Statehood advocates march in Washington, DC

Credit: Ted Eytan, Creative Commons

Across the United States, state and local policy makers are challenged by diverse needs and the call to build equitable communities. Since the 1970s, the Harrison Institute has worked to overcome the legacy of housing discrimination and displacement from gentrification and commercial growth. Increasingly, displacement is compounded by climate change. The Institute has worked with the Georgetown Climate Center to help local governments adapt to heat, flooding and extreme weather events.


Our clients and collaborators are listed below.

  • State and local governments
    * Alliance of Regional Collaboratives for Climate Adaptation –including metropolitan areas in California
    * California Air Resources Board
    * Connecticut
    * Chester, PA
    * DC Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE)
    * Green Infrastructure Advisory Group (Denver, Detroit, Santa Fe, DC, Cambridge)
    * Louisiana
    * Louisville, KY
    * Maryland
    * Milwaukee, WI
    * Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
    * New York City, NY
    * New York state commissions on response to Hurricane Sandy
    * Oregon Department of Public Health
    * Virginia
    * Virginia Beach, VA
    * Western Adaptation Alliance –including Denver, Santa Fe, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas
  • Government associations
    * DC Silver Jackets – a collaboration of federal (e.g., Army Corps of Engineers) and local agencies (e.g., DC Department of Energy and Environment and the Office of Planning)* Coastal States Organization (CSO)
    * Eastern Shore Climate Action Partnership (ESCAP) – six Maryland counties and two municipalities on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay. ESCAP work is coordinated by the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy.
    * National Conference of Environmental Legislators (NCEL)
    * National League of Cities
    * Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM)
    * West Coast Governors Alliance
    * Western Governors Association
  • Nonprofit and community organizations
    * Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (supporting ESCAP above)
    * Equity Advisory Group (EAG) in Ward 7, Northeast Washington, DC
    * Resilience Hub Community Committee (RHCC) in Ward 7, Northeast Washington, DC
    * Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless

Affordable housing and community development

Mayor Muriel Bowser and nonprofit housing developers break ground for new affordable housing

Credit: Ronald G. Walters, Light Media

In order to meet Washington, DC’s housing needs after COVID-19, the city will need to reshape legal, policy, and financing to develop housing that is affordable to low-income residents. The health and economic crises caused by the pandemic will multiply the city’s homeless populations and overwhelm housing agencies, exacerbating inequitable public health outcomes that predate the pandemic. Meanwhile, the legacies of racial segregation in housing and the rapid pace of gentrification continue to restrict access to affordable housing for Black and other communities of color. The Harrison Institute, which worked with the DC Council to pioneer affordable housing policies, will continue to work with community partners to create policy solutions for the District’s most vulnerable residents.

  • Affordable housing after COVID-19: We provide support for the development of the Ward 8 Community Economic Development (W8CED) plan to help promote a more just and community-led development process in one of the most under-resourced areas of Washington, DC. Students have conducted trainings and workshops in Ward 8 and citywide on the use of community benefits agreements (CBAs), which can be used to strengthen community resources and relationships when negotiating with private developers.
  • Equitable Adaptation Toolkit: Resilient Affordable Housing (chapter) – Low-income populations and communities of color are frequently the hardest-hit by heat, flooding, and extreme climate events. The need for climate-resilient, affordable housing is critical to these frontline communities across the country as they recover from and prepare for extreme weather. In 2020, we authored a chapter on resilient affordable housing for GCC’s toolkit on equitable adaptation in cities. The chapter provides examples of cities using various policy tools to create or preserve affordable housing that is resilient to climate change impacts, with particular focus on cross-cutting issues like gentrification and community displacement.

Climate adaptation: urban heat and flooding

Ward 7 residents participate in the Equity Advisory Group

Credit: Jennifer Li, Harrison Institute

The Harrison Institute collaborates with the Georgetown Climate Center (GCC) to advise state and local governments on measures that prepare communities for the impacts of climate change (e.g., flooding, extreme heat).  Many of our projects are based locally and engage DC residents in planning a resilient future for their own neighborhoods.



Flood map of Watts Branch in Washington, DC

Credit: DC Silver Jackets

  • Community resilience hub – Since 2019, Harrison has worked with DOEE to convene the Resilience Hub Community Committee (RHCC), which is providing recommendations for implementing a pilot resilience hub in Ward 7 to provide community services during floods, other climate emergencies, and also pandemics and other disruptions.
  • Flood resilience in Ward 7 – policies and funding – forthcoming in Fall of 2020 – In Washington’s Ward 7, over 5,000 units of affordable housing are at risk of flooding from the tidal Anacostia River and its Watts Branch tributary. The neighborhoods around Watts Branch are also home to vulnerable community institutions including schools, community centers, and churches.  In addition to flood risk, urban storm runoff pollutes rivers and can also contaminate water supplies. The Harrison Institute contributed to the DC Silver Jacket’s study on flood risk management in the Watts Branch area of Ward 7:
    • A policy menu of strategies that can alleviate flooding while also promoting community goals, such as improving the affordability and resilience of existing housing and building opportunities for workforce development; and
    • A compendium of federal and local funding sources that District agencies and individual homeowners can use to increase flood resilience using interventions like green stormwater infrastructure.
    • Equity advisory groupIn 2018, Harrison worked with GCC and DOEE to convene a community engagement process to vet flood-resilient policies.  An Equity Advisory Group (EAG) of Ward 7 residents met monthly for a  year to provide recommendations on implementing the District’s climate plans. The EAG process was captured in a 2019 Georgetown Voice article.
  • Green infrastructure toolkit – The toolkit helps cities plan and build stormwater infrastructure to handle future storms while capturing the benefits of “green” infrastructure such as access to green space and better air quality.
  • Louisville policy menu – The project for Louisville, Kentucky, mapped policy alternatives to minimize and manage stormwater runoff including zoning regulations, building codes, tax incentives, and public investments in green infrastructure.

Urban heat

Graph showing highest temperatures over the center of a city

Urban asphalt and buildings absorb heat and create “heat islands” that are hotter than surrounding rural areas – about five degrees hotter in the day and 20 degrees hotter at night. Extreme heat causes more deaths than hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined. Heat-related deaths are projected to rise to between 3,000 and 5,000 deaths annually by 2050. Crime rates spike when the heat is highest, and increasingly, cities are becoming less livable in the summer months.  Urban heat islands also spike energy costs, greenhouse-gas emissions, and related air pollution. Our projects on urban heat include:

  • Urban heat chapter – Sara Hoverter contributed the urban heat chapter of Climate Change, Public Health, and the Law. This book is the first comprehensive treatment of interactions between climate change, public health law, and environmental law (edited by Michael Burger and Justin Gundlach, both at Columbia University, and published by Cambridge University Press).
  • Adaptation Toolkit: Urban Heat – The toolkit analyzes four tools to shrink urban heat islands – green roofs, cool roofs, cool pavements, and urban forestry.  The toolkit shows how other cities are promoting each tool with policy options to achieve the desired outcome. A decision framework compares public heath, energy savings, and environmental benefits.
  • Urban Heat: Compilation of D.C. Policy Options – We compiled sources of legal authority and policy options for adapting to urban heat in the District, which contributed to the D.C. Sustainability Plan and the D.C. Climate Adaptation Plan.
  • Federal Funding Compendium for Urban Heat Adaptation – The compendium analyzed 44 federal programs across dozens of federal agencies with potential to pay for state and local government adaptation to urban heat islands.
  • Milwaukee case study –The Milwaukee study showed  that horizontal cooperation among seven city agencies mitigated the impact of flooding from stormwater runoff and significantly contributed to reducing urban heat.

Climate adaptation: Sea level rise

Photo of House on Holland Island

Credit: MD SeaGrant

Sea levels could rise in some areas from three to six feet by the end of the century.  Depending on location, the low end of annual flood damage could increase between 100 and 200 percent (NOAA, 2010), threatening scores of communities and millions of residents. The most vulnerable counties are confronting sea level rise (SLR) that could claim more than half their land mass. The most vulnerable cities have billions of infrastructure investments, high density development, and affordable housing at risk – as proven by hurricanes that hit New York and Houston. A summary of our recent work on SLR follows.


  • Managed Retreat Toolkit: LA SAFE – In response to SLR and extreme weather, coastal communities across the country are increasingly evaluating options for managed retreat, which entails relocating residents and structures inland out of harm’s way. In 2019, we authored a case study in GCC’s Managed Retreat Toolkit, examining strategies adopted by the Louisiana Strategy Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE). The study prepares coastal parishes to relocate and receive communities seeking to migrate from high-flood-risk areas in the state.
  • Maryland – Eastern Shore Climate Adaptation Partnership (ESCAP) – Communities on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay are at risk of sea-level rise and land subsidence. With support from the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC) and GCC, counties and municipalities convened as a coalition (ESCAP) to map their futures and preserve their housing, jobs, economy, infrastructure, and tax base. In 2019, our climate team surveyed ESCAP jurisdictions to identify their common adaptation goals with the aim of helping them select specific land use and conservation measures to strengthen collaboratively. In 2017-18, our climate team helped ESCAP develop a model for collaborating to reduce flood-insurance costs, and we contributed to GCC’s report on Higher Standards: Opportunities for Enhancing Flood Resilience on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
  • Baltimore – National Flood Insurance Program – We analyzed Baltimore’s experience with the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), specifically the Community Rating System (CRS), a part of the NIFP that encourages communities to bolster flood resilience in exchange for insurance discounts. The CRS tends to favor actions that can prove challenging for older, denser Northeastern cities. We provided recommendations to help Baltimore use CRS incentives to retrofit row houses; preserve open space in high-density, high-value neighborhoods; and document alteration of very old structures.
  • Policy options for Virginia Beach – As part of a broader GCC project to support planning by the City of Virginia Beach, we identified options to shift development away from the highest-risk flood areas and toward higher ground. Options were modeled after a successful strategy that the city had used to shift residential development away from a naval air base.
  • Permits by the Army Corps of Engineers – At the request of the West Coast Governors’ Alliance (WCGA), we analyzed the Army Corps of Engineers permitting authority over all lands adjacent to navigable waters. Corps permitting processes tend to encourage use of coastal armoring, which blocks the natural flow of beaches and can exacerbate erosion.  Our analysis highlights permitting processes by which states can obtain permits from the Corps for alternatives to armoring such as wetlands restoration or “living shorelines.”
  • National Flood Insurance Program – Also at the request of WCGA, we analyzed how the National Flood Insurance Program (NIFP) encourages development in risky areas. We analyzed how state and local governments can use different programs within the NFIP and the Stafford Act to relocate development (e.g., the Community Rating System and Hazard Mitigation Grant Programs).  Most recently, we analyzed how reforms to the NFIP, adopted by Congress in 2012, might affect local planning.
  • Maryland – model ordinance for SLR – At the request of the Maryland Department of Environmental Protection, we developed a model ordinance to create three adaptation districts:  (1) a conservation or retreat zone to protect vulnerable areas and natural resources, (2) an accommodation zone to allow for development of structures that are resilient to floods, and (3) a protection zone to protect dense development and critical facilities with shoreline armoring.
  • Connecticut and Maryland case studies – The studies analyze the extent to which each state could implement the model ordinance under current state law, federal law, and constitutions. We also identified the need for additional delegation of authority.
  • Sea Level Rise Tool Kit – The Sea Level Rise Toolkit analyzed 18 land use tools that state and local governments can use to respond to threats posed by sea level rise. The toolkit identifies adaptive policies, discusses how each tool addresses SLR, and provides a framework to weigh the trade-offs between options and to anticipate potential legal and policy obstacles.