A Policy Analysis to Reduce Climate Risk in Chicago’s Most Vulnerable Communities

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Gallagher, Eileen


Albright, Elizabeth A

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This master’s project compares policy options that will most effectively reduce climate risk, specifically flooding, in Chicago’s most vulnerable communities. Chicago is expected to receive heavier and more frequent precipitation due to climate change, increasing upwards to 20 to 30 percent more by the end of the century (Hayhoe, et al, 2010). Unfortunately, over the past several decades, the City’s century-old combined sewer system has failed to protect communities from flooding (Hayhoe, et al, 2010). The City’s sewer system carries sewage and stormwater in the same underground pipe, and it often exceeds its threshold of 2.5 inches of rainfall per day (USGCRP, 2009). Beyond that, the untreated waste and stormwater overflow into the Chicago River and Lake Michigan – the City’s source of drinking water – or onto city streets and into basements (City of Chicago, n.d.b). The City has been investing in infrastructure to combat the increasing frequency of flooding. In 1972, the City unveiled the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP) to reduce flooding, but several challenges have delayed phases of execution, and it is not expected to be completed until 2029. Until a more sophisticated sewer system is constructed, green and other gray infrastructure can mitigate flooding risks by capturing stormwater. Recognizing this, City of Chicago established the Green Stormwater Infrastructure Strategy in 2014 and plans to release a Citywide Stormwater Management Plan in 2015. The Strategy designates $50 million to fund green stormwater infrastructure projects over five years for existing and planned capital improvement projects, but these projects are not specifically assigned to communities that are the most vulnerable. Although flooding is pervasive throughout Chicago, the most vulnerable populations are most at risk. Vulnerability is described as “the propensity or predisposition to be adversely affected… including sensitivity or susceptibility to harm and lack of capacity to cope and adapt” (IPCC, 2014). Experts increasingly recognize that adapting to climate change, and repairing or rebuilding homes and neighborhoods after extreme weather events, will place an additional stress on vulnerable communities. Vulnerability can be measured by the Hardship Index, a collection of six socioeconomic indictors, assessing poverty, crowded housing, unemployment, level of education, age (or dependency), and per capita income (City of Chicago, 2014). In 2014, the City of Chicago evaluated its 77 communities using the Hardship Index, finding that there is an unequal distribution of hardship among different racial and ethnic demographics within the City. This inequitable divide suggests that communities that are majority minority are the most vulnerable, and therefore will likely struggle the most to adapt to climate change. But to date, existing policies do not adequately protect vulnerable communities from climate change. To remedy these challenges, the City of Chicago must institute a sound policy that aims to reduce its climate risk, protect its economy and ensure environmental justice of its most vulnerable communities. Leveraging existing city plans, state initiatives, U.S. presidential executive orders or federal regulations, this project outlines and analyzes three policy options to address the problem in Chicago:

  1. Affirmative Action for Vulnerable Communities would encourage the City to “engage in good faith efforts” (UVA EOP, 2012) to proactively assign climate adaptation projects under the Green Stormwater Infrastructure Strategy and Citywide Stormwater Management Plan for vulnerable communities, improving conditions for populations that have historically been discriminated against.
  2. Community-based Adaptation for Environmental Justice would localize federal and state environmental justice acts to mandate financing for vulnerable communities, which are often underrepresented in policymaking, to identify the adaptation project of their choosing, thereby strengthening their capacity to adapt to climate change.
  3. Discounted Premiums for the Poor expands the existing subsidies offered by the National Flood Insurance Program to cover not only homeowners located in high-risk flood zones but also homeowners under the federal poverty line. The optimal policy should not exacerbate hardship but rather reduce communities’ vulnerability to flooding. Therefore, the three policy options in addition to the status quo are measured against the following goals:
  4. Effectiveness: The frequency and volume of flooding should decline, measured by whether the number of flood insurance claims will decrease in the most vulnerable communities as identified by the Hardship Index.
  5. Equity: Stakeholders are not unfairly burdened, measured by (1) whether insurance companies will face surmounting financial pressure due to an increasing number of claims and (2) whether neighboring communities will receive excess stormwater runoff as a result of the policy.
  6. Political feasibility: Stakeholders support or minimally oppose the policy, measured by (1) whether homeowners in vulnerable communities will tolerate temporary disturbances to install stormwater infrastructure and (2) whether the municipal government will accept budgetary changes.
  7. Efficiency: Costs to vulnerable communities are minimized, measured by whether costs exceed the moderate amount of flood insurance premiums. After careful analysis of the three policy alternatives measured against the four aforementioned goals, the City should implement Affirmative Action for Vulnerable Communities to address its climate and socioeconomic challenges. By selecting vulnerable communities as recipients of the committed $50 million for green stormwater infrastructure, the City can curtail flooding in vulnerable communities without additional costs to homeowners. And with improved stormwater management infrastructure, the number of flood insurance claims and runoff into neighboring communities will decrease. There are several other actions the City should take to achieve and maintain political feasibility under this policy. A community-specific needs assessment and a cost-benefit analysis will help to prioritize which stormwater management projects to execute in which of the vulnerable communities. And collaborative stakeholder engagement from municipal departments, nonprofits and community residents is critical to successfully execute the policy. Finally, the City must continue to monitor for climate risk and vulnerability as well as evaluate the policy’s progress. The municipal government should take an adaptive management approach to administrating the policy, which can connect continuous learning with policy implementation and guide administrators to adjust management processes for maximum impact (Williams et al, 2009). Properly managing and ultimately enhancing vulnerable communities’ ability to adapt to a changing climate is critical for the City’s economic, environmental and human wellbeing.





Gallagher, Eileen (2015). A Policy Analysis to Reduce Climate Risk in Chicago’s Most Vulnerable Communities. Master's project, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/9603.

Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.