Urban Planners Mobilize for Climate Action

“Horizontal berm” from ouR-Home proposal / Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge

All cities need robust plans for mitigating and adapting to climate change. But according to Robert Kelew with UN-Habitat, the vast majority of the world’s urban communities still don’t.

At an event organized by the American Planning Association (APA) at SPUR in San Francisco, a group of urban planners, led by the APA’s Jeff Soule, discussed what’s needed to mobilize the world’s urban planners to take more effective action on the climate.

Kelew said a primary obstacle to more widespread urban climate planning is simply the lack of planners in developing countries. For example, “there are 38 accredited planners per 100,000 people in the United Kingdom, but just 0.23 per 100,000 in India,” and even fewer in Sub-Saharan Africa. Also, there are only 553 schools that teach urban planning worldwide.

To help speed up assistance to the developing world, a group of national planning associations and educators formed Planners for Climate Action, which launched at a UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting last November. Planners for Climate Action aims to create a “global repository of syllabi and map the state of climate change planning in cities,” issuing regular updates.

For Andrew Potts, a land-use attorney who represented the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), planners also need to do a better job of bringing historic preservation allies into the fight. There are clear overlaps between historic preservation and planning, but all the associated “heritage professionals” — scientists, planners, architects, landscape architects — haven’t been adequately included. In the US alone, “we can mobilize tens of thousands of heritage professionals to join the fight for climate action.”

Potts believes cultural heritage, including what UNESCO deems “intangible heritage,” has the potential to be a great motivating force for climate action. If what is special about a city or community is directly threatened by climate change, there will be a call to create a plan or project to protect that. Heritage professionals, who are used to working over long-time horizons, can also help communities make the connections between heritage preservation and climate change. “Every place with heritage has a climate story.”

Michael Boswell, head of the city and regional planning department at California Poly San Luis Obispo and a representative from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ASCP), has been studying what cities with successful climate action plans are doing and has authored a UN-Habitat-sponsored report to help planning departments ramp up efforts in their cities.

The most important success factor in these cities is having a “climate champion — a mayor, community activist with authority, or municipal planning staff,” so this person or group of people needs to be either identified and supported or grown locally. Climate-smart cities also lead by example by reducing emissions from their own government operations first; communicate the multiple benefits of climate action, such as the benefits of biking for health or electric vehicles and renewable energy in reducing air pollution; engage the public through direct communications efforts; build partnerships; assemble “green teams” in mayors’ offices; and institutionalize action.

Sandy Mendler, a principal at Mithun, who participated in the Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge through the ouR Home team, believes that planners must be focused on forging truly equitable city-wide development plans that don’t push out vulnerable populations. She argued that even in San Francisco, which has been a leader in climate action, the Bay area’s comprehensive plan through 2040 fails to meet affordable housing needs or further prevent gentrification of vulnerable areas. “The goal is zero displacement of existing communities. Without the plan, there would be a 20 percent increase in displacement through 2040; with the plan, there would still be 9 percent. That’s our best plan, and it’s not solving the problem.”

She said climate plans must also take into better account the unintended consequences of good intentions. For example, in California, the carbon cap and trade system has resulted in increased air pollution in low-income urban areas, because “power plants in high-value neighborhoods were cleaned up first, which meant that dirtier power generation was running longer in low-income communities.” California Global Warming Solutions Act from 2006 was just re-authorized last year, but this time with a companion bill (AB 197), environmental justice legislation that will dedicate a quarter of the funds from cap and trade to the the communities hit hardest by its effects.

Mendler also said cities must put “priority resilience areas,” which can protect communities through the use of green infrastructure, ahead of “priority development areas,” like the ones identified in the Plan Bay Area 2040.

The problem is many of the areas the bay area city governments have deemed ripe for future redevelopment are in flood zones, filled with brownfields, and inhabited by already-vulnerable populations. All of those brownfields are “time bombs” because if sea level rise causes them to permanently flood, they will spread toxins into the water supply. Brownfields must instead be redeveloped as green infrastructure — “permeable sponges” or “horizontal berms” that can reduce storm impacts, boost community and ecological resilience, and support biodiversity.

At the end, ASLA CEO Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, was invited to provide comments. She argued that focusing on the multiple social and environments benefits of climate action and maintaining a “laser focus on equity” are key. But she cautioned that the “balkanized” approach to climate change taken within many city governments is a major obstacle holding back more ambitious action.

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