Climbing the Mountain amid a Landslide

Where will we find badly needed leadership for climate adaptation?

The United States, under President Trump, has withdrawn from the Paris climate accords. That does not, of course, eliminate the problem of climate change, but it does create a gaping leadership void regarding federal policy support for either mitigating climate change (by reducing greenhouse gas emissions) or adapting communities and businesses to better withstand its impacts. Many cities and some states have claimed the mantle of leadership by pledging continued efforts, and a few foundations have undertaken initiatives such as the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities. Newly emerging professional associations have emerged, notably the Urban Sustainability Directors Network and, perhaps most on point, the American Society of Adaptation Professionals. Other long-standing professional associations, such as the American Planning Association and the American Society of Civil Engineers, have weighed in on the subject, and even offered professional training, while maintaining their traditional focus.

But is all this activity a concerted push in the right direction? Or is it a growing babble of voices without strategic direction? Amid it all, is there an emerging field of practice for climate adaptation professionals, and if so, how well defined is that field? What credentials should it develop or require? These are no small questions because a great deal depends on the credibility of the scientific assessments made of the problem we must confront.

Kresge Foundation’s Climate Adaptation Influencers meeting in Washington, DC, January 22. Jim Schwab was a participant. Kresge Foundation photo.

In that context, a new report from the Kresge Foundation, Rising to the Challenge, Together, is a welcome addition to the conversation, even as it stresses the urgency of both the conversation and our response to the problem. Given the steadily increasing toll of natural disasters and the increasing threat of sea level rise for coastal communities, high-precipitation storms for others, and prolonged drought and increased wildfire for many western and heartland regions, one can understand when the report, authored by Susanne C. Moser, Joyce Coffee, and Aleka Seville, states bluntly:

The accelerating pace, all-encompassing scope, and global scale of climate change converging with other societal and environmental challenges—juxtaposed with the sheer difficulty of challenging and changing thinking, politics, and institutions to close the resilience gap—leave the field rather worried about the state of adaptation efforts in the US at this time. Some fields of practice have the luxury of evolving at their own pace; in the field of climate adaptation, failure or slow adaptation could mean death and destruction. Incremental progress in climate change simply does not match the rapidly accelerating pace of climate change.”

It is difficult for anyone well grounded in the science to argue with this sense of urgency. One is tempted to fall back on the nearly cliched image of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland running to stay in place. But I’m not sure that image reflects the real urgency the Kresge report implies. A more appropriate image might be that of attempting to scale a mountain amid a landslide. That does not mean that I think the situation is hopeless. It does mean that the only solution may be to buckle our safety belts and rapidly grow our tenacity in confronting the perils that lie ahead. Tenacity is very different from panic. Later, the report states, “Crisis-driven adaptation has its limits.” Responding to crisis is reactive; tenacity requires vision. The problem, the authors note, is that the adaptation community has not yet defined a “vision for a desirable future.” What brave new world sits at the top of that mountain?

How Kresge survey respondents responded when asked to rate the status of selected sub-components of the adaptation field. All graphics provided by and reproduced with permission from Kresge Foundation.

Attendance at climate-and disaster-related sessions at the APA National Planning Conference has risen dramatically over 20 years. Credit: Jim Schwab

There is an aspect of the emerging climate adaptation field that calls to mind the origins of both the urban planning and public health fields, which most people would describe as having the maturity that this new field seeks to achieve. Both responded to urgent health crises in rapidly growing modern cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because of uncontrolled industrial pollution and poor sewage management, cities like Chicago, New York, and Baltimore were virtual petri dishes for disease. In time, both professions established positive visions for desired community outcomes, but those visions must now contend with the new threats climate adaptation aims to address. Thus, APA national and state conferences over the past two decades have seen dramatic shifts in content, with a greater emphasis on preserving those positive visions by addressing climate change and mitigating natural hazards. The Kresge report in its final chapter attempts to assess what the vision of a mature field of climate adaptation would be.

It is important, however, to understand the framework the report offers for the essential components of the climate adaptation (or any other) field of professional endeavor. Derived from lengthy interviews and surveys with study participants, including attendees at the 2017 National Adaptation Forum in St. Paul, Minnesota, Kresge offers what it calls “the 4 P’s.” These are:

  • Purpose (why does this field need to exist?)
  • People (who should be involved with what credentials?)
  • Practice (how are best practices in this field identified?)
  • Pillars (the public policy and funding support for the field)

This framing device may be one of the report’s most important contributions to thinking about the future leadership of the climate adaptation field. I would add that it is particularly important to see climate adaptation, much like its planning and public health forebears, as a field that is less about theory, although theory remains important, than about applied knowledge, which is almost inherent in the definition of adaptation. Unless adaptation is a matter of practice, the urgency the report discusses makes no sense. That said, one crucial skill planners may be able to contribute is synthesis. Planners may have their own unique set of skills and analytic methods, but they rely overwhelmingly on borrowing technical knowledge from the sciences, engineering, and economics to make sense of the urban organism and to help shape its future. Likewise, climate adaptation practitioners, while needing a solid knowledge base in climate science, will need to rely heavily on a bevy of other skills to succeed. Notable among these will be communication and people skills. Our communities will become hotbeds of climate progress only when the public is sold on both the nature of the problem and the feasibility of the solutions offered. The ability to facilitate that dialogue will be critical. Climbing that mountain will require pervasive public support.

The question of initiating effective dialogue with a public that is sometimes skeptical (location and timing matter here) feeds into another question raised in the Kresge report—whether it is more important to mainstream the concepts of climate adaptation or seek societal transformation with climate adaptation as a driving influence. Mainstreaming refers to the incorporation of climate adaptation concerns and practices into existing institutions and procedures. One major example would be hazard mitigation plans; another would be infusing such ideas into various elements of comprehensive plans, as well as regulatory tools such as zoning ordinances and building codes. Transformation, on the other hand, involves the pursuit of systemic changes in social and political structures. If there is to be a debate on this point, it seems to me the debate must be more one of emphasis than absolutes and should be context-sensitive. Transformation depends on situational opportunities tempered by foresight and the tenacious pursuit of a longer-term vision, but it does not rule out mainstreaming. Both approaches help to build more resilient communities for the future, but each may miss the mark if it is seen as the only valid perspective.

This is not an “either/or” choice but “both/and.” Because Kresge strives to maintain a social equity focus in climate adaptation discussions, I will point out that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was both a visionary and an effective tactician. One must know which matters most at a given moment. The report also mentions the tension between urban and rural perspectives and the potential for smaller communities being left behind in the quest for resources. Here lies a huge opportunity for transformational change, given the recent political divide. God bless the politician who can construct a connecting narrative that brings these forces together behind a progressive, scientifically informed agenda.

That leads to my final point before simply recommending that anyone with a serious interest in this field download and read the report. In its final chapter, the report takes note of the pressing need to build relationships across silos, to develop a common language and shared understanding of the problem, and to use a “whole community” approach to address problems. There is much more detail, but this is enough to suggest the drift. Climbing this mountain amid a landslide is no easy task. The details can be grinding and even discouraging when things do not go well. It is important to know how to measure progress and to keep the obstacles in perspective.

Rose diagram shows a way to visualize progress toward adaptation.

Planners, particularly, should know this. We are a profession of visionaries who know that details matter.

Jim Schwab

Think Globally, Adapt Locally

In times of political hostility to scientific truth, knowledgeable people sometimes wonder how we can progress without federal support for important initiatives such as adaptation to climate change. The answer, in a vibrant democracy, is that the truth often bubbles up from the bottom instead of being disseminated from the top. When the top is dysfunctional, as it currently seems to be, it is the creativity of local officials and their communities that often saves America from itself. For me, part of the joy of a career in urban planning has been watching and sometimes abetting the great local experiments that pave the way for an eventual federal and international response to pressing urban and environmental problems. The struggle to adapt successfully to climate change is one of those urgent problems. We may indeed confront a wave of scientific ignorance among some leaders in the Trump administration for a few years, but they should be aware that they cannot halt the wave of innovation as communities work to solve real problems.

Denying that humans have contributed significantly to climate change through the Industrial Revolution and transportation driven by fossil fuel consumption will do nothing to stop sea level rise, nor will it prevent the bifurcation of extreme weather events that flattens the bell curve with fewer normal events and more high-precipitation storms and prolonged drought, which sometimes also feeds a longer and more intense wildfire season. Disasters happen, and the numbers don’t lie.

UNISDRAs a result, I was very happy a couple of years ago to be invited to join a Project Advisory Committee for the Kresge Foundation, which had hired Abt Associates to produce a report on climate adaptation at the community level. The foundation has supported a good deal of work related to community resilience and social equity in addition to making serious investments in the resuscitation of Detroit as a functioning urban community. Kresge wants to know what makes communities tick in responding to resilience challenges like climate change, and the study by Abt was intended to establish a sort of baseline for understanding the best practices in local planning related to climate adaptation.

I was thus involved in a series of all-day or multiday meetings of 16 project advisors from around the United States who reviewed and commented on the progress of the study for the consultants. Our meetings involved some serious debates about what constituted climate adaptation and resilience, and the degree to which communities needed to use such labels for what they were doing, or conversely, the degree to which we needed to recognize what they were doing as climate adaptation. Sometimes, we learned, adaptation may quack like a duck without being called a duck by local citizens and officials. What matters is what is accomplished.

Climate Adaptation: The State of Practice in U.S. Communities was officially released by Kresge Foundation in December; I will confess to being a little late in sharing the news, but at the time I was trying to recover from pneumonia. It took me a while longer to find time to read the report in its 260-page entirety, but I thought it important to do so to report intelligently on the final product. There is a difference between reviewing case studies in bits and pieces before committee meetings and seeing the full report between two covers.

I am happy to tell you that I think the nine authors who contributed to the report hit a home run. The bulk of its wisdom lies in 17 case studies spread across the nation, including some surprising places like Cleveland, Ohio, and the Southwestern Crown of Montana. I applaud Abt Associates for its work in even identifying many places that may not have been on the standard maps of leadership in climate resilience. Some of that can be attributed to maintaining an open mind about what they were looking for and what constituted innovation and success in adaptation. One thing that is utterly clear is that no two communities are the same, nor do they face the same problems. Ours is a very diverse country in spite of all that binds us together. Ours is also a nation of creative citizens who confront local problems based on local circumstances rather than “one size fits all” solutions. Perhaps that is why support from Washington does not always matter as much as we think, except in the international arena, where it is critical.

The example of Cleveland may be enlightening in this regard. While issues of social equity may not always seem like a logical starting point for engagement on climate adaptation, Cleveland is a city that was utterly battered by economic change from the 1970s into the early 21st century. The result is a community that is noticeably IMG_0256less prosperous than its surrounding metropolitan area, and has some of the lowest socioeconomic rankings among major cities nationwide. It is also a city that has lost more than half of its 1950s population, which peaked around 900,000. It is a city that may well say, in evaluating its place on the prosperity scale, “Thank God for Detroit.” That also means that no discussion of climate adaptation will move forward without a solid anchor in efforts to confront these inequities because it is hard to imagine how a community can become resilient in the face of climate challenges without also rebuilding economic opportunity for a badly battered working class. I know. I may have decamped for Iowa in 1979, but I grew up in the Cleveland area and worked my way through college in a chemical plant. Rebuilding prosperity in Cleveland has been tough sledding.

By the same token, climate change has had a direct impact on Montana, and the Southwestern Crown, a rural area of mountains and forests, has suffered the loss of timber industry jobs, which has in much of the Pacific Northwest resulted in some bitterness toward environmentalists. At the same time, nature takes a serious toll in increased wildfire damage, and at some point, if people of different perspectives can sit down for some serious discussions of reality, they can also imagine new futures for a region at risk. That has been the job of the Southwestern Crown Collaborative.

Pike Street MarketMentioning every case study here would not make sense. But it is worth noting that communities generally seen as not only prosperous but on the cutting edge of the new high-tech economy, such as Seattle, face other challenges that nonetheless tax local resources and resourcefulness. Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) became another Kresge case study, in large part, it seems, because its management needed to find ways to bring its staff and customers into the difficult realm of defining the threat and deciding how it could best be handled. SPU is responsible for managing Seattle’s water supply. When one confronts a future that portends potential water shortages as a result of decreased winter snow pack, leading to reduced snow melt that combined with drought can leave a huge metropolitan area high and dry, the need to recalibrate the system can be daunting. This case study is not important for providing precise answers to such questions, for there are none. Instead, it emphasizes the challenge of accustoming utility engineers and managers to an uncertain future, and helping them find comfort levels with uncertainty. What needs to change to make Seattle’s water supply resilient in the face of natural hazards? How does a city on Puget Sound cope with sea level rise? What plans will be adequate for protecting water supplies two or three decades into the future? In the end, the answers revolve around changing the culture of decision making within the organization as well as communicating those challenges clearly to the public. One product of SPU’s efforts, however, is a path forward for other communities facing similar long-term challenges.

Bottom line: This report is a great resource for those who want to descend from the heights of overarching theory on climate change to the realities of confronting the problem on the ground. Use this link, download it, and read it. Few resources in recent years have been so thorough in documenting the state of practice in climate adaptation at the local level. I am proud to have been involved even in an advisory capacity. I have learned a great deal from the process.

Jim Schwab


Bounce Forward? But, of Course!

In recent years, there has been growing interest in and activity around the concept of resilience. For many people long involved in trying to make the world’s communities safer from disasters, the interest has been heartwarming. The underlying idea is that a community should be better positioned to “bounce back” from a disaster, recovering more efficiently and quickly. A major natural disaster—tornado, hurricane, earthquake—need not be a death sentence or leave a community flat on its back for years. There are numerous ways in which we can do better. We can prepare better, mitigate better, plan better—but to what end?

Some resilience advocates are almost scared by the current interest. After all, look at what happened to the concept of sustainability, subjected by now to years of corporate whitewash and a relentless watering down of the essential message, as originally framed, that we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them with the same opportunities to enjoy prosperity by reducing our ecological footprint, taking better care of the earth’s resources. Sustainability by its very nature ought to be challenging, yet too many things are too easily labeled sustainable, and the word loses its moral authority in the process.

Could the message of resilience be watered down in the same way?

For a long time, federal and state policies with regard to disaster assistance focused on supporting no more than the replacement of what existed before disaster struck. We’ll help you build back, but we won’t help you build a Cadillac. As federal policy, particularly within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), increasingly emphasized hazard mitigation in order to minimize losses in future disasters, however, the idea behind such thinking became increasingly suspect. If you could make a community more resistant to future disasters, if you could reduce that community’s future reliance on outside assistance in managing recovery, why would you not want to make that investment? In the 1993 Midwest floods, in particular, the use of federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program money to buy out flood-prone properties and create public open space in floodplains at least meant removing some development from harm’s way. That opened the door to even more forward thinking. Some relocated communities, like Valmeyer, Illinois, went much farther and adopted green building codes. The “green rebuild” of Greensburg, Kansas, after its 2007 tornado built on this idea.

DSCF1844Indeed, is there really anything wrong with leaving a community better off than it was before? By the time the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force issued its report in 2013, this bridge appears to have been crossed. The task force answer was clearly that we want very much to rebuild communities that would be more resilient in the face of future disasters. Ideally, that would not mean that such communities would merely regain their pre-disaster status quo more quickly, although that seems to have been the goal for more than a few communities after Sandy. The bigger vision just never materialized. At the same time, however, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has been seeking ways, most recently through the National Disaster Resilience Competition, to encourage states and communities to think about improvements that, in particular, instill greater resilience among their most vulnerable populations.

The question won’t go away, and fortunately, there are plenty of people, particularly within the growing community of climate change adaptation professionals, who remain engaged. This is a very good thing because, in the face of phenomena like climate change and sea level rise, hazard mitigation faces the prospect of running hard merely to stay in place, a la Alice in Wonderland. Elevate homes, retreat from the seashore, and you find in another generation that you have gained little or nothing because average temperatures are rising and the sea is following you to higher ground. This is precisely why the latest guidance from FEMA on hazard mitigation assistance insists that states and communities must begin to account for climate change in the hazard mitigation plans that qualify them for federal grants. There is little sense in spending federal money to mitigate the same problem repeatedly when you can do it once with more foresight.

At the risk of oversimplifying the underlying questions, which can and do fill volumes of scholarly and professional analysis these days, I lay this out as the background for introducing a remarkable new document unleashed into this debate by The Kresge Foundation. Bounce Forward, a strategy paper from Island Press and the foundation, which funded the project, raises the question of what constitutes “urban resilience in the era of climate change.” At the outset, it confronts the fear I cited at the beginning of this blog post—that of losing the essential poignancy of the message of resilience. It states:

But the transformative potential of resilience is far from assured. There are several potential pitfalls. Notably, if resilience is conceived simply as “bouncing back” from disaster, it could prove harmful, by reinforcing systems that compound the risks our cities face. More insidiously, the concept of resilience could be co-opted by opponents of meaningful reform. And if efforts to build resilience do not also mitigate climate change, they will be of limited use.

I sense an echo here. For some years, at the American Planning Association and some allied organizations, we have talked of “building back better” as the real goal of disaster recovery. (See Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation.)* But resilience is about much more than effective recovery from disasters. It is also about positioning a community’s human and institutional resources to respond to all manner of setbacks, whether stemming from chronic decline and social pressures, or from the impact of nature on the built environment, to deal more creatively with those problems so as to evolve a society that can help its least advantaged sectors in responding to those threats and to become more prosperous and confident. A commitment to social justice must be inherent in the formula. A society that imposes unfair environmental burdens upon, and denies opportunities to, its most economically challenged elements cannot be resilient in any meaningful way. Such a society is merely perpetuating its vulnerabilities. A community is only as strong as its weakest link. In an “era of rapid change,” the Kresge report says, in effect, that weakest link is getting weaker, inequalities are growing and will be magnified by the impacts of climate change, and the concept of resilience means nothing or worse if it does not address these issues.

The aim of Bounce Forward is to create a framework for doing so. Stronger social cohesion and more inclusive community decision making are among the ingredients essential to this transformation. What’s more, as such reports go, this one is a very good read.

Jim Schwab

*I wish to note that, at the invitation of The Kresge Foundation, I have participated over the past year as a member of its Project Advisory Committee for a study of community resilience being prepared by Stratus Consultants, which is still being completed. I also represented APA at a Kresge Foundation symposium on resilience at the Garrison Institute, held last June in Garrison, NY. Because of our common agendas, APA has had an active interest in supporting the Kresge initiatives on this subject.