Climate Justice through Resiliency and Renewable Energy in a Post-Industrial City

By Sherrell Dorsey

A Brownfield site in Bridgeport, CT

The city of Bridgeport, Connecticut has long been a case study for the perils of inequity that mirror similar narratives across our nation. The largest city in the State of Connecticut, Bridgeport was once a boomtown for manufacturing and jobs but has since been marred by decades of neglect and a post-industrial environment that has left it riddled with brownfields sites. Thanks to EPA brownfields grants and other funds, the City is attempting to breathe new life into the City’s historic fabric to power what it is calling the new economy.

However, participation in the new economy is a far reach for Bridgeport’s most vulnerable residents. In addition to an income gap, the city’s residents, who are largely black (31 percent) and Hispanic (41 percent), are also victims of an opportunity gap—nearly 50 percent of high school students don’t graduate from college and most students in this demographic are barely reading at grade level.

When it comes to the intersection of climate change and environmental justice, the numbers by-and-large are equally stifling.

Bridgeport’s coastal location makes it especially vulnerable to rising sea levels. The impact of Superstorm Sandy left many of the city’s poorest communities displaced. Families in Marina and Seaside Villages, Bridgeport’s subsidized housing communities, were evacuated after their homes were flooded. Many of them lost food due to power outages and had no way to get to a grocery store.

Interstate 95 running though Bridgeport and dividing neighborhoods

The City’s pressing public health concerns and barriers limiting access to health care and other social services also impede residents ability to withstand events like hurricanes, heat waves, and infectious diseases transmitted by insects such as mosquitoes. For example, Bridgeport has one of the highest rates of asthma in the state, which comes as no surprise considering that local air quality is bad due to the I-95 freeway passing through the city, as well as the last remaining coal plant in Connecticut and a variety of industrial facilities. Data from two hospitals show that the leading causes of admissions are heart disease and high blood pressure. When asked about health concerns in their communities, residents mentioned cancer‐related illnesses which they attributed in part to toxic aspects of the region’s environment and infrastructure.

In addition, the East and North End neighborhoods are home to Bridgeport’s largest food deserts, making a 45-minute bus ride or a $15 cab ride to fetch groceries implausible for struggling families. The Black and Hispanic communities of Bridgeport have had very few choices in protecting their communities and the health of their families, though all is far from lost.

Recently, Bridgeport was the recipient of $10 million in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of Rebuild by Design—a multi-stage regional competition to promote resiliency in the Sandy-affected region through the execution of local recovery projects that can be replicated across the country. The monies will be used to address unmet needs for housing, economic development, and citywide infrastructure to ensure long-term resiliency. Bridgeport also received a $500,000 grant from the Robin Hood Relief Committee to help elderly and low income residents with housing rehabilitation, and reconstruction to help make their units more resilient in future storms. The Seaside Village Board of Directors sits on the multi-stakeholder committee that is tasked with determining who will receive aid.

Through his bGreen 2020 initiative, Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch is on a mission to make Bridgeport the greenest city in the state of Connecticut. The plan outlines 64 strategies to improve Bridgeport’s quality of life for all residents, clean the city’s soils and waterways, reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and attract more green jobs and businesses. Since its inception, the initiatives enforced through the plan have resulted in the reduction of 55,290 metric tons of carbon emissions each year.

A stand at a farmers market in Bridgeport, CT

While high-tech and large-scale projects to introduce renewable and cleaner energy can and will positively impact residents, Bridgeport’s revitalization is coupled with resiliency initiatives set to protect its most vulnerable communities. With funding from HUD, green energy projects in the works, a food policy council leading the city’s now five farmer’s markets across the city, Bridgeport isn’t playing victim. In spite of its rather bleak challenges, Bridgeport’s greatest shortcomings have also proven to be its golden opportunity for change. And times, indeed, are a-changing. The world is watching as an underdog becomes a leader in how efforts toward a clean economy could potentially serve as a solution to mitigating the impact of climate change on its most vulnerable residents.

About the author: Sherrell Dorsey is a social impact writer, branding and communications strategist, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. A featured safer chemicals advocate on Fox News, her work on social justice and environmental policy has covered the pages of Black Enterprise, Triple Pundit and Inhabitat. Sherrell was named a 2013 Zoom Foundation Fellow where she was given the honor of serving on several environmental sustainability and youth-policy initiatives in the Office of Mayor Bill Finch in Bridgeport, Connecticut

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