When Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas gulf coast in 2017, it reminded many of the fatal devastation of hurricane Katrina a decade earlier. For some, mostly the Black community from New Orleans who rebuilt their lives in Houston suburbs, Harvey was like a recurring nightmare.

Figuring out how to prepare marginalized and dispossessed communities for climate change and other threats is work that still needs to be done. Jo Fitzgibbons (MES ’19) is the recipient of the 2020 Governor General’s Gold Medal. The award is given out annually to students from different institutions who achieve the highest level of academic scholarship for their cohort at their institution.

While a student in the School of Planning, she dedicated her Master’s degree to doing this work. Resilience, she says, is about more than climate change.

“It’s about the plethora of shocks and stresses we face as a society, how those intersect and how we decide to respond.”

Fitzgibbons, born and raised in Halifax and now pursuing her PhD at the University of British Columbia, is happy to chat about her time at Waterloo, but her mind is elsewhere. Across the United States and Canada, people are rising up against police violence and anti-Black racism.

The frustration, grief and anger being expressed are familiar to her.

“It’s no coincidence that the same racialized people who had been hit hardest by Katrina, also suffered the most from Harvey,” she says. “Those leaving Louisiana for Texas to find the most affordable housing were also in an area where the climate threat was greatest. Global events in 2020 are drawing attention to the same patterns: People of Colour are disproportionately killed by COVID-19 and also by police.”

Joanne Marie Fitzgibbons

Joanne Marie Fitzgibbons
Faculty of Environment (MES 19)

While at Waterloo, Fitzgibbons studied and researched equity, justice and participation in planning for urban resilience. At the forefront in her mind are the racialized people she met while in Toronto collecting data for her research on the Rockefeller Foundation’s “100 Resilient Cities” program.

Fitzgibbons sees several parallels between her research and the current situation.

“Injustice may happen in the first place because of direct exploitation and oppression, but it’s upheld because people and institutions that already have power aren’t willing to share it,” she says. “In urban planning, it’s because well-intentioned white, middle-class planners — like me — continue to make decisions on behalf of people whose experiences we don’t understand. That was what my thesis called attention to and it’s just one example of how white supremacy manifests structurally, in the way we plan our cities. Across North America right now, we’re seeing calls for action on the same problem in a different context.”

Fitzgibbons argues that this concentration of planning power ultimately impedes our efforts to build resilience to climate change, COVID-19 and a host of other challenges. As the examples from Katrina and Harvey demonstrate, existing inequalities lead to greater losses for racialized communities in times of crisis.

“What we found in Toronto is that low-income people, if given a voice in consultations, have a constellation of resilience challenges impacting their lives that need to be addressed. A planner can’t reasonably claim to be ‘building resilience’ if they come up with some great solutions to flooding or extreme heat in, say, Regent Park, but ignore the community’s pleas to address gun violence, which is the existential threat that they face on a daily basis,” Fitzgibbons says. “If we value Black lives, we need to listen to and amplify Black voices — in urban planning and everywhere.”

Carrie Mitchell, a researcher in the Environment’s School of Planning, supervised Fitzgibbons’ thesis.

“For generations, our urban areas have been planned by a small minority of the population. This lack of diversity in planning has led to places and spaces that can systematically exclude important members of our communities,” Mitchell says.

Mitchell, whose experience working collaboratively with a variety of stakeholders, including academics, policy-makers, private sector and civil society in Asia and North America, knew right away Fitzgibbons was on the right track.

“A new generation of planners, like Fitzgibbons, are doing the hard work of shining a light on this problem and trying to highlight voices that better reflect our diverse communities,” Mitchell says.

For Fitzgibbons and Mitchell, one of the biggest issues for marginalized communities trying to build urban resilience is a (warranted) lack of trust in government institutions, who have often failed to deliver sustained and meaningful change.

In the aftermath of Katrina, community organizers and activists plastered posters across the city. “Stop calling me resilient”, they say, quoting Tracie Washington of the Louisiana Justice Institute. “Because every time you say, ‘Oh, they’re resilient,’ that means you can do something else to me. I am not resilient.”

Fitzgibbons points out that this message cuts right to the heart of the issue she’s devoted her scholarship to.

“We use the word resilience all the time when taking a birds-eye policy approach,” she says. “But this word means very different things to different people. The only way to know is to go to where they are, get their perspective, listen to their voices. Most importantly, planners need to act. There’s a sort of taboo in urban planning, this idea that planners should not be ‘activists’ because we must uphold this false image of being impartial and neutral and evidence-based, but that’s wrong. There is no such thing as neutral when you have power over how resources are allocated.”

Luckily, Fitzgibbons’ research unearthed several tangible ways that city governments can do better.

“The main take-away, is that planners need to be better listeners and cities need to learn how to share power and resources with marginalized communities,” she says. “The Resilient Conversations approach in Toronto that I profiled for my research was a good start. Toronto hired people from racialized and low-income communities as experts and equity was a focal point of the City Resilience Strategy during every phase.”

Fitzgibbons also thinks it’s no mistake that the staff person at the city who led this effort is Black, with extensive community development experience.

“We need more racialized people employed in local government, making decisions about how we build our cities, working to change bureaucracies from the inside and forging relationships with communities.”

With all that is going on with climate risk, police violence and COVID-19, the stakes have never been higher.