Preparing for a Changing Climate

Gold Coast, Australia, beach erosion / csiro.au
Gold Coast, Australia, beach erosion / csiro.au

As the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) formulates a new approach to our changing world, its Board of Trustees sought to learn what other major design associations are doing to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. At ASLA’s mid-year meeting, representatives from the Urban Land Institute (ULI), American Institute of Architects (AIA), American Planning Association (APA), and American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) explained how they are helping their collective membership, which totals hundreds of thousands, face the new challenges.

Serene Marshall, executive director of ULI’s center for sustainability, said their goal is to reduce carbon emissions from buildings — which consume about 40 percent of global energy and produce around the same amount of emissions — by 50 percent by 2030. Strategies that will help include: greater building energy efficiency, education for building tenants on energy consumption, distributed local energy systems, transit-oriented development, urban green areas that help increase the acceptance of density, and local sustainable food production. At the same time, ULI wants to increase the resilience of communities to “floods, fire, droughts, and increased heat.” Developers need to “avoid the unmanageable effects of climate change while managing the unavoidable.” A major part of this involves changing “where they build real estate.”

“Water will be for the 21st century what oil was for the 20th century,” said Jason Jordan, director of policy, APA. Up until now, “water has been too compartmentalized in the planning process.” But Jordan said some forward-thinking communities are already planning for the expected problems that will come with having “too much or too little or too polluted water.” APA has partnered with the Dutch government’s water experts, creating a working group that will lead to a new policy guide for “how to live with water.” APA’s second focus area is planning for hazard mitigation competence at the local level, and they are working with National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to create local standards. Lastly, APA is also focused on creating new models for public engagement and how to “better address social equity issues.”

“If we deal with climate change in isolation, we are not going get to where we need to,” said Joel Mills, director of AIA’s Center for Communities by Design. “1.4 million people are moving to cities around the world each week. Climate change is directly connected with urbanization.” But he also added that there is no one-size-fits-all urban climate solution. For example, “Austin has doubled in population while Detroit is fighting its way back.” To come up with solutions, communities must create their own dialogues based in collaborative approaches. In addition, AIA has signed on to the Architecture 2030 Challenge, which calls for all buildings to be carbon neutral by 2030. And the group has joined the national multi-sector partnership on resilience in the built environment.

“Today’s design criteria and codes are built on the weather of the past — this is the challenge,” said Dick Wright, with ASCE’s committee on the adaptation to a changing climate, which also recently released a comprehensive report on adapting infrastructure to the future. “The challenge is how to deal with uncertainties in the underlying climate data.” ASCE is promoting the use of the “observational method,” a “learn-as-you-go process for a life-cycle 50-100 years out.” Engineers now need to ask themselves “what is most probable scenario in 50 years and design for that, while also providing for the extremes.” As an example, the Lossan railroad, which runs along the coast from Los Angeles to San Diego, is set on pre-cast concrete piers that can be shifted 5-feet up as needed. The piers were constructed to be “deliberately durable to extreme exposures.” Wright concluded: “we’ve reached the end of handbook design — you can’t put in numbers and spit something out. Engineers must use ingenuity and imagination in dealing with uncertainty and adapting to future conditions.”

ASLA President Chad Danos, FASLA, asked how can planning and design organizations actually impact climate policy?

Mills said “every mayor is very interested in this issue,” and working bottom-up from the local level could result in a “grassroots movement.” For Marshall, it was those mayors who created the local actions and political room for the international climate change agreement reached in Paris last December. “The mayors made it easy for the national leaders.” Both Marshall and Jordan said avoiding the “ideology” of climate change was important. Marshall said, “it’s better to just go to communities and ask, ‘do you have flood, drought, or air pollution problems?'”

Jordan thinks a successful strategy for changing climate policy will need to “refocus the discussion and get away from the polarizing dynamics.” The business sector, particularly real estate developers and insurance companies, may help create a “bottom-line approach that will have impact. Capital markets will drive change due to the vulnerability of some assets.”

Most seemed to agree that “policy change will not happen on Capitol Hill,” but will be the result of many state and local efforts.

Also, all agreed that cities and smaller communities only continue to build in vulnerable areas along coasts. As sea levels rise, this is increasingly untenable. Jordan said: “We need to take a hard look at where we are subsidizing risky developments. An honest conversation is needed. That’s in the public interest.”

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