Creating Community Resilience in Every City
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Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.
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In recent months, people have taken to the streets of Washington, D.C. for marches urging the Trump administration and Congress to act on climate change. The People’s Climate March was exclusively targeted at producing action on the issues of climate change, and the March for Science addressed the importance of using scientific method and research to inform policies and actions, although many participants used the march to highlight the dangers posed by greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists, after all, are far more united in their concern over climate change than they are over nuclear power, genetically modified food, and many other issues.
For now, it seems that local governments in the United States will stand alone on the issue, paddling upstream against a federal government and a majority of state governments who reject the science and actively undermine city initiatives. Of course, building climate resiliency is more than an environmental issue for local government. Climate resilience in the 21st century will be a fierce competition between cities around the world to attract talent, reduce business disruption, provide reliable services and protect citizens.
Two Unique Challenges for Cities Addressing Climate Change
The first issue is that there are just so many cities and towns out there. The National League of Cities engages thousands of local elected leaders, hailing from roughly 1,800 dues-paying member cities. In association with our network of state municipal leagues, the organization indirectly represents over 19,000 local governments.
The U.S. is becoming less rural and it’s commonly cited that over 80 percent of the population lives in “urban” metropolitan areas, but these statistical areas are highly fragmented and fewer than 700 cities boast populations greater than 50,000. The vast majority of Americans live in smaller cities that provide basic services like police, fire, and trash collection, but most do not have the resources and staff to directly address the issues of climate change.
Secondly, solutions to the climate challenges facing local government may be replicable, but they are not scalable. Cities serve their people, and change depends on processes that are open, discursive, and incremental. A successful plan from one city cannot be copied and pasted to another without repeating a public engagement process that is unique to each city’s residents and stakeholders. It’s time consuming and often messy, but when done well, an open consensus building process itself is often as valuable as the resulting policy because of the trust and legitimacy that these processes generate.
With that said, there’s still a lot we can share and replicate. Last year, the National League of Cities launched a Leadership in Community Resilience program to help 10 cities implement specific initiatives related to resilience and climate change. This and other work with city leaders offers a few clear insights.
Replicable Practices for Building Community Resiliency
Sustainability manager positions or sustainability plans are helpful, but they are insufficient on their own.
Why? Accountability must be shared.
I once had a conversation with a sustainability manager from a relatively large city who felt the city was sluggish to make progress, and we were talking about why she was encountering hesitance, and even push-back from colleagues. The city had recently adopted a sustainability plan that was clear, ambitious, and broadly supported in council. It included metrics, along with short and long-term grades for achievement. After a few frustrating minutes, I finally asked why other department leaders were putting up such a fight if they were responsible for the same targets and their performance was being evaluated accordingly. The answer, of course, is that they weren’t. Different departments had responsibility for different segments of a comprehensive plan, or different plans altogether. Only the sustainability office was accountable to the sustainability plan.
This is why I often tell city officials that an updated plan is preferable to an additional plan. It’s also why I was thrilled that our first project work this year was an internal staff-only resilience workshop in Tempe, AZ. With help from the brilliant minds of Dr. Lauren Withycombe Keeler, Ryan Johnson, and others at Arizona State University, more than 40 of the city’s top officials came together to participate in an innovative planning process. Participants worked through a management game that challenged them to think about how city assets were allocated to provide services during normal circumstances, and how those assets could be redeployed to meet more critical needs in response to a shock or stress. Besides suggesting solutions, the game helped in the essential process of building relationships around shared goals, and took place at an ideal time since the city was updating its Continuity of Operations Plan for emergency Management. City Manager Andrew Ching made it clear that resilience and sustainable development were city priorities, not merely departmental ones.
Give people something specific to react to during the citizen engagement process.
Whether you’re reporting progress or soliciting input on a new plan, open-ended questions frequently leave participants confused about their goals and how their input might be used.
At a recent event that my colleague and I helped support in West Palm Beach, a stakeholder engagement effort was organized around the city’s recent certification as a 4-STAR community in the STAR Rating System. Participants were provided a handful of specific actions or metrics related to the score, and staff from STAR was on hand to facilitate a discussion around whether the numbers reflected the city’s experience and where there may be disagreement in the rating. Even though most people weren’t familiar with STAR or the metrics, the strategy used to frame the conversation was effective in spurring a useful discussion about the city’s long-term sustainability strategy.
STAR metrics aren’t the only way to do this. Portland, Maine recently completed a design competition that broaches the topic of sea level rise in Bayside, one of Portland’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. The city is explicit that the designs aren’t intended for actual construction, but their hope is that the designs will give life to a high-level conversation, helping people visualize a range of possibilities and discuss what they like and dislike.
The economics favor sustainability and climate resilience.
When asked why he robbed banks, Willie Horton famously responded, “That’s where the money is.” I was reflecting on that sentiment after the Paris Agreement was affirmed and a number of sovereign wealth funds and other institutional investors announced that more than $3.4 trillion would be divested from fossil fuel industries. Other businesses with long term interests such as financiers, insurers, reinsurers, and even the US military have some of the most closely guarded information related to climate change and are beginning to apply it to decisions about bond ratings, insurability, and base infrastructure. Slowly, cities are realizing that climate hazards pose a similar threat to their own financial interests and this has emboldened city leaders to pursue sustainability more vigorously.
At one of our most recent workshops in San Antonio, city planners, businesses, and civic leaders were grappling with challenges related to population growth, housing and transportation. The city is projected to add over 1 million new residents by 2040, but a few participants expressed concern that more ambitious transit oriented development goals or sustainability goals would cause developers to look elsewhere. This is exactly backwards. A city cannot grow and then become more sustainable. The transportation patterns, water security, service accessibility, and housing integration and affordability of those million people in 2040 will all depend on decisions that are made right now. The tide is beginning to turn, however, with the adoption of a set of new SA Tomorrow plans just last year. The challenge is not just to implement portions of these plans, but to slow and eventually cease the current, unsustainable development patterns.
The process for building community climate resiliency is slow because solutions are difficult to scale, and unwinding decades of unsustainable development may also take decades to do, but local leaders around the country are eager to meet this challenge. It’s unfortunate and unfair, but until other levels of government are ready to reengage climate science cities will need to lead. Understanding the three approaches outlined above can help local governments achieve more and enable citizens to provide support when and where we can.
I would urge people to demand more from their cities and hold accountable developments of all sizes, not just those that are prominent in urban centers. Sometimes we are too quick to celebrate a showpiece downtown that takes a single step forward in sustainable planning, while ignoring the two steps back that have been taken by a less sustainable neighborhood sprawling into floodplains or other open spaces at the edge of town.
Concepts like 20-minute neighborhoods, water neutral development, or the incremental and traditional development models ingrained in StrongTowns need to become the norm rather than the exception. All of this will help cities maintain the flexibility, redundancy, and adaptability necessary to be more resilient to climate change as well as many of the less predictable challenges of the 21st century.
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