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Providence Preservation Society names entire City ‘endangered property’

With designation, PPS to raise awareness for climate change-related threats

The Providence Preservation Society recently voted to place the City of Providence on its 2021 Most Endangered Properties list to call attention to the dangers that climate change poses to the city.

Typically, the “Most Endangered Properties” list includes historic buildings, streets or neighborhoods in danger of degradation. But this year, the designation was also applied to the whole city due to the threats of sea level rise, storm surge, river flooding, heat waves and other climate-related dangers.

Director of Preservation for PPS Rachel Robinson called the designation “a big step for us” and emphasized the danger that climate change poses to the entire city should no further action be taken. “The entire city will be under threat of climate change, and that means our cultural and historical heritage” would be at risk, she said.

The annual list of the most endangered properties is created following nominations from the community, according to Robinson. When a local activist proposed designating the entire city as threatened, Robinson was surprised. But the more she thought about it, the more it seemed to make sense. Providence’s historic buildings are all increasingly threatened by hurricanes, storm surges, flooding and other threats — all of which are exacerbated by climate change, she said.

Robinson also emphasized the climate-related dangers posed to residents, describing how heat waves and food disruptions threaten marginalized communities in the city. Although PPS mainly acts to protect historical and cultural heritage, “it’s the people that matter the most,” she said.

Moving forward, Robinson said she hopes to see more action from the City and urged citizens to support the passage of climate action ordinances introduced in the City Council Jan. 21, The Herald previously reported.

The ordinances, which would promote Mayor Jorge Elorza’s Climate Justice Plan, would require large buildings to report their energy use to the City, codify the City’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 and give more power to the director of sustainability.

Leah Bamberger, the director of sustainability for the City, said her office supports PPS’s designation and hopes that it will raise awareness of the threat.

“It is a very thoughtful designation that really gets at the reality of climate change,” she said. “A good proportion of downtown will potentially be underwater if we don’t do anything.”

Like Robinson, Bamberger emphasized the far-reaching impacts of climate change. In addition to the direct threat of extreme weather events, she expressed concern about the secondary social impacts, including displacement and increasing inequality. Like the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, climate change will exacerbate “a lot of underlying stresses on society.”

Timmons Roberts, professor of environmental studies, environment and society and sociology at the University, also expressed concern about social harm.

“Heat waves, especially in the poorest, least-treed neighborhoods, (are) my greatest worry,” he wrote in an email to The Herald. “Poor, minority, elderly populations are most at risk and cannot afford to recover.”

Roberts said he agreed with the designation, while pointing out that other locations in the Ocean State are at risk as well.

“Providence is very at risk of climate change. The hurricane barrier will help us for a while, but if there is massive river flooding combined with tidal surge and hurricane force winds, it could be overtopped,” he wrote. “But other towns in the state are far more vulnerable: Newport, Warren, and Bristol are historical gems, right at sea level. Barrington is extremely low, and the roads getting there will be underwater at some point.”

Stressing the urgency of the situation, Roberts said that he hopes the city and community can work together to reduce emissions. 

“There is only so much climate change we can adapt to,” he said, “and we are getting closer to a tipping point in not being able to.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Providence Preservation Society voted Jan. 27 to place the City of Providence on its 2021 Most Endangered Properties list. In fact, the vote was announced Jan. 27. The Herald regrets the error.


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