Taking the necessary steps to prepare for climate change—and the extreme weather events that go along with it—can be a daunting task. A new climate adaptation report is intended to provide a road map to guide communities on how to effectively develop and implement their own climate change policies.

climate-adaption-coverClimate Adaptation: The State of Practice in U.S. Communities takes an in-depth look at some of the innovative approaches and best practices being used by communities across the country to better prepare for the effects of climate change. The report includes separate case studies of distinct adaptation actions from a diverse group of 17 communities across the nation from Boston to El Paso, Texas. The research analyzes the efforts underway, the motivations for action, and how communities have moved beyond planning to action.

“One of the promising things from the report is that it does show that there are communities [that] are actually moving forward with implementation of action as opposed to just doing planning for climate adaptation,” says Lois R. DeBacker, managing director, environment, at the Kresge Foundation. The report was commissioned by Kresge and produced by Abt Associates.

Although community planning and preparedness are still in the very early stages, the research indicates growing momentum: “More municipalities are preparing for climate risks than is conventionally believed.” There are situations where communities are becoming more aware of the risks associated with climate change and are choosing to be proactive. However, in many cases, the catalyst prompting communities to take action is a direct impact from an extreme event that created a window of opportunity or jump-started a stalled policy, says Jason Vogel, a climate change specialist at Abt Associates and coauthor of the Climate Adaptation report.

Chula Vista, California, for example, experienced a fire that burned right up to the edge of town. “The charred land was a constant reminder of how close of a call that was,” says Vogel. Instead of just addressing the fire hazard, the community chose to engage in a broader climate change planning effort. The community recognized that fire incidents are increasing, in part because of high temperatures and dry conditions, and that the threat is not going to go away, he says. The city has since introduced ordinances to help reduce its heat-island effect.

One of the most meaningful themes is the potential for multiple benefits from these climate mitigation investments, adds Katharine Burgess, director of ULI’s Urban Resilience Program. The most successful projects address climate risk and offer opportunities for economic development, environmental performance, and enhanced quality of life. “This approach is not only a better value for tax and infrastructure dollars, but it also allows communities to see the benefits of mitigation investment before an adverse event,” she says.

The Climate Adaptation report ties in closely with the work that the Institute is doing through its own Urban Resilience Program. The Urban Resilience Program, which is funded by a grant from the Kresge Foundation, works to help communities prepare for increased climate risk through a variety of education, advisory services, support, and research initiatives carried out by ULI at the national and district council level.

“I think this report is a fantastic resource for communities across the country, because it highlights very different ways to address climate risk. It also shows how communities have incorporated adaptation efforts into a range of different types of activities, such as climate action plans, comprehensive planning, hazard mitigation planning, or other types of efforts,” says Burgess.

The report also is beneficial in that it highlights a diverse cross-section of cities of different sizes and geographies that are facing different types of climate risk ranging from rising sea levels to drought. “A key message here is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to adaptation,” says Burgess. Communities’ circumstances are often very different, and their approaches to addressing the problems are likewise very different. “I think there are a lot of great examples here that we can all learn from,” she said.

There are significant barriers that do make it difficult for communities to take action. Some of the top issues are lack of funding and resources, regulatory agencies that do not have the authority to make certain rules or policies, and a lack of collaboration across municipal departments and agencies. “One of the coolest lessons that emerged from the work we did, is that while these barriers exist, when you look at these 17 communities what you see is a variety of strategies for overcoming those barriers,” says Vogel.

In another example, Tulsa, Oklahoma, created a stormwater utility fee to help fund its acquisition and relocation program where the city buys repeatedly flooded properties and relocates the affected residents or businesses.

The 17 case studies outlined in the report show a variety of different individual approaches. Seattle is a good example of a city that is trying to build mainstream climate considerations into its decision making, while Baltimore illustrates the value of emphasizing resident engagement, notes DeBacker. The report authors pull some of those together to create a hypothetical scenario of best practices. That model offers the following six steps as a guide to creating a well-adapted community:

  • Develop aggressive exposure-reduction policies;
  • Use existing regulatory powers in creative ways;
  • Create a systematic process to monitor and evaluate progress in order to make real-time adjustments to policies that have been implemented;
  • Initiate comprehensive, climate-change-informed planning processes that engage residents;
  • Mainstream climate considerations into existing decision-making processes; and
  • Organize neighborhood-scale capacity-building efforts.

“One of the overall messages from the report is encouraging communities to begin to act now to evaluate current and future climate risk and to take action,” says DeBacker. “We hope that the conclusions and recommendations will be encouraging to communities that there is a lot that they can do under existing authorities and there are some great creative examples of what is taking place in communities now.”