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The Key To Solving One Of Cities’ Biggest Problems? Think Small

A city doesn’t need a grand action plan to reduce climate change risks, according to a new study.

The Key To Solving One Of Cities’ Biggest Problems? Think Small
[Photo: Giovanni Archavaleta]

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Climate change is one of our generation’s  biggest challenges–and most confusing policy problems. The country’s top politicians are busy rolling back protections. Cities are plowing ahead with resiliency plans. There’s still little consensus on how best to approach climate change’s effects, but a new study from the University of Kansas offers some simple guidance for cities in the nascent stages of resiliency planning: Start small.

Large coastal cities like New York and Boston, and regions like the San Francisco Bay Area, have made climate change a top priority in their planning and have issued sweeping, high-profile climate adaptation plans that address land use, public health, natural resource management, energy efficiency, and more. But they’re the exception, not the rule. Most American cities don’t have a formal plan to address climate change’s impacts. While it might seem that having a grand resiliency plan is essential to reducing risk, it’s not when it comes to land-use planning.

Led by urban planning professor Ward Lyles, the University of Kansas and Texas A&M researchers analyzed 51 municipal plans that deal with climate change adaptation. These plans attempt to reduce the most risks associated with climate change–heat waves, floods, droughts, extreme weather events, and rising sea levels. They exist on a spectrum: On one end are risk-specific plans that address a single hazard, like flooding. On the other end are the more comprehensive plans, like master plans and sustainability plans. Seventy-five percent of the climate adaptation plans in the study fell into this category.

Lyles and his team found that risk-specific plans, while technically smaller in scope, yielded more direct policy change than the comprehensive plans. Why? Their implementation required input from planning agencies and often involved integration with existing hazard- and disaster-mitigation plans. The broader climate action plans involved a lot of research on and explanations of problems and general goals but didn’t have specific implementation plans.

“We saw two key strengths of narrower scoped plans,” Lyles said in a news release. “First, they typically made explicit connections to more of the land use, transportation, and other related plans cities already have adopted. Second, they typically include more policies aimed at steering development out of known hazardous areas into safer areas.”

The researchers suggest that municipalities that are just beginning to launch climate adaptation plans start by addressing specific risks and working closely with planning departments on policy recommendations. There’s also an added benefit to this approach: It cuts out politics. Climate change as a concept is still polarizing in some areas of the country, and some jurisdictions flat out deny it’s an issue in the first place. “Taking an initial narrow-scope approach to adaptation planning may allow planners and others concerned with climate impacts to avoid or minimize resistance to risk reduction planning because of the politicization of climate change,” the report stated.

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When it comes to making our cities more resilient, slow and steady–and specific–sometimes wins the race.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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