Zakaria Elkawa: My Summer with Climate Ready Boston

Zakaria Elkawa (CAS’24, Pardee’24) was our summer 2023 Climate Ready Boston Intern.

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During my internship with the City of Boston Climate Ready Team, I found that Boston is moving in the right direction in leading the charge of urban-based climate action. Before interning with the city, I had primarily only interacted with urban planning on a conceptual level. I had known of programs the City of Boston was employing. Still, I was unaware of the degree to which, beyond engagement, communities in the city have taken a leading role in shaping the city’s fight against climate change.

My direct supervisor and Climate Ready Boston program coordinator, Zoe Davis, did a great job introducing me to this line of work. In my first few weeks, I spent much time listening to her meetings and asking many questions to ensure I could positively contribute to the team. I found her extremely receptive, and more importantly, I felt a trust that made me eager to learn and contribute more. I found that a lot of her day-to-day work centered around making sure that any development project, small or large, in the city carries the consideration of expansion of sustainable projects, specifically that had to do with questions of heat resiliency.

Much of her work focuses on implementing the City’s Heat Plan, which she was critical in helping form. The plan greatly centers on historical context, such as red-lining's development in Boston. This aspect of Boston’s history was undoubtedly present and recognized by the environment department, specifically within the Climate Ready Team, in much of its work.

The plan crucially outlays a neighborhood-specific approach to mitigate long-standing systemic issues the city itself played a massive part in shaping in certain neighborhoods. Many of these neighborhoods are the most vulnerable to climate change, partly because of those systemic issues. This aspect of historical injustice and the present context for the city defined how the department viewed environmental justice (EJ). I appreciated this framework because it pinpointed the city’s responsibility to address climate change in a way that genuinely provides justice and attention to its residents.

In practice, I saw how this worked with a program Zoe is taking the lead on, the Boston Tree Alliance Program. The program addresses the gaps in tree canopy coverage in the city. Crucially, the program emphasizes planting in EJ neighborhoods (outlined in the heat plan) and provides grants explicitly for community organizations focused on mitigating the aspects of the city’s built environment that exacerbate heat. This aspect of the program allows the community to work with the city government but emboldens them to take the lead on city transformation. Working with Zoe on the program’s development helped me understand the importance of emboldening community leadership. A project can only be successful if it meets the community’s needs, and its residents will know which issues are more paramount than others. The process improves the city and makes it more democratic in its planning and transformation.

Zoe, in general, made my transition into the team much easier. I felt welcome and gained confidence from her eagerness to include me in meetings and strategy sessions and develop the team’s community engagement.

This allowed me to work with community members dedicated to seeing a more sustainable Boston. The people I met clarified that they wanted to see this transition happen in a way that addresses the material needs of Boston’s most vulnerable and longest-term residents. People like Lydia Lowe, director of the Chinatown Community Land Trust (CCLT), were patient as they guided me through the nuances and history of Chinatown. This was also crucial as Chinatown is one of the five neighborhoods outlined in the heat plan. Developing that relationship with community residents only bolstered the understanding I had gained of Chinatown in analyzing that plan. It also prepared me to facilitate the development of CCLT’s partnership with the Resilient Cities Network (RCN), as they aim to fund seed projects related to climate resilience in neighborhoods like Chinatown.

During the internship, part of my role was serving as a representative of the City in facilitating this relationship. I worked with RCN on community engagement, survey design, securing translators, and working on a neighborhood context report to ensure the perspectives and context of community organizations were represented in their process. This work helped me understand the effort Boston is taking to ensure its programs have community buy-in and that organizations looking to operate in the city do so justly within the city context.

My work with Zoe and the community emboldened me to branch out within the Climate Ready Team and work with project managers such as Hannah Wagner and Catherine McCandless. Their work mainly focuses on protecting Boston’s coastal infrastructure. Working with them gave me a total picture of Climate Ready’s mission: ensuring the effects climate change is already bringing. It will continue to be mitigated in coordination with the community’s desires.

Working with Hannah and Catherine allowed me to work more with raw numbers and data. In working with Hannah, for instance, I would do things like chart estimated flood impact costs and other social vulnerability metrics related to Boston’s five coastal neighborhoods. This work was partially to improve internal data but crucially helped the team voice its perspective on coastal societal vulnerability metrics broadly to organizations CRB is in partnership with.

In general, this aspect of cross-agency collaboration was something I also really valued about my time with Climate Ready Boston. This includes the state agencies I briefly got to meet, such as individuals from the MBTA and DEP, and in more direct collaboration with individuals from the Boston Planning and Development Agency, Boston Parks and Recreation, and, excitingly, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM).

I had the opportunity to work directly with MIT MONUM fellow Joy Armstrong on her project, forming the Climate Ready Bus Stops program. The project focused on enhancing shade and installing cooling technologies in Boston’s existing and future bus stop shelters. Her work was a considerable aspect of advancing the Heat Plan’s project development capabilities. Beyond that, I learned a great deal from her. I realized that working at MONUM is a fantastic way to use the resources I and any other young professional in this city have at their disposal to influence city policy and action directly.

I can name many more people from my eight weeks at city hall, all doing fantastic work to make the various mandates the city has been given reality. To finish, though, it is necessary to iterate that interning in the city, no matter your discipline, forces you into a direct connection with the people and everyday happenings of your environment, making you a better and more skillful person. When you take a moment to realize that the sewer drains underneath the sidewalk you run on, or the benches you stop on to take a breather while carrying groceries, were at least partly deliberately put there by people you work with every day, it makes you appreciative of your environment. You become more observant and a little more aware of how the world works, even if it’s just the one around you. Learning those details and everything in between is why I am thankful I interned at City Hall this summer and why I hope to be back working there soon.

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