Photo from NOAH
Environmental justice and resiliency are hot topics today in the climate action conversation, but they haven’t always been. Around 25 years ago in East Boston, Neighborhood of Affordable Housing, Inc. (NOAH) planted the seeds for integrating the values of environmental justice into the urban environmental issues they were fighting for.
“The term of environmental justice began to be a term of substance that was applied to urban areas, as opposed to just ‘save the polar bears.’ When that began to catch on in the bureaucracies, federal and then the state, we were quick to embrace it,” Philip Giffee, Executive Director of NOAH, said. “East Boston is a neighborhood that is a peninsula and cheek by jowl with Logan International Airport. That has been a challenging relationship.”
East Boston’s residents’ battle with Logan International Airport has been longstanding. The development of the airport took parks and housing away from East Boston. Asthma rates also skyrocketed, as combustion has an especially negative impact on air quality during the take-off and landing of aircraft. A grant from the City of Boston is supporting NOAH’s efforts to assess the impact of the airport on the environmental health of the neighborhood. Through the grant, NOAH is using sensors to identify the air quality of 40 businesses, schools, residential homes, and nonprofits are affected by the airport. The work is done hand-in-hand with East Boston residents.
“We never do anything on our own. We work with the people who work here,” Latifa Ziyad, East Boston Resiliency Planning Coordinator for NOAH, said. With the community’s needs always at the forefront, NOAH has become more involved in climate resiliency work.
“The environmental justice piece began to motivate a lot of people in the neighborhood,” Giffee said. “We began to move into climate work when superstorm sandy hit New York. Sandy could have hit Boston. We saw the damage it could have caused.”
As part of its resiliency work, NOAH hosted summits to create a larger platform to talk about solutions to the pressing issues in East Boston: the airport, storm surge, and sea level rise. Ziyad also sits on an advisory committee on heat. She emphasized that heat kills, especially vulnerable populations such as children, older people, and more often than not, people of color.
What centers NOAH’s resiliency work is building a stronger community, one that will provide residents the services to bounce back better from disturbances. “We know climate work dovetails poverty. It wouldn’t be as much a threat if people had the mechanisms to cope with it. We focus on building social cohesion, and climate is an aspect of it but it’s not an exclusive focus,” Ziyad said.
“We look at what preventions we can put in place, and then how we react in the midst of the event, and after the event, how do we recover, not to the point of where we were before the storm or stressor hit, but actually use it as a chaotic moment to launch ahead,” Ziyad said. "We know a lot of the systems we were involved in before were already broken anyway. It becomes an opportunity to not only heal, but revamp for the future.”