Rising seas, soaring temperatures, and shifting precipitation patterns threaten the health, safety and quality of life for urban residents, who now encompass over half of the global population. Due to these changes, cities are facing acute climate risks. The dense settlement patterns and populations of cities put many people, particularly those living in disadvantaged neighborhoods, in harm’s way from events like flooding and heat waves.
These challenges are daunting, but cities also provide great opportunities to address the inefficiencies that lead to climate risk. Due to their dense form, American cities are poised to effectively reduce and capture carbon emissions through improved transportation systems, reduced building energy demand and lower rates of consumption per capita. Creating more livable cities that attract new residents to this carbon-efficient lifestyle is therefore a critical climate mitigation strategy.
City leaders are closest to stakeholders on the ground, more able to be responsive to locally-specific needs, and more nimble in implementing and adapting policies and interventions. Organizations including the United Nations, C40 Cities, ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability and 100 Resilient Cities (pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation) are looking at cities to lead this change in domestic and global frameworks.
Despite this local leadership advancing climate action, key barriers remain between cities and successful climate action:
- Lack of access to robust and locally-specific scientific information regarding climate change risks and solutions
- Lack of place-based, spatial data to identify investment opportunities
- Traditionally siloed operations across agencies, organizations, disciplines, and jurisdictions
- Need for sustainable funding and financing mechanisms for implementation of climate adaptation and resilience solutions
- Limited project development capacity, including staff and implementation management resources
The Climate-Smart Cities program at The Trust for Public Land is designed to help cities overcome these barriers through a holistic, urban planning approach, bringing a broad range of traditional and non-traditional partners together to develop a common understanding of the needs and opportunities in their communities through the strategic deployment of green infrastructure. We believe that inter-agency and cross-sector collaboration can unlock hidden resources for multiple-benefit, climate-smart green infrastructure for the benefit of the communities who need it most.
Using Empathy to Advance Resilience
In an effort to overcome the barriers identified above, we started by simply listening to our partners, seeking to understand their perspective. It’s amazing what you can learn by seeking to meet your partners where they are and understanding how these barriers manifest themselves in the day-to-day operations of planners and decision-makers. Equally important is to understand what inspires, motivates, and energizes people.
For example, in Richmond, CA, we learned that there is limited staff capacity at the City to drive green infrastructure implementation. However, there are numerous community-based organizations that actively and essentially increase the capacity of the City to deliver services. Could they be catalyzed to deliver urban greening projects that advance the neighborhood’s goals and meet the city’s needs?
In New Orleans, LA, we learned that there has been a plethora of planning efforts in the post-Katrina context, seeking to advance the resilience of the city. However, the planning has not been translating into action. Could these planning efforts be integrated and made accessible across silos and sectors to enable new partnerships to catalyze implementation efforts?
Finally, in Denver, CO, we learned that there is a lack of information about how green infrastructure performs in an arid climate and, therefore, hesitation to promote this strategy beyond its water quality benefits. Could we use data to make the case of the multiple benefits of green infrastructure and develop a common understanding from the grassroots to the grass tops?
Developing deep empathy with our partners to better understand their needs, challenges, and inspirations has allowed us to frame our engagement within each partner’s context and facilitate the co-creation of ideas, solutions, and partnerships.
Provide an easily accessible platform for collaboration
We live in a data rich age. However this data is not always accessible, especially across silos and sectors. Despite recent efforts around data transparency and open data platforms, the challenge remains to use data to visualize success for a specific set of goals in a spatially explicit way.
The human centered design process we use to move our partners from desktop geographic information systems (GIS) to collaborative, online GIS platforms allows us to co-create the analysis and priorities and tailor the information to meet our partners’ needs. This builds on the ingenuity that already exists in communities today.
The Neighborhood Council Network, a sustainability subcommittee of the City of LA, is working across the city to identify and implement neighborhood scale projects that meet multiple objectives, such as stormwater management, tree planting, mobility, and pedestrian safety. Through the use of a co-created, web-based platform, the Network can compare neighborhoods and identify the need and opportunity in each neighborhood to advance the goals described above.
The Green Infrastructure Coalition of the metro-Providence, RI region, is interested in expanding the number of project proposals to demonstrate the connection between parks, green infrastructure, and their impact on improving water quality, hydrology, and urban streams, while also providing recreational value to underserved communities. By aligning data across silos and sectors in a web-based platform, the member organizations can more easily identify potential project locations that meet all of the goals above and have increased the number of joint project proposals.
Providing an easily accessible platform for collaboration allows agencies and organizations that may not traditionally work together to see how their priorities and plans relate and how they can advance mutually beneficial goals. Breaking down siloes is critical to advancing urban resilience as climate change impacts play out across landscapes and are indifferent to jurisdictional boundaries, land ownership, or funding structures.
Identify small, early wins
The day-to-day operations of cities are complex and it is often a challenge to align the visions articulated in planning documents with the everyday, small and large decisions that staff across agencies and organizations make. Each seemingly small decision, adds up to create the machine we know as local government and community development. Identifying small, early wins for operationalizing the vision in day-to-day decisions of the city provides momentum for continued commitment to these efforts to advance urban resilience.
The Department of parks and Recreation for the City of Boston, MA, for example, is developing design and implementation guidelines for green infrastructure. In the Request for Proposals, they have explicitly required that green infrastructure in parks be considered for all of its benefits, not just stormwater management. This aligns with the data and analysis in the City of Boston’s Climate-Smart Cities web-based tool and allows projects to be assessed and prioritized objectively.
Nashville, TN, for example, recently moved to a ‘budget for outcomes’ capital improvement budgeting process to align with their long-term comprehensive plan, NashvilleNext. Using data and analysis to make the case for each project is essential. Through generating a report from the web-based tool, any city staff can generate project specific-reports that help them make the case for their proposals. It also allows the Planning Commission to more objectively evaluate how each project advances the City’s long term goals.
The barriers to collaboration and co-investment require more than just better information. We need to understand and then re-design the governance structures that guide how agencies work and how cities invest their resources. These seemingly small decisions have a big impact and lay the groundwork for multiple benefit investments in the years to come.
With good governance and collaborative community partnerships, cities get things done. Given their policy and implementation authorities around transportation, land use, and natural resource coordination, city and municipal leaders have a direct role in steering urban development to meet the needs of a growing population while giving their residents options to live a low-carbon lifestyle through mobility choices, infill development, and accessibility to housing, parks and open space.
Achieving our vision of strategically deploying urban greening for multiple benefits and climate resilience requires a different and integrated way of thinking about how urban resources are distributed and services are delivered. This requires meticulous attention to how decisions are currently being made. By employing our empathy, providing easily accessibly tools for collaboration, and celebrating small early wins, our partners in cities across America can start to overcome key barriers to operationalizing resilience.
[i] UN Habitat. Urbanization and Development: Emerging Futures. Nairobi, Kenya: United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), 2016.