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© Frank


When Policy Centers People

by Marquise Stillwell and Jean Flemma
September 20, 2021

This interview with Jean Flemma and Marquise Stillwell, two of the co-founders of the Urban Ocean Lab, was conducted and condensed by franknews. 


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Jean: I have spent the past 30 years working on ocean conservation issues, primarily in a federal policy context. I worked for the House of Representatives for a very long time. More recently I have been working with nonprofits and foundations that are interested in advancing a proactive ocean climate policy agenda, which takes into consideration what's happening right now in terms of climate change and the ocean climate nexus, which is so critical.

A couple of years ago, Marquise and Ayana had been talking a lot about the fact that there was no entity that was really focused on coastal cities on the ocean climate nexus. They came together, decided that they wanted to start this nonprofit, and they asked me to join them. Obviously, the three of us have very different expertise and experiences, and together those experiences seemed well matched to help facilitate policy progress on the ocean and climate change in the context of coastal cities. 

Do you want to add to that, Marquise?

Marquise: Sure. My background is in design. I have a design and innovation research firm [Openbox] here in New York City. My primary focus is on designing for better urban living, particularly from the context of putting people and communities at the center of all things. And that includes policy changes, whether that’s access to healthcare or access to resources during a disaster.

Ayana and I were so happy to have Jean come on with us to help us think about, from where I'm sitting, the design of policy as it pertains to communities. I am thinking about how communities can help inform policy, and how policy can actually add something positive to communities. I'm coming at it from a community-centered place and I leverage design and design thinking to help amplify that.

Can you define what the ocean climate nexus is, and how the ocean fits into the larger story of climate change?

Jean: It's something that many people don't necessarily think about. People may not realize that much of the excess heat that is being generated as a result of our greenhouse gas emissions, is being absorbed by the ocean. The ocean is, in fact, the biggest buffer that has enabled us to survive on the earth for this long, without the temperatures on land becoming uninhabitable. The ocean has been absorbing the heat that we generate, and absorbing some of the emissions themselves, reducing the amount of emissions in the atmosphere. Absorbing those emissions has resulted in the ocean becoming much much more acidic, which has impacts on ocean species and ocean productivity.

Recently, we saw a very good example of what happens when the ocean gets hotter; Hurricane Ida grew so quickly, in part, due to the very warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico. And that rapid growth in intensity left very little time for people to get out of harm’s way. So not only is the ocean buffering us from the impact of climate change, but we can also see the ramifications of the ocean itself heating up. Hurricanes and tropical storms are becoming much more intense.


Marquise: I was just going to add that is the real challenge that we're facing. For the most part, we can all agree that climate change has happened. What we can't manage is the speed at which it's happening. But, unfortunately, the speed of climate change and the speed of funding and policy are not aligned. Even with the new funding that is coming, whether that is through infrastructure bill funding or not, we are still woefully underfunded in response to the velocity of change. This is the urgency that we have right now. That is why we're so focused on this issue.

Jean: As our policymakers start to think about what we’re going to do to address the climate crisis, one of the things that the ocean advocacy community is focused on is making sure that people understand that the ocean offers climate solutions. Whether that is through renewable offshore energy or carbon storage in coastal habitats, we need to make sure that our ocean resources are sustainably managed so that they're more resilient to climate change.

What challenges are coastal communities facing? 

Jean: Coastal communities are feeling the brunt of what's happening with climate change, right now. They face sea-level rise and flooding from these increasingly intense storms. This isn't something that's going to happen in the future. We are seeing it right now. What happened in Louisiana is a perfect example of this. These are the frontline communities that are being impacted, and we need to act quickly to reduce those impacts. We are not going to be able to eliminate them, but we need to figure out how we're going to minimize them so that communities are able to adapt.

And these communities, in many cases, are not being engaged or are not being heard from in the discussions about how we need to change policies right now to climate impacts. 

Marquise: This is a social justice issue. That is what has brought me into this conversation. Brown and black people will be the ones that are most affected by this. There are a myriad of reasons for that, but the main ones are the proximity to the hazard, not having information, and not being a part of the conversation.

Think about communities in cities like New York or Chicago. Brown and black communities are already living, probably 10 to 20 years ahead in feeling the impacts of climate change. If you took a map of the heat index of brown and black neighborhoods, they are probably degrees higher on that index because these communities don't have the trees and nor the access to parks that have shaded cooling areas and places where kids can play that aren’t directly in the sun. It is these kinds of issues where we really need to put people back at the center of the conversation. The most vulnerable need to be considered.

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Source: US National Archives, Breezy Point, NY after Hurricane Sandy 

What does that look like? What does people-centered design look like? 

Marquise: Well, we were talking a little about Brooklyn and Red Hook before this conversation started. I decided to move down to Red Hook during COVID and I've really been paying attention to what's going on. A week ago, during Tropical Storm Henri, I was so concerned about its impact, that I had to actually move my car. I live right by the Food Emporium, so I'm right there along the water. The thing is, I'm in a place where I can actually move. I have the ability to go somewhere. Just down the street is the largest NYCHA housing project, and the most densely populated housing project. Those individuals have nowhere to go. And there are still piles of dirt in front of the building from Superstorm Sandy! They're still dealing with the effects of Superstorm Sandy.

No one wants to talk about the dirty word, "managed retreat," but at the end of the day, people-centered design to climate change has to be focused on the most vulnerable.

We need to make sure that the policies that we're designing are focused on making sure that those individuals have the resources they need — whether that is moving, or whether it's making sure that they have heat and water when a storm happens. 

Jean: Yeah. I think Red Hook is the perfect example of this. And I keep going back to what happened this past weekend. Frankly, it's happening right now for these communities in Southern Louisiana, particularly these communities that are right on the coast that have been decimated by Ida. What are federal policymakers and what is the federal policy going to do to help those communities, not just recover, but think about how they want to move forward and rebuild their community in a more resilient way? And right now at the federal policy level, there is no one federal agency that is in charge of that conversation. There's FEMA, which provides disaster assistance. There's the Department of Transportation, which figures out what to do about roads or transit. But, there is no one federal agency that's in charge of working with communities to figure out whether they want to rebuild, how they want to rebuild, and where they want to rebuild. 

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Source: US National Archives, Breezy Point, NY after Hurricane Sandy 

In some cases, it may not make sense for some communities to rebuild in the same place, but thinking about that and talking about that is really, really difficult. Nobody wants to think about leaving their home. I don't want to think about it, but I also have the luxury of thinking about it with resources. What about people that don't have the resources and don't even know where they would go? Right now federal policymakers are not addressing that challenge in a holistic way. If we don't start thinking of a community-centered way to answer these questions, it's hard to imagine how we're going to address it in a way that is best for people.

Marquise: What's going on in Miami is so disturbing when you start to think about climate gentrification. In Miami, you have really wealthy individuals who have long wanted to live on the coast. That was the prime location. But, suddenly, there is now this need to get to higher ground. And it’s like, “Hello, Little Haiti! You are higher ground.” The individuals that live there now, landed there because they couldn't afford to live on the coast, and all of a sudden, they're being pushed out because a lot of the wealthy individuals have started developing inland. 

So when we talk about people's center policy around climate change, it's not just about the coastal areas. It's also those inland areas where brown and black people are also living. Why should we be pushing those individuals out to make way for these wealthy individuals? We have to look at all sides of the equation. 

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Source: US National Archives, One year after Hurricane Sandy 

Why are we still building at a coastal level, why are we still building below the one-meter mark? 

Jean: That is a really good question. Why are we still building there? It makes no sense. Who is paying for that now, and who is going to pay for it in the future? Who is going to bear the cost of high-rise buildings or expensive homes below the one-meter mark in the future? It seems that the risk will be borne, ultimately, by the taxpayers in a way that is not going to be sustainable.

One interesting thing that we haven't really touched is that in a lot of coastal cities housing developments for lower-income people are actually located below the one-meter mark. They are located in the areas that are closest to the impacts of sea-level rise and storms. 

Marquise mentioned Red Hook. You look at other areas of New York, as well. The Far Rockaways are where lower-income housing developments were built as cities were growing because that was the property that was cheap, and it was readily available. So they started building these communities there, and now those are the communities that are being hit first and the worst. And many of those people don't have the resources to go somewhere else. So what are they supposed to do? 

So we are facing two problems.

We have the historic climate justice challenge of redlining that drove projects to these areas. And in addition, the problem of getting resources to help people, or become more resilient in the face of climate change.

There's almost no part of policy that this doesn't touch. How do you even begin thinking about creating a framework that addresses all of these needs? How do you move from cities towards a bigger picture? 

Marquise: I think this is a good opportunity to talk about the Blue New Deal. What we're doing with that is taking a very federal point of view and policy and seeing how we can localize that.

Jean: Interestingly, one of the reasons that we chose to focus on cities is that we believe what happens in cities can be a model for what happens at the state level and the federal level. We also know that cities are on the front lines. 

But, given the magnitude of this problem, the federal government obviously has a big role to play. One of the things that we've started doing at Urban OceanLab is looking at what are the policies that have been adopted at the city level, not just in the United States, but around the globe, that are forward-looking climate policies that are successful in helping cities and coastal communities adapt? What are those best practices that are already happening? And we are thinking about how that can form the basis of policy change at the federal level, that is under this project that can be thought of as a Blue New Deal for Coastal Cities. This is something cities can do now, and something that they can do to influence federal policy. 

Federal policy and support are necessary. No city or state is going to be able to do it alone. We're going to need federal policy and programs and monetary assistance to support this. 

Marquise: Right. And, I think this also includes zoning challenges. So you start to think about all the policies, down to a city and neighborhood level, that have set certain zoning in place. 

Take Red Hook as an example, again. When Amazon was not able to move to Long Island City, private property owners in Red Hook saw that as an opportunity to attract Amazon and other big corporations. Right now in my backyard, there's an Amazon last-mile distribution center being put in. Now, the individuals living in this neighborhood are dealing with even more pollution with trucks coming in and out and noise. 

And, the biggest challenge is that no one is asking any of these big companies to actually participate in any type of resilience within the neighborhood. So they're building these big buildings, they're not necessarily providing tons of work and jobs, they're changing the roads, and they are reshaping the land here in a way that is causing problems. So it really goes all the way down from a federal level to the state level to the local borough level.

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Source: US Natioanl Archives, Schoodic Scenic Byway

I wanted to ask one more design question. As we think about building protection for these coastal cities, how do we put people first and how do we make sure that they are mitigating as well as adapting? 

Jean: So I'm not a design person, but I'll just answer one part of this. One of the things that we're focused on right now in Congress actually is securing funding for the restoration of coastal ecosystems: restoring wetlands, restoring coral reef habitats, restoring oyster beds. And restoring all these different habitats, to create what we call natural infrastructure – which has multiple benefits. It helps to mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon, and, in addition, it helps buffer coastal communities from storms. Habitats like wetlands or coral reefs can actually help buffer the impacts of storms. And in fact, there was a study done several years ago after Hurricane Sandy that showed that existing wetlands helped prevent an additional 600 plus million dollars worth of damage that would have been caused if those wetlands didn't exist.

The idea of natural infrastructure projects and coastal restoration projects as an investment that protects communities, helps mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon, and creates jobs in coastal communities.

That's like a triple bottom line, and we've been focused on that right now in Congress as part of the reconciliation package.

Marquise: I mean, I think a really good local example here in New York is the Billion Oyster Project, which is dedicated to restoring oyster reefs to New York Harbour. We have worked closely with them and are in constant conversation about what that could look like. I think the design challenge is again, who actually owns that last mile in those coastal areas. How do you actually make sure that you can do that type of work? It goes back to this zoning conversation.

Look at Ikea, in Red Hook, Brooklyn, as an example. You can see a good design example in what they've done to their waterfront right behind the building. What if each area along the waterfront had that next level of design to make sure that we're protecting the ecosystem and that we have certain signage around where you can fish and what you can do? Ikea took it upon themselves to do that. There was some zoning and planning around that, but they added extra protections. How do we do that across the board? We know the solutions are out there. The design challenge is actually about getting the policy and the planning together to make sure that we have access to actually implement those solutions.

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Source: Texas. Comptroller's Office. Fiscal Notes: February 2018periodicalFebruary 2018; Austin, Texas. ( September 21, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.

Are you hopeful that policy change will follow? Do you think policy will begin to start looking forward to the future instead of being simply reactive? 

Jean: These days, frankly, it's hard to be hopeful. Particularly these past couple of months, it's been hard. But, I personally think you always have to be hopeful otherwise, what do you get up for? We have to do work for the change that we want to see. Ayana recently did an interview with Jane Goodall. Jane Goodall said when she feels like she doesn't have hope, she takes an action. That's the way that she makes herself feel more hopeful. So that's how I put it. When I feel like there's not a lot of hope, I take action. It can be a small action, but I take action, and I work with organizations that are looking to take action.

So I know that sounds a little bit sort of pie in the sky, but I feel like we all have to remind ourselves of that. It gets hard sometimes. And I know it does for a lot of people. I mean, I was just in South Lake Tahoe two weeks ago and now it's evacuated. So you know, the situation can feel overwhelming.

I will just add, with respect to what's happening at the federal level, we still have to see the outcome in respect to the infrastructure bill and the reconciliation bill, and whether or not the investments we need to address the crisis are included. As your readers are thinking about what action can they take, there are a number of ways you can take action to press Congress to act on climate in a meaningful way and make the investments that we need to make.

Marquise: To be frank, until we see brown faces the same way that we see resources – nothing is going to change. We spent 20 years in Afghanistan because of the resources in the area. We all know that it wasn't just 20 years, it was 70 years in the making.

I'm hopeful, but I'm also really concerned that we're still thinking about saving resources before we think about saving people.

I don't understand how we can let a country like Haiti year after year, decade after decade, go through the things that they do. I wish Haiti had coveted resources, to be honest, because we would probably figure things out. I wish all these neighborhoods had resources to leverage because it would probably be a different story. But, I'm hopeful. 

And to Jean's point, I believe we all have to put a purpose to our privilege. The three of us have the privilege to be able to have this conversation, to think about these things. Contemplation is a privilege, the ability to actually take some time to think is a privilege. Every day I try to put purpose to that privilege, to not just create hope, but to create momentum. We've been fighting for this for a long time, and we're not going to stop. Every day when I walk past the NYCHA housing and I see a young little black or brown kid playing, I have to be hopeful that this young person will be able to have a life that's better than what we're offering today.

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Source: US National Archives, Breezy Point, NY after Hurricane Sandy