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Event Recap: Climate Resilient Cities: An Earth Day Discussion Of Sea-Level Rise

Sea-level rise due to climate change is inevitable. How we protect ourselves, especially in coastal cities, depends largely on how urgently we respond. In celebration of a hopeful tomorrow, this Earth Day event from WBUR brought together policy experts, planners and thought leaders from across the country for a collaborative conversation about the future of coastal city life in America.

Barbara Moran, WBUR's senior producing editor, environment, moderated this discussion  with Angela Chalk, founder and executive director of Healthy Community Services, a non-profit located in the 7th Ward of New Orleans; Rachel Cleetus, policy director with the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Boston; and Kristina Hill, associate professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning and urban design at the University of California, Berkeley.

Highlights from this interview have been lightly edited for clarity.

Interview Highlights

On how structural racism intersects with climate change

Rachel Cleetus: There was a recent study by Climate Central where they were looking at affordable housing all over the country and where it's located. And the reality is that because of our country's history of structural racism, a lot of times, where people are living has a lot to do with where they were able to live. And Dorchester, for example, in this Climate Central study, they found that a large part of Dorchester could be underwater by the end of the century because of its vulnerability to where it's built. The study also talked about a little more than fifteen hundred of the state's affordable housing units are at risk of flood waters reaching those buildings once a year on average. And that number is going to triple in the next 30 years. So what this means is that we simultaneously have longstanding structural inequities in where and how we've allowed people to even own homes and lives. And now we have that colliding with this additional layer of risk with climate change. So it's compounding that risk. And that's why you get this disproportionate impact, often with low income communities and communities of color.

On the idea of managed retreat and the cultural impacts of climate change

Angela Chalk: Firstly, the folks are not choosing to build there, to live there. People have lived there for hundreds of years before Louisiana was even discovered or claimed by the French. So people are not moving there to build property there. And so how do you ask someone, and this was a big question after [Hurricane] Katrina, "Why go back there?" How do you ask someone to leave their ancestral grounds where all their culture is rooted in there, the history? How do you ask someone to leave that? Eventually, because of sea level rise and literally being swallowed up by the Gulf, you can't become entrenched unless you put in housing, sort of like Kristina said, floating cities. But that may be 15 years down the line. And I'll use the example and I posted it on Twitter. So you have all of these ancient burial sites of communities that live there that have just eroded into the Gulf of Mexico. So now I no longer have a connection with my ancestors if I want to visit them. So when I when I hear people saying that, know that wherever you live in this country, wherever it is, you're going to have a problem and how would you feel if someone asks you to leave your home? We are connected culturally to our family, our food and our faith in southeast Louisiana. So it's not a matter of just picking up and moving somewhere else. And so that's insulting to ask someone that. And I know people may have good intentions about leaving there, but that is insulting to those of us who live in southeast Louisiana. Respect of cultural norms is the most important thing. Now, we're not stupid either. We realize we can't battle the Gulf of Mexico, but it just takes us longer to realize that we're going to have to leave.

On the need for innovative solutions for climate change infrastructure

Kristina Hill: In 2070... the San Francisco Bay Area is all about innovation, and if we can be brave and be bold and — I'm from Boston originally, so I think of Yankee ingenuity; you can't say that in California. We need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and try some stuff that's different; do some pilot projects in the next 20 years, 10 years. And by 2070, we could see both of our major international airports functioning with floating runways. The Japanese have done it in Tokyo. We can do that. And we can have floating urban districts and we can be living well with higher water like the Dutch plan to do, and I think that's a perfectly good strategy for us. We can have wetland edges and we can float on our groundwater and we can live with this in a really positive way. It's not a Pollyanna vision. I recognize it's a lot of money having to go to it that otherwise could have gone to pay for something else. But we have to be bold or... conventional development's going to fail. So we wouldn't have any airports. We wouldn't have billions of dollars worth of homes. So we have to face facts, see what's coming and start innovating, or we're going to lose resources and lose tax base and lose people's lives and health.

This event is made possible with support from The Trustees One Waterfront Initiative and New England Aquarium, working to build a downtown waterfront for all. 


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