Cities, Climate and Inequalities

Evaluating equity and justice in Vancouver’s Sea2City design challenge: An application of the JustAdapt framework

March 2024

Tira Okamoto and Andréanne Doyon, Assistant Professor and Director of the REM Planning Program, Simon Fraser University, Resource and Environmental Management


Coastal cities around the world are facing the challenge of adapting to sea level rise while ensuring social equity. A lack of social equity can be understood as the historic and continual denial of specific communities’ access to land, resources and opportunities, resulting in impacts to their quality of life and wellbeing (City of Vancouver, 2022). Equitable coastal adaptation, then, focuses on improving access to land, resources and opportunities for equity-denied communities residing along coastlines. It also calls on coastal cities to examine how coastal adaptation impacts justice and actions taken to dismantle extractive systems and worldviews that perpetuate climate injustice (Shi et al., 2016; Movement Generation, 2017; City of Vancouver, 2022). Calls to position equity and justice at the core of climate adaptation (Amorim-Maia et al., 2022; Shi et al., 2016) are becoming more prominent within academic discourse around adaptation planning. However, this has hardly led to action on the part of practitioners in North America, most of whom never move beyond the intention setting stage in this matter (Chu & Cannon, 2021). Practitioners often lack adequate resources and tools to apply an equity lens when implementing their coastal adaptation plan (Arnott et al., 2016). An evaluation of equitable urban adaptation practices is needed to support transformative and just adaptation (Shi et al., 2016). In that context, emerging frameworks such as the JustAdapt framework offer promising evaluative tools for scholars and practitioners (Okamoto & Doyon, forthcoming).

False Creeklocated within the unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations (Host Nations), also known as Vancouver, British Columbiais no exception. This narrow inlet in the heart of the city has been a place of ecological and cultural significance for the Host Nations since time immemorial and witnessed great changemarshland turned polluted industrial land, now home to high-density residential neighbourhoods. In 2021, the City of Vancouver launched the Sea2City Design Challenge (Sea2City), bringing together city staff, international design teams, Indigenous cultural advisors, youth, community representatives and technical advisors to develop design concepts for adapting to sea level rise (City of Vancouver, 2021). Three collaborative workshops informed the development of design concepts along False Creek. This research’s analysis aligned with Sea2City’s conclusion in early 2023; however, lasting impacts will take years to be realized.

Literature reviewed

The tripartite justice framework

Rooted in early definitions of justice (Rawls, 1971) and environmental justice scholarship, the so-called tripartite justice framework identifies three main forms of justice illustrating the ways justice can be enacted: procedurally (how process and participation influence just outcomes); distributionally (how outcomes are just); and recognitionally (how historic or current injustice is acknowledged and repaired) (Meerow et al., 2019; Schlosberg, 2012). The tripartite justice framework has helped conceptualize climate justice, urban resilience and equitable climate adaptation (Chu & Cannon, 2021; Meerow et al., 2019; Mohtat & Khirfan, 2021). While widely used by academics, the framework is slowly gaining popularity among practitioners to equitably plan for extreme heat, community-driven climate preparedness planning and climate adaptation (California Adaptation Forum, 2023; Marx & Morales-Burnett, 2022; Urban Sustainability Directors Network, 2017).

New pillars of just urban adaptation − intergenerational and epistemic justice

While the tripartite justice framework offers a foundation for equitable coastal adaptation, two other forms of justice contribute to a holistic picture of just urban adaptation. Intergenerational justice tends to the moral consequences of climate change on future generations, centering on reparative justice (Almassi, 2017). Scholars also call attention to Indigenous peoples and Indigenous values regarding generational thinking (Simpson, 2011; Spiegel et al., 2020). Intergenerational justice within coastal adaptation is twofold: it focuses on centering youth and seniors, particularly those who belong to equity-denied groups; and it considers the future wellbeing of both the human and more-than-human worlds (Sanklecha, 2017).

Epistemic justice honours diverse lived experiences, knowledges and worldviews instead of prioritizing dominant worldviews in environmental management and climate adaptation that are colonial, patriarchal, white supremacist and capitalist (Byskov & Hyams, 2022; Hernandez, 2019). Epistemic justice acknowledges that environmental injustice causes harm to ways of knowing and being and to the tangible and intangible aspects of cultural wellbeing (Temper, 2019). The case study is particularly interested in epistemic injustice harming Indigenous peoples and how histories of epistemic injustice are mended or exacerbated through coastal adaptation planning.

The JustAdapt framework

Integrating the five forms of justice discussed, the authors of this text have developed the JustAdapt framework, an evaluative framework for assessing equity and justice in urban coastal adaptation planning processes (see Table 1). JustAdapt is a planning tool for practitioners to use while designing and implementing a coastal adaptation planning process. The tool helps practitioners assess how equity and justice are being incorporated using five forms of justice procedural, distributive, recognitional, intergenerational and epistemic.

Table 1. The JustAdapt framework
Reference: Okamoto and Doyon 2023

Research case, methods and data

Using Sea2City as a case study, the aim of this research is to understand how equity and justice are being incorporated into coastal adaptation planning processes. To respond to the research aim, the researchers applied a mixed methods approach and designed data collection to capture perspectives from Sea2City participants over time. Data was collected from September 2021 through January 2023 using participant observation, two rounds of semi-structured interviews with selected Sea2City representatives (see Table 2) and surveys. This research approach reflected our lived experiences and worldviews as scholars who identify as white and white-presenting cis-women with privilege. Our positionalities informed the research scope broadly as well as in more detail, such as language choice and data analysis.

Table 2. Interviews conducted with Sea2City representatives
Reference: Okamoto and Doyon, 2023

The data analysis was performed from January 2023 through August 2023. The researchers applied the JustAdapt framework as an evaluative tool following the conclusion of Sea2City. NVIVO, a qualitative data analysis software, was used to analyze interview and survey data through a multi-step coding process. Data was first coded to find examples of the five forms of justice in the JustAdapt framework (see Table 1). Subsequently, these examples were assigned sub-codes as examples of equity or justice (i.e., procedural equity vs. procedural justice) and then finally assigned an additional sub-code for how equity and justice were acknowledged or actioned, building on the work of O’Donnell and Doyon (2023). Wherever possible, Sea2City documents were used as secondary data.


Application of the JustAdapt framework

An overview of coded data across each form of justice is presented below (see Table 3). In addition to showing how many times each form of justice was coded, the table indicates how many pieces of data were examples of forms of equity, which focus on fair access to resources and opportunities, versus forms of justice, which focus on systemic change within each category of the JustAdapt framework. The degree to which each piece of data acknowledged or actioned equity or justice is also included in the table.

Table 3 – Coded Data Overview
Reference: Okamoto and Doyon, 2023

Procedural justice

Coded data overwhelmingly referenced procedural equity positively, emphasizing an inclusive process with sustained participation across stakeholder groups. Interviewees highlighted how Sea2City was shaped by the Indigenous Cultural Advisor Panel and the emerging focus on decolonization. While the process was structured around collaborative workshops, the process was flexible and iterative, ultimately strengthening final design concepts.

While some interviewees approved of the engagement design, others would have liked to have seen a more robust effort to engage the public. While participant groups were intended to intermingle and collaborate, this occurred to varying degrees of success and interaction. Data collected also highlighted a negative sentiment related to procedural equity, including differences in the decision-making power across participant groups, a lack of focus on non-Indigenous racialized populations and other equity-denied populations, as well as barriers to participate and exclusion in Sea2City events, including collaborative workshops.

Distributive justice

Coded data focused on the reconciliation and ecological elements included in the design concepts. Many interviewees spoke positively about shifting the language traditionally used in coastal adaptation planning (i.e., protect, accommodate, retreat, avoid) in favour of decolonizing language (i.e., host, acknowledge, restore). Main gaps identified in the data included a lack of anti-displacement strategies as buildings are moved out of the floodplain and a lack of clarity on how changing sea level rise science will impact design concepts over time.

The design process itself had mixed reviews, with members of the Youth Adaptation Lab, Community Advisory Group and the Technical Advisory Group left feeling restricted by the brief opportunities to provide feedback on the draft design concepts. These participant groups therefore had less decision-making power in determining the final design concepts, and therefore impacting distributive equity on the lands and waters that make up False Creek.

Recognitional justice

Coded data referenced the Host Nations and Sea2City’s focus on decolonization. Interviewees emphasized False Creek’s histories of harm, including the forced removal of the Host Nations and ongoing trauma associated with settler colonialism, zoning and land use decisions causing racialized and class segregation, as well as urban renewal projects on polluted industrial land. Interviewees also emphasized the labour of the Indigenous Cultural Advisors in calling attention to recognitional injustices and ways to repair. From the data, shortcomings with recognitional justice were related to procedural elements (e.g., having only one Indigenous designer serving as a cultural advisor, lack of anti-displacement strategies in the design concepts) that created the conditions for a lack of acknowledgement of past, present and anticipated future lived experiences and harm.

Intergenerational justice

Coded data focused on the Youth Adaptation Lab. While participant groups with decision-making power (i.e., Design Teams, City of Vancouver project managers) saw the Lab as positively contributing to Sea2City, Lab members voiced that their process was separate from the other participant groups, that their participation was not prioritized in the collaborative workshops due to scheduling, and that they did not have decision-making power to contribute to the design concept development.

Other participant groups engaged with intergenerational dynamics. The Community Advisory Group had seniors represented but did not have consistent youth representation. The Indigenous Cultural Advisor Panel was set up with an intergenerational approach; however, in the end, it did not have Indigenous youth representation, due to capacity. Shortcomings related to intergenerational equity included a lack of focused engagement of youth under 18 and seniors in Sea2City and explicit commitments to intergenerational decision-making in the final outputs.

Epistemic justice

Data referenced the Indigenous Cultural Advisor Panel, its role in supporting the Design Teams and Sea2City Project Management Team and its impact on the final design concepts. Many interviewees and survey respondents spoke positively about the decolonization workshops with the Tsleil-Waututh Nation and Squamish Nation held early in the Sea2City process. From these learnings, the design teams and cultural advisors interwove Host Nation values and knowledges with Western landscape architecture and adaptation planning. Intentional reflection moments supported continued learning by non-Indigenous participants and dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Sea2City participants.

Shortcomings related to epistemic justice were also related to procedural elements that impacted the lived experiences and knowledges valued across Sea2City. Among these were the absence of the Musqueam Nation on the Indigenous Cultural Advisor Panel and little engagement of equity-denied populations (e.g., Black communities, Chinese Canadian communities, people with disabilities) located within, along and near False Creek.

Synthesis and research contribution

When applying the JustAdapt framework to Sea2City, the researchers found that the Sea2City process and engagement strategy tended to inspire action towards equity more so than justice. While the challenge recognized and made space for Host Nations and local ecology, especially in the design concepts, less focus was placed on weaving together different knowledges and lived experiences. Instances of procedural equity were most prominent, followed by distributive equity. Intergenerational and epistemic equity were coded the least. Greater focus on these forms of justice is needed in future phases of urban coastal adaptation in False Creek. This research responds to calls from the literature for more tools and examples of evaluating equitable urban adaptation (Shi et al., 2016). By utilizing a case study model, this case study analyzes the process of an adaptation process as well as its initial outputs, distinguishing it from studies that focus on plan evaluation (Chu & Cannon, 2021).


With climate change already disproportionately impacting equity-denied populations, coastal adaptation planners have begun to identify equity and justice as important guiding principles in their strategies and plans. However, evidence on the implementation and evaluation on equitable adaptation is lacking. This research contributes a case study on evaluating equity and justice in Vancouver’s Sea2City design challenge. While modeled after past resilience design challenges in New York and the San Francisco Bay Area, Sea2City offered new approaches to collaborative coastal adaptation planning in a Canadian context. Key learnings include: (1) designing equity-centered research requires thoughtful attention on data collection and analysis; (2) case studies provide ways to pilot new evaluative frameworks and merge place-based work with replicable tools; and (3) coastal cities have the potential to transform equitable coastal adaptation yet require the support of evaluative tools to increase accountability and transparency. Future research could focus on co-developing evaluation tools with Indigenous Nations and local communities and applying the JustAdapt framework to a long-term planning process. This case study hopes to inspire future research on evaluating equitable and just adaptation.

To cite this article

Okamoto, T., and Doyon, A. (2024). Evaluating equity and justice in Vancouver’s Sea2City design challenge: An application of the JustAdapt framework. In Cities, Climate and Inequalities Collection. VRM – Villes Régions Monde.

Reference text
Okamoto, T. and Doyon, A. (forthcoming). Evaluating Equity and Justice in Vancouver’s Sea2City Design Challenge: An application of the JustAdapt Framework. Original research.
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