Bridging the Gap: Engaging York Region Residents and Stakeholders to Build Climate-Resilient Communities

The project, “Bridging the Gap: Engaging York Region Residents and Stakeholders to Build Climate-Resilient Communities,” was funded by Health Canada’s HealthADAPT program until March 2022.

York Region communities are experiencing negative health impacts from climate change (e.g. extreme heat events, extreme weather, and vector-borne disease) and these impacts are expected to increase in frequency and severity in the future. However, there is limited localized data that identifies the vulnerabilities and adaptive capacity of local communities to cope with the current and future health impacts of climate change.

Building on the gaps identified in the 2021 York Region Climate Change and Health Vulnerability Assessment (CCHVA), this project aimed to increase the understanding of climate change vulnerabilities and adaptive capacity throughout York Region as it related to public health. By understanding the climate change vulnerabilities and adaptive capacity of York Region residents, the project will help York Region Public Health support community resiliency to future climate change health impacts.

This project, conducted by York Region Public Health, also aimed to reduce negative climate-related health outcomes of York Region residents through enhanced resiliency and adaptive capacity. York Region and its nine local municipalities (Aurora, East Gwillimbury, Georgina, King, Markham, Newmarket, Richmond Hill, Vaughan and Whitchurch-Stouffville) are part of the Greater Golden Horseshoe in southern Ontario. The local municipalities are a mix of rural and urban areas, with the most population-dense areas being the southern municipalities of Markham, Vaughan and Richmond Hill. Local factors that increase climate-health vulnerabilities include urban heat islands within the municipalities to the south, and floodplains within the more rural communities to the north. Additionally, the population of York Region is aging; it is estimated that by 2031, one in five residents will be aged 65 or older.

The project included a survey of community residents to determine individuals’ knowledge, attitudes, and practices (KAP) around climate change. Another survey with stakeholder organizations that serve or represent at-risk populations in York Region was also completed to determine which adaptation measures organizations felt were most important to prepare for and cope with the health impacts of climate change. While the project did not include the creation of an adaptation plan, information gathered throughout the project will be used as an evidentiary base for future climate change health adaptation planning in York Region.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

In 2021, York Region Public Health completed a Climate Change and Health Vulnerability Assessment (CCHVA). The CCHVA assessed current impacts of climate change on the health of York Region residents and identified future health impacts climate change will pose in York Region. The identified health impacts are expected to intensify in the coming years due to increasing temperatures, extreme precipitation events, and an increase in drought conditions. Local factors such as floodplains and urban heat islands will also influence health risks from climate change.

While the CCHVA identified climate risks, gaps in knowledge persisted surrounding community knowledge and adaptation actions. Building on these gaps, the Bridging the Gap project aimed to increase understanding of climate change vulnerabilities and adaptive capacity throughout York Region as it related to public health. It involved two surveys: one telephone survey, and one online survey. The first survey examined resident knowledge and attitudes towards climate change. In this survey, the project team, in collaboration with other interested Ontario health units and Health Canada, created new modules for the Rapid Risk Factor Surveillance System (RRFSS), which can be used to re-examine community knowledge in the future. The second online survey was conducted among stakeholders who represented many at-risk populations in York Region to determine which adaptation measures they felt were most important to prepare for and cope with the health impacts of climate change.

Identifying Actions

This project aimed to increase climate-health resiliency through collecting and assessing evidence on localized risks and adaptive capacity in York Region communities. At the onset of the project, the intended activities included:

  • A telephone survey assessing climate change knowledge, attitudes, and practices among York Region residents
  • An online survey assessing climate change adaptation priorities among stakeholders that serve or represent priority populations in York Region
  • *A household survey utilizing Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response (CASPER) methodology

*Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the household survey using the CASPER methodology was not completed.

During the initial planning stages of the project, time was spent scoping the issue of climate change in York Region, identifying current and future health risks to include within the project. Utilizing the CCHVA, literature, and an analysis of local programming, the team scoped and assessed vulnerabilities. Planning also involved the engagement of stakeholders, both internal to York Region and within other Ontario public health units. This helped to ensure that survey questionnaires provided relevance to public health agencies beyond York Region (RRFSS Survey), and supported survey distribution and uptake (online survey).

The COVID-19 pandemic influenced the timing of survey implementation (RRFSS), as well as limiting the ability to conduct the household CASPER survey. Additionally, the stakeholder survey did not have a fully representative view of all at-risk populations, which limited the ability of the survey to understand the needs, capacity and barriers of the full population and thus meet adaptation priorities of these population groups. Further consultation with stakeholder organizations will be required to gain an increased understanding of the role of public health in supporting priority populations in climate adaptation.

Implementation

Through engaging with communities and relevant stakeholders, including service providers, York Region Public Health gained valuable information on community knowledge of the health impacts of climate change, including impacts from extreme weather events, extreme heat, and vector-borne disease, as well as priorities for action surrounding climate change adaptation. The resident survey, which was implemented through the Rapid Risk Factor Surveillance System (RRFSS), was completed from January 2020 to March 2021. A gap in data collection occurred between March 2020 and December 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The RRFSS was designed to be representative of the adult population living in a given health unit, who speak English and live in a private home. The survey included 31 questions related to climate change knowledge, attitudes, and practices, as well as basic demographic information (e.g., age, sex). A total of 825 residents participated in the survey, with sample characteristics being roughly comparable with York Region 2016 census data.

The online stakeholder survey was open to survey respondents for 10 days in January 2022. During that time period, 48 respondents initiated the survey, with 40 respondents reaching survey completion. The survey gathered feedback from stakeholders who served or represented priority populations in York Region. It included 23 questions related to the type of organization and the populations they serve, their level of concern over four climate change risks (extreme weather/flooding, extreme heat, poor air quality, and vector-borne disease), and the adaptation priorities for each risk. The survey also explored interest in future engagement with public health to support climate adaptation planning.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

This project gathered knowledge to support the future adaptation planning needs of York Region residents while also ensuring a health equity approach to ensure support for those at greater risk to climate-health impacts. In terms of achieving its intended objectives, the project has been successful in gathering information from relevant stakeholders, and there has been an increased understanding of who the populations at greater risk are in York Region. However, due to COVID-19 related challenges, further engagement is needed to reach population segments and stakeholders that may not have been adequately represented in engagement activities.

The resident survey provided valuable insight on how communities can better prepare for future climate-health impacts, while the stakeholder survey identified priority actions to address the four main climate impacts being focused on for the project (extreme weather/flooding, extreme heat, vector-borne diseases, and air quality). The engagement of internal and external stakeholders throughout the project has identified future knowledge sharing opportunities to support adaptation planning in York Region, especially for targeting priority populations. The project findings support the strong role that health promotion opportunities will have in informing residents of climate-related health impacts and the measures they can take to protect themselves.  Considering the complexities of the project area, such as the mix of rural and urban environments, having an interdisciplinary team was a strength for the project.

Next Steps

The project team aims to continue knowledge translation surrounding climate change and health. While some knowledge sharing has already occurred, there is still a need for further awareness building and knowledge translation for York Region’s vulnerability assessment and HealthADAPT project. Communications will be prioritized among stakeholders within public health, individuals who support populations at greater risk, as well as staff currently engaged in regional mitigation and adaption activities. It will also be important to maintain continued engagement on the topic with various stakeholders internal to York Region. This is critical given the importance of the issue, interconnections across stakeholder groups, and resources required for action.

Additionally, an aim of this project was to gather information to support informed decision making during future adaptation planning. The project team will continue to build capacity for adaptation planning by supporting two-way dialogue with stakeholders to understand opportunities and barriers. Health equity considerations will be an integral component of capacity building, to ensure that adaptation is inclusive, equitable, and effective at reducing climate-related health impacts.

Finally, the project team will continue adaptation planning, prioritizing adaptation measures for feasibility as well as the impact on resiliency. Health promotion activities will play an integral role in informing residents of the impacts and associated measures they can do to protect themselves.

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