In my business, we’d rather not be right. What gets a climate change expert out of bed in the morning is the desire to provide decision-makers with the best available science, and at the end of the day we go to bed hoping things won’t actually get as bad as our science tells us. That’s true whether you’re a physical or a social scientist.
Well, I’m one of the latter and Meeting of the Minds thought it would be valuable to republish an article I penned in January 2020. In that ancient past, only the most studious of news observers had heard of a virus in Wuhan, China, that was causing a lethal disease. Two months later we were in lockdown, all over the world, and while things have improved a lot in the US since November 2020, in many cities and nations around the world this is not the case. India is living through a COVID nightmare of untold proportions as we speak, and many nations have gone through wave after wave of this pandemic. The end is not in sight. It is not over. Not by a longshot.
And while the pandemic is raging, sea level continues to rise, heatwaves are killing people in one hemisphere or the other, droughts have devastated farmers, floods sent people fleeing to disaster shelters that are not the save havens we once thought them to be, wildfires consumed forests and all too many homes, and emissions dipped temporarily only to shoot up again as we try to go “back to normal.”
So, I’ll say another one of those things I wish I’ll be wrong about, but probably won’t: there is no “back to normal.” Not with climate change in an interdependent world.
SFPUC’s Green Infrastructure Grant Program uses green infrastructure to combat CSOs and safeguard its watersheds. Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) installations are engineered stormwater management tools that slow down, clean, and route stormwater to keep it out of a sewer system. Simultaneously, GSI provides native habitat, beautiful landscaping, groundwater recharge, and non-potable water reuse. Through this program, SFPUC encourages landowners to build GSI on their property by providing grants that cover design and construction. “Green stormwater infrastructure is one way that we can invest in our community, efficiently manage rainfall, and ease the burden on the City’s sewer system,” said SFPUC Utility Specialist Sarah Minick.
The best nature-based solutions on urban industrial lands are those that are part of a corporate citizenship or conservation strategy like DTE’s or Phillips66. By integrating efforts such as tree plantings, restorations, or pollinator gardens into a larger strategy, companies begin to mainstream biodiversity into their operations. When they crosswalk the effort to other CSR goals like employee engagement, community relations, and/or workforce development, like the CommuniTree initiative, the projects become more resilient.
Air quality in urban residential communities near industrial facilities will not be improved by nature alone. But nature can contribute to the solution, and while doing so, bring benefits including recreation, education, and an increased sense of community pride. As one tool to combat disparate societal outcomes, nature is accessible, affordable and has few, if any, downsides.
A participatory heat action planning process, Nature’s Cooling Systems, identified urban heat mitigation and adaptation strategies that focus specifically at the neighborhood scale. The framework is called the NCS Heat Action Planning Guide. The core team, consisting of The Nature Conservancy, Arizona State University, and Maricopa County Department of Health, selected three heat vulnerable communities based upon heat intensity, strong community identity, health risk factors, the presence of development projects planned or underway, and other factors. The three neighborhoods involved in heat action planning are Edison-Eastlake and Lindo-Roesley in Phoenix, and the Mesa Care neighborhood in Mesa.
City Parks Alliance believes that all residents deserve access to high quality parks, and we believe that cities are wise to prioritize access for all residents for the health, environmental, and community benefits. That is why we also recently commissioned Investing in Equitable Urban Park Systems: Emerging Strategies and Tools, as part of a national initiative to help cities address park equity while promoting innovative strategies for funding parks and green infrastructure. Urban Institute led the research and published the report, which explores funding models and their equity considerations in cities of various sizes across the country.
It is increasingly clear that climate resilience cannot, and should not, be divorced from economic resilience. The siloed sectors that have worked to solve environmental problems in the past will not be enough to tackle our existential climate change challenges, which are intertwined with our racial and economic inequality. In Seattle, the team is supporting the development of a community-governed entity that will direct and leverage public, philanthropic, and private investments to create climate justice and economic opportunity while mitigating displacement. They are already advancing a pipeline of projects, including parks, housing, and neighborhood facilities, that will serve as a proof of concept for following a different process that centers community priorities.
Knowing that flooding is inevitable, we moved forward with developing the Brick Works site by testing new green design features that would mitigate risk and withstand most rain events. Stormwater management ponds collect water from the central parking lot; greenways and other hard surfaces filter sediment in the water before it’s released into the Don River. We also built out the site with wet flood-proofing, which allows water to flow in and out of buildings instead of preventing it from entering. A raised floor made of Cupolex allows water, moisture, and gases to escape from beneath the floor. Elevators default to the second floor, and mechanical systems are located above the projected water level from even the most severe flood. These measures are meant to minimize damage rather than stop the flood, and they were successfully put to the test during spring floods in 2012 and again in 2013.
I see the outcomes of Duke Pond as a representation of the importance of the profession of landscape architecture in today’s world. Once obscured by the glaring light and booming voice long-generated by building architects, landscape architects are steadily emerging as the designers needed to tackle complex 21st century problems. As both leaders and collaborators, their work is addressing the effects of rising sea level on coastal cities, creating multi-modal pedestrian and vehicular transportation systems to reduce carbon emissions, reimagining outdated infrastructure as great urban places, and as with the case of Duke Pond, mitigating the impacts of worsening drought.
The country has provided hundreds of billions of dollars to recover from recent coastal storms but done little to rethink the existing policies and programs that contribute to coastal property losses, or to define new measures that account for the new realities of more damaging storms and rising sea levels.
A key first step toward smarter policies is to improve disclosure of risk associated with coastal properties. This will require better mapping of areas at risk of both storms and rising seas. National standards are needed for disclosure of coastal flood risk prior to sale. Lenders and supporting agencies need to evaluate and disclose coastal flood risk.
When thinking about conserving water, we should also be focusing on how more efficient water use correlates with energy savings. Studies show that when households participate in water savings programs, they also conserve energy and reduce strain on the power grid during peak demand periods while saving consumers money on their utility bills.
Water utilities can also dramatically increase their energy efficiency and reduce overall energy usage by adopting locally based solutions. For many municipal governments, drinking water and wastewater treatment plants are typically the largest energy consumers, often accounting for 30 to 40 percent of total energy consumed. Overall, drinking water and wastewater systems account for approximately two percent of energy use in the United States, adding over 45 million tons of greenhouse gases annually.
Addressing the impact of heat on health is well-aligned with MCDPH’s vision and mission “to make healthy lives possible” by protecting and promoting the health and well-being of MC residents and visitors. The climate has significant impacts on our community’s health. Through extensive surveillance and community surveys, we have demonstrated the importance of local public health data to increase buy-in from new and existing partners and obtain funding to address this significant public health issue. We encourage other health departments to consider the power of data and collaboration as they seek methods for protecting the public’s health from a changing climate.
In the face of our climate crisis, most of these cities have ambitious plans to become carbon neutral with zero net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. These cities plan to generate all electricity with renewables. At the same time that wind and solar power are being massively deployed, buildings and people are becoming more efficient, requiring less electricity.
Getting to 100 percent renewable electricity, however, does not cut even half of a city’s GHG emissions. Buildings typically use natural gas (methane) for heating, cooling, hot water, and cooking. Vehicles spew emissions by burning gasoline, diesel, natural gas, and other fossil fuels. To take advantage of renewable electricity, buildings and transportation will need to be all electric and efficient.