Amid Divisive Politics, Keeping a Laser Focus on Climate Change

From top: ASLA 2016 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. The Big U, New York, NY. BIG and Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners. ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. Perez Art Museum Miami: Resiliency by Design, Miami, Florida. ArquitectonicaGEO / copyright Robin Hill. Living Breakwaters, Staten Island, NY. SCAPE Landscape Architecture. ASLA 2016 Professional Communications Honor Award. Sea Change: Boston, Boston, MA. Sasaki Associates.

Later this spring, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) will release a set of policy recommendations on climate change and resilience designed to better arm advocates pursuing changes in laws, regulations, and codes at the federal, state, and local levels. Introducing a panel at the group’s spring meeting in Washington, D.C., ASLA CEO Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, explained that the recommendations will cover both natural systems and the built environment, and their goal will be to spur the use of financial incentives to encourage positive change.

Natural system recommendations will include measures designed to expand the use of green infrastructure; protect tree canopies, green bio-corridors, and open spaces; support biodiversity, especially among pollinators; and assist diverse plants and animal species migrate and adapt. Example recommendations include: create dedicated funding streams for green infrastructure; incentivize the planting of native and regionally-appropriate plants, protection of habitats, and the increase of biodiversity; and encourage the inclusion of climate change assessments in green space planning, including at the regional level.

Built environment recommendations focus on how to further encourage more resilient and sustainable growth patterns through the use of compact development, sustainable land development and zoning, and transit. Example recommendations include: restructure insurance to encourage resilient re-building; set up community investment trusts for green infrastructure and resilient design projects; and evaluate new transit projects through an equity lens.

A panel discussion then covered how allied organizations are maintaining a focus on climate change in today’s divisive political climate. ASLA President Greg Miller, FASLA, led Jeff Soule, director of outreach at the American Planning Association (APA); Mark Golden, CEO of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE); Tom Smith, CEO of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE); and Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, immediate past-president of ASLA, through a discussion.

To varying degrees, all organizations actively call for sustainable and resilient planning, design, and engineering that will help communities better protect themselves and adapt.

A key message, which was relevant for all organizations, came from Golden: “health, safety, and welfare (HSW) comes above all other considerations.” Following where the climate science leads, these organizations promote sustainable and resilient practices because they will help ensure health, safety, and welfare in an era of temperature and weather extremes.

According to Golden, more resilient buildings and landscapes are less costly to build if they are created in advance of a destructive natural event. A recent National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) report found that for every $1 spent on hazard mitigation saves $6 after a disaster. Sadly, though, most communities “continue to be reactive instead of pro-active” in preparing for climate change-driven natural disasters.

Rinner explained ASLA is now purposefully talking more directly about climate change. “The words we use matter. We take a strong position on climate change, sustainability, resilience, and adaptation.” She added that nearly a third of sessions at last year’s Annual Meeting & EXPO in Los Angeles were focused on climate change and resilience.

In the next year or two, Congress will be taking up a new transportation bill. The sentiment seemed to be advocating for a more sustainable transportation system at the federal level will be an uphill battle. According to APA director Soule, “we are actually regressing at the federal level and just trying to keep what we’ve accomplished.” Leadership on green and complete streets and other forward-thinking transportation systems now comes from states and cities. Most of the funds for transportation will be spent at those levels, too, so it makes sense to focus advocacy there.

ASCE CEO Smith said it’s increasingly important to leverage skills and resources from the local level. He sees the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which is training chief resilience officers around the world, as a success story.

Rinner agreed, explaining that the bottom-up We’re Still In coalition — a group of American communities adhering to the U.S. commitments to the Paris climate accord — has signed up 2,700 cities and towns, and the numbers keep growing. “Local action can have a cumulative impact.”

States and cities can also experiment and create new models where the federal government cannot. For example, California has taken the lead in developing a new carbon trading system. “The rest of the world is watching to see if it works — and if it does, California’s model will become something more can follow.”

Smith brought up how the dearth of maintenance budgets hurts efforts to achieve greater sustainability and resilience. According to a report card ASCE releases every four years, the U.S.’s infrastructure now has a sad D+ rating. “Maintenance is the number-one issue.” To deal with this problem, ASCE is developing new guidelines to reduce infrastructure life cycle costs by 50 percent. “We’ve got to think differently in the future.” Smith sees some public-private partnerships as leading the way on the leaner, smarter infrastructure of the future.

In a reality check, APA director Soule cautioned there is still a major gap between high-level policy discussions on sustainability and resilience and the situation on the ground. For example: As New Orleans rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, local officials and planners tried to stave off rebuilding in areas that had been deemed especially at risk of flooding, with the goal of saving those areas for permanent stormwater management. But the “political reality” demanded homeowners be allowed to build back where they had lived before.

The truth is no one wants to be told they can’t go back home and rebuild. As a changing climate impacts more communities, reconciling health, safety, and welfare considerations with people’s emotional attachment to a place will become an even greater challenge.

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