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Long-time residents plan climate resiliency for their Cincinnati neighborhoods

Darryl Franklin was among the participants in the Beekman Corridor Climate Advisory Group convened by local nonprofits to advise the City of Cincinnati's environmental planning and responses to climate change.
Nick Swartsell
Darryl Franklin was among the participants in the Beekman Corridor Climate Advisory Group convened by local nonprofits to advise the City of Cincinnati's environmental planning and responses to climate change.

Sandra Davis has lived in South Cumminsville for the past 30 years. She’s enjoyed the proximity to her family and the opportunity to own her own home.

But she also sees plenty of environmental problems: landslides from nearby hills stripped of trees; flooding from increased rainfall; brownfields (industrial sites that need costly pollution remediation before they can be developed into housing or other uses); and air pollution from traffic on I-74, which cut deep into the neighborhood in the 1970s.

City data suggests South Cumminsville, where life expectancy is a full decade less than Cincinnati's average and where half of residents live in poverty, has high respiratory disease risk due to air pollution. The neighborhood is plagued by high levels of diesel particulate in the air. Fifteen percent of its residents have asthma, among the highest rates in the city.

Environmental issues have hit home for Davis— literally. She has experienced flooding on her property that she attributes to climate change.

“My backyard looked like a swimming pool," she said. "And the water just forcefully tore the backdoor in the basement off the hinge.”

The neighborhoods along Beekman Street just west of Cincinnati’s Mill Creek have experienced decades of disinvestment and neglect, and the environmental fallout those dynamics bring.

But despite those issues, long-term residents have been working to make sure their communities are prepared for a changing climate.

Beekman Corridor Climate Advisory Group

For the last seven weeks, residents from South Cumminsville, Millvale, North Fairmount and English Woods have spent time deepening their knowledge about climate change and the challenges it poses for their communities.

The team of residents, called the Beekman Corridor Climate Advisory Group, was convened via a partnership between nonprofits Groundwork Ohio River Valley and Green Umbrella. It’s all in conjunction with the City of Cincinnati. The group drafted up suggestions for making their part of Cincinnati more resilient in the face of rising temperatures, increased rainfall and other environmental challenges.

In North Fairmount, Darryl Franklin knows all his neighbors – and in many cases, their parents and grandparents. He’s lived there since 1967 and played bass in a local band that performed in a nearby park.

As much as he loves North Fairmount, Franklin has seen how it’s suffered from the factories and highways nearby.

“The air pollution in our neighborhood is so awful, everyone is in danger of losing their next breath with every breath.”

According to data from the City of Cincinnati, the neighborhood — where more than half of residents live in poverty — ranks high for cancer risks and very high for risk of other respiratory diseases from air pollution. Life expectancy here is just 67 years, well below the city's average of 76 years.

It's not all bad news; North Fairmount has among the highest tree canopy coverage of any Cincinnati neighborhood, something that Franklin loves.

But he says his neighborhood and surrounding areas — all predominantly Black and mostly low income — have borne an unfair burden when it comes to pollution.

“I know that if this same house was in Oakley and I lived across the street from the brownfields I live across from here, they would have been gone thirty or forty years ago.”

Franklin and Davis are just two of the 16 residents in the Beekman Corridor who participated in the climate advisory group. It was an eye-opening experience, Davis says.

“We really learned a lot," she says. "The first thing that grabbed me was the concept of resiliency.”

Each neighborhood drew up its own climate resiliency plan complete with a map of additions needed to address increasing heat, air pollution, flooding and other environmental problems. Those include expanded green space, rain gardens, more trees lining the streets and other features.

Davis is encouraged residents are being given the opportunity to talk about their needs.

“I’m glad, first of all, for the attention, the spotlight on the problems. Because as several people have said, we’re an underserved community and there is a high prevalence of health problems.”

Meanwhile, Franklin wants accountability and some money to address those problems.

“What I’d really like to see happen is for someone to come in here and put all these businessmen together and say, ‘this is how much money you guys are making, and you wouldn’t be making any of it if you weren’t right here. If you want to stay right here, you should spend some of it on letting the community survive.' Because the community isn’t surviving with all this smoke and smog.”

Residents presented their recommendations July 20. Those needs will be considered as the city works on its Green Cincinnati Plan update, which will be finalized in 2023. The city and nonprofits will also work with residents to find funding opportunities for their priorities. Other regions in Cincinnati will get a chance to form their own climate advisory groups as the engagement process continues.

Participants like Davis are eager to see action on their suggestions.

“I hope that we can actually put some things in process, that we can actually make things better for the community.”

Nick has reported from a nuclear waste facility in the deserts of New Mexico, the White House press pool, a canoe on the Mill Creek, and even his desk one time.