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As Climate Changes, Urban Planners Help Cities Adapt

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Despite the ongoing national political dissension over climate change, Boston and Cambridge, among other cities around the world, are searching for ways to cope with its effects.

A recent survey finds that “79 percent of cities worldwide report that in the past five years they perceived changes in temperature, precipitation, sea level, or natural hazards that they attribute to climate change.”

JoAnn Carmin, co-author of the study, is an associate professor of environmental policy and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. We met under the Great Dome in MIT’s Building 10, and took in the view of the Charles River and Back Bay. Carmin pulled up an interactive map of Boston and Cambridge on her laptop computer.

“What’s great about this map is that you can essentially play around with it a little bit and you can get a feel for sea level rise,” she said.  The map shows areas subject to flooding from sea level rise and its accompanying high tides and storm surges.

I asked Carmin what climate change effect were causing the most worry to urban planners.

JoAnn Carmin: Overall, in the survey, what cities said was that the biggest change they’re already seeing is not the frequency of storms but the intensity of storms. And they’re also seeing that that’s accompanied by hotter temperatures and more precipitation. So, from an urban point of view, what that means is that cities need to be thinking about storm-water systems, they need to be thinking…

Bob Oakes: …How to handle all that new rainfall?

Exactly. And when you think about issues of heat, there’s the stress that goes onto energy systems, but also onto individuals, onto the most vulnerable populations.

What do you mean by that?

Well, for instance, if we think about elderly populations, they’re more vulnerable to heat, and they also may be on fixed incomes, so they may not be able to run air conditioners or have access to cooling as easily as others might.

And what you’re talking about is not only how the natural environment in a cityscape will change, but also how we change or adapt what we build in the future, and what we have now.

Absolutely. So if you look at Boston, they’ve been thinking about their transportation systems, working with MassHighways, working with the MBTA. They’re also thinking about their storm-water system.

How do Boston and Cambridge differ [in] what they’re doing so far?

Boston has a longer history of thinking about adaptation. Mayor [Thomas] Menino began thinking about adaptation in 2007; it was signed into an executive order, different departments, different sectors, essentially working to mainstream climate adaptation. In contrast, Cambridge has focused more on mitigation, and solely on mitigation, for a bit longer. They’ve now been thinking seriously about adaptation; they’re going to do a citywide assessment starting this September. Once the assessment’s done they’ll start developing a comprehensive or larger type of adaptation strategy.

You’ve talked about mitigation, and you’ve talked about adaptation. In the climate change community, what’s the difference between the two?

In this community, “mitigation” refers to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, whereas “adaptation” means preparing for, coping with, the impacts of climate change.

Globally, is there increased attention being paid to adapting?

Absolutely. I think if you look at the work of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there’s more and more research, more and more thinking about the need for adaptation. Some of this comes because there’s recognition that we just can’t stop greenhouse gas emissions fast enough, that we’re not going to be able to just put a brake on this, and it will all go away.

What are the major impediments getting in the way of planners to either launch or continue this work? You’ve got to think that money has got to be a big driver, the availability of cash to do this work.

There are no very good estimates of what it will cost for a city to adapt, but we know that it’s significant. In addition, cities are saying that they’re finding it challenging to just allocate the staff time. Interestingly, though, among the top-ranked issues overall are issues around gaining support, gaining commitment, gaining understanding of the need for adaptation.

Has there been the necessary political support in the U.S.? Because climate change is a hot-button issue.

I think there’s very variable support. There’s also the pressure to say that we don’t want to think about climate change, or to deny that climate change is happening.

Do you sense that planners are making headway in getting political support?

Cities are on the front lines, so it’s not a very hard sell in many places. In the Northeast, for instance, we’ve seen many cities start to move forward, including Cambridge and Boston, along with Somerville, all the way up to Keene, N.H., saying these are agendas that we need to be thinking about.

So, some people might be listening to this interview and saying to themselves, “Well, OK, if my sewer backs up in a heavy rainstorm my feet might get wet. If it gets hotter in the summer, maybe I’ll sweat a little more when I go outside.” Convince the skeptical: Why should governments and individuals take precautions against something that we don’t actually know will happen?

If you think about all of the different types of activities that are part of adaptation, what that really says is, “Let’s do good planning.” So we’re thinking about how to make our cities livable, how to make our cities green, how to make our cities safe, how to ensure that industry can continue or business can thrive. We’re thinking about how to stabilize our energy systems so our homes are comfortable. We’re think about how to ensure that our hospitals can keep their doors open if it’s wetter or hotter. And so what we’re saying is, this is a way for us to move forward into the future and to ensure that our cities are vital and viable for many years to come.

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