Beyond the Blame Game. How Norfolk is Building public solidarity to respond to Climate Change

Susan Sterett and Adam Eckerd


Sterret Eckerd

Credit: Resilient Cities Blog


The Hampton Roads region in Virginia is central to shipping, the United States navy, and tourism.  The ‘Roads’ is a large natural harbor, one of the first places settled in North America by Europeans, and today includes more than 1.5 million people. It is a coastal planning district comprising low lying cities affected by water. Cities within it include Norfolk, a city with a major naval installation, Virginia Beach, a popular beach vacation spot, and Newport News, a predominantly African American community that does not have the benefit of being either of national military concern or of great tourism interest.

Norfolk is particularly vulnerable to nuisance flooding and rising sea level. For it, climate change is real. But it also recognizes that climate change is a multi-dimensional problem with environmental, infrastructural, and social dimensions. Specifically, for Norfolk, climate change is also a housing problem. Nuisance flooding forces its residents to relocate. But relocation or rebuild policy intersects with longstanding problems of segregation, inequality, and land use issues. Because climate change creates complex problems, Norfolk has two options. Either it plays the blame game and revels in policy paralysis. Alternatively, it turns this into an opportunity to build community relying on partnerships with citizens, universities, nonprofits, and government officials.  As we show, Norfolk has chosen the policy of findings solutions rather than assigning blame.

Constructive Response to Policy Complexity

Norfolk has been called a “canary in the coal mine” with respect to sea level rise related to climate change. Norfolk has recognized this threat and has mustered nonprofit and government grants, urban planning and community engagement, to address the complex problem of recurrent flooding.  The city has recognized that the problem is tied to 400 years of building on an archipelago, segregation, and storms. The city addresses community concerns about adaptation via discussion fora, organized around questions community organizations raise.

Causes for Norfolk’s recurrent flooding are multiple. Much of the city is built on infilled land. This infilled land is sinking while seas are rising. Storms and tides erode the city’s land. Vulnerable land includes predominantly African American historic neighborhoods of single family homes, with homeowners and renters of modest incomes. People cannot manage flooding for each individual home; a collective response is required.

Norfolk’s strategic importance to the United States means that its citizens are not relocating inland. The naval installation brings shipping and ship repair as a significant industry, in additional to a large influx of naval personnel.  The city also has a long history of racial inequality.  School desegregation in the 1950s, which the state of Virginia resisted, heightened separation between nearby Virginia Beach and Norfolk, and this makes relocation challenging. Assessing how best to rebuild to respect stream flow and protect people requires working with people’s attachment to community.

City officials have worked on reconciling priorities by engaging the community in several different ways. For example, Norfolk’s historic Chesterfield Heights neighborhood experiences recurrent flooding. After a design competition run by the Virginia nonprofit Wetlands Watch, the area was chosen for flooding mitigation efforts. Students designed permeable pavers and underground cisterns to catch water. This project brought together students at Hampton University, an historically black private university, as well as students at Old Dominion University, a state university. Norfolk  included the student work in its application to the Housing and Urban Development’s National Disaster Resilience Design Competition for which Virginia received a $120 million grant in 2016. The city of Norfolk has planned to implement the students’ design for the Ohio Creek Watershed. The city also has a ‘Retain Your Rain’ project, with community workshops, and a Facebook page.

These examples illustrate the multidimensional approach Norfolk is taking to adapt to the problem of sea level rise and storms. Norfolk is one of the Rockefeller 100 resilient cities, and as a result the city employs a full-time resilience officer to coordinate its efforts to adapt to a changing environment. Its 2015 plan issued under the Rockefeller stamp  emphasized multiplicity, long history and response in challenges to people’s well-being.  Norfolk relies on multiple actors, including nonprofits and educational institutions, and has the advantage of federal government interest in ensuring that important national assets are protected.

Public administration as managing complexity rather than solving problems

Climate change has been called an existential threat, which discourages people from acting.  Arguably, some people may not accept science when scientific framing attacks core values such as distrust of government; they challenge science because they interpret climate change as an invitation for more government intervention. Therefore, to get the buy in on climate action, the problem framing needs to change. Norfolk has done this in two ways. First, it has adopted a problem-solution approach of public administration that focuses on technical solutions such as pavers, or retaining rain. But it has gone beyond it because climate change is a social and political problem as well. To address these dimensions, it has invoked a communitarian frame to address different issues together. Norfolk is attempting an approach that recognizes that environmental, engineering and social issues posed by climate change are intertwined.
Norfolk is not indulging in a climate blame game. Instead, it is building an infrastructure, creating organizational capacity through resilience officers and university partnerships, updating flood maps, creating strategic plans and creating platforms for public engagement. Taken together, these efforts are building the ‘civil solidarity.’ Programs like design competitions, public charrettes, visioning, and engaging with civil society build the networks of organizations (public, nonprofit, and private) and citizens that translate complex issues into manageable component parts.  In turn, the components hold out the hope of helping with racial inequity in housing, of bringing communities into conversation, of understanding local history, and of participating in the excitement of competitions, grants and public events—and ultimately of building the capacity that the city will need to adapt to a different future.

Susan Sterett is Professor in the Center for Public Administration and Policy at Virginia Tech.  As of Fall 2017, she will be director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Adam Eckerd is Assistant Professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.