even so, city leaders believe that these risks will be less severe than in some other parts of the country. This, combined with ample surface and groundwater supplies, could draw people and businesses wanting to escape climate impacts to Cincinnati.

    The city’s taking what it calls a systemic approach to setting the stage for green growth, says Mayor Pureval. Zoning codes are being revised to require green space, walkability, transit access and multifamily housing. Rents have gone up 28 percent in recent years, among the biggest increases in the country. “That’s not a list I want to be on,” says the mayor.
    Mayor Aftab Pureval.
    Mayor Aftab Pureval: “Whenever you’re doing community engagement, there’s always a back and forth and what you land on is necessarily a compromise. This work requires intentionality, and it requires patience.”
    (City of Cincinnati)

    The city is planning a bus rapid transit system. A corridor along Mill Creek, a former industrial center, is being rehabilitated. The creek was once the most polluted waterway in the U.S., Kroner says, but fish and bald eagles are returning. The city wants its anchor commitment to this corridor to stimulate other investment in and around the disadvantaged communities near it, and to attract light manufacturing. In 2026, construction will begin on a project that involves bringing trees, bike lanes, wider sidewalks and more to three neighborhoods in the city’s urban core, funded by a $20 million grant from the Department of Transportation.

    It’s normal for community members to mistrust government, says Kelsey Hawkins-Johnson, community and climate resilience programs director for Groundwork ORV. Relations can be strained by past experiences where city representatives have come in, asked what’s needed, and taken no action. “If that’s not addressed, there can be very strained relationships with community members,” she says. It’s made a difference that the city has shown up for every meeting of the community climate advisory group, has listened and has shown willingness to act on its input.

    “It’s not equitable to tell the community what they should want,” says Pureval. “Whenever you’re doing community engagement, there’s always a back and forth and what you land on is necessarily a compromise. This work requires intentionality, and it requires patience.”
    Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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