In the Pacific Northwest, Native American Communities Plan for Climate Change

While we’ve heard a lot about the transformational climate change adaptation plans of New York City, Boston, and San Francisco, and other big coastal cities, small coastal communities are also creating bold plans for how to handle tidal surges, rising sea levels, and temperature changes. If they are smart, they are also figuring out what sustainable development opportunities can arise out of their adaptation efforts, too. At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Chicago, Edwin Knight, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Camano Island, Washington; and Sean Keithly and Steve Moddemeyer, both at Collinswoerman, discussed how the Swinomish Tribe on Camano Island, a small Native American community on the Puget Sound, has taken up the twin challenges of climate change adaptation planning and sustainable development.

Knight said an examination of 650,000 years of Antartic ice data shows that “carbon dioxide emissions are going off the chart. We are currently exceeding our worst-case scenarios.” Temperatures are expected to become hotter than anything for the past 100,000 years. In this century, we can expect a 3-8 degree Fahrenheit rise in temperatures. Rising tides are also expected. In the Seattle area, they are planning for a 3-feet rise this century.

According to Knight, “changes are going to happen regardless of how much we cut carbon dioxide emissions now.” Those changes vary locally. Depending on where a community is, they could face “floods, cold snaps, heat waves, or droughts.” The big worry is that “change could come faster than we think.”

Knight said the primary fear in the Camano Island Swinomish Tribal community is “a tidal surge on top of a high tide,” which would utterly overwhelm the town’s dikes. Currently, the storm surge barriers are about 5 feet above sea level. With a tidal surge, waters could easily rise 8 feet. But even by increasing the height of the dikes, “how long can we expect protection?” Building, say, a 12-foot dike is also not a viable solution because it would be prohibitively expensive.

For a small community with limited resources like Camano Island, the challenge then becomes how to do sustainable development in the face of climate change. “There are many disciplines involved. There are complex issues in changing circumstances. Funding sources are hard to tap. There are long time frames.”

Camano Island is a rural coastal community of about 3,000. They have forested uplands, agricultural lands, and lots of residential areas, but the hub of economic activity is around the coasts, which are increasingly under threat. A few years ago, a storm surge that breached their dike system wrecked havoc. To protect against the next surge, the community secured about $400,000 in funds to conduct a climate change adaptation plan. Some 80 percent of the funds came from the federal government while 20 percent came from the tribe.

During the first year, the tribe focused on conducting an “impact assessment, scoping the strategy.” The analysis included a review of “climate data,” creating an inventory of “vulnerabilities,” which yielded a “risk zone map.” The second year focused on creating a set of recommendations and an action plan for the whole community. The plan had to account for immediate and long-term threats, sustainable development, regional access (including plans for what would happen if connections to the mainland were severed), and long-term levee maintenance.

Keithly at Collinswoerman said his team used a “values-based approach” to create the long-term development plan for the island. “Cultural values underscored everything.” The plan presents “site development opportunities” along with a master plan for future development. The team looked at residential areas along with relatively underused agriculture areas. The waterfront was a key focus area. The island is also set up for recreation so they looked at possible impacts on their key sources of tourism dollars: kayaking, wetland walks, and other eco-tourism. Beyond the natural landscape, the planning team looked at all the buildings and how to make them more resilient.

An original plan included “transition zones,” a new concept that would move coastal buildings from the land to the water through the use of pylons or even floating structures. “This is pro-active sea level rise adaptation.” Development would now be “water based, sustainable over time.” There were ideas for a floating hotel or eco-lodge as a centerpiece. Unfortunately, while the Corps of Engineers gives “some considerations for sea level rise,” water-dependent buildings still can’t be done “under current regulations.” Keithly said “a marina is OK, but proactive adaptation isn’t.” The “regulatory norms are unfortunately pretty impractical.”

So an updated plan was crafted for a mixed-use waterfront with multiple quadrants, organized based on how far they were from the water. Old sites would be raised with soils, while a new mixed-use development would also be elevated. “There will be large flex office space to bring in new commercial tenants.” Hopefully, the floating building plans will eventually be approved, too, but in the interim, a planned eco-lodge and cabins will be designed with the highest sustainable building standards.

Moddemeyer at Collinswoerman said the end goal of the planning effort was to really bring out what the Swinomish already know. They have been living off the land sustainably for thousands of years. They have gone through many cycles of “exploiting and conserving their resources,” and historically planned for “change instead of continuity.”

Their smart plan reflects this understanding of nature’s cycles, and now goes beyond climate change: it’s a tool for dealing with all sorts of variability. Improving the resiliency of the community and built environment is viewed as the primary way to deal with all this. “We need semi-autonomous systems that nest in broader systems. We need networked but independent nodes.”

Explore the Swinomish climate plan.

Image credit: Swinomish Canoe Journey / Mary Evitt. LA Conner News Weekly

One thought on “In the Pacific Northwest, Native American Communities Plan for Climate Change

  1. Terry Mock 05/08/2013 / 12:52 pm

    Great article and concluding remarks – “We need semi-autonomous systems that nest in broader systems. We need networked but independent nodes.”

    The 21st century will overturn many of our previously-held assumptions about civilization. The challenges and opportunities land development stakeholders now face – to fulfill the needs of society and achieve a favorable return on investment without harming the environment – have vast implications on the sustainability of our communities around the world.

    The World’s First Sustainable Development Decision Model is symbolized as a geometrical algorithm that balances and integrates the triple-bottom line needs of people, planet and profit into a holistic, fractal model that becomes increasingly detailed, guiding effective decisions throughout the community planning, financing, design, regulating, construction and maintenance processes while always enabling project context to drive specific decisions.

    Like Life Itself, Sustainable Development is Fractal –

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