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Posts Tagged ‘climate adaptation’

Image by Thomas R Machnitzki, Wikimedia Commons

Ever since I began giving serious consideration to what specific steps can be taken by landscape planners and designers in response to climate change, I have been thinking about refugia. I first encountered this term as a university student when it was used to describe a place near my hometown. I grew up in the vast, flat inner coastal plain that follows the Mississippi River northward from the Gulf of Mexico. I had never thought of this landscape as being particularly special for its botanical bounty, so I was surprised to learn that one of my favorite places – the forested bluffs along the Mighty Mississippi – provided refuge for species during the last Ice Age. That discovery has given me a curious sort of pride in my hometown landscape ever since! The Botanical Institute of Texas describes the refugia along the Mississippi like this:

During the ice age, many plant species shifted southward, and at glacial maximum around 18,000 years ago, boreal forest reached Arkansas, with spruce and tamarack in the Tunica Hills along the cold, foggy Mississippi valley.  Deciduous forests of oak and hickory extended to the Gulf of Mexico.  As the glaciers retreated and the climate warmed, pines and other species from refugia in Florida, along the lower Mississippi River, and southern Texas and northern Mexico, spread across the southeast.

As we contemplate the opposite movement of species, the northward shift, we must begin to identify and protect places of refugium. Major land conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy are already engaged in this sort of planning exercise as they account for climate change impacts on the lands they manage. Federal land management agencies are also considering ways to provide refuge to species, in part because of a 2009 executive order by President Obama that mandated integration of climate adaptation planning into all agency planning activities. These are positive steps, but, like all conservation activities, they need to extend beyond public lands and private conservation lands to have the greatest effect. This is where planners and designers can make a contribution – considering the potential for refugia on privately held land in communities across the country. It’s the next step in environmentally sensitive areas planning and an opportunity to “mainstream” climate adaptation into ongoing community planning and design.

In its simplest form, “hot-surviving” refugia are found on the northern slopes of hills and mountains, at higher elevations, in mountain coves and hollows (known as “hollers” in another place I’ve called home), and in deep canyon recesses. The good news? These places are very easy to identify in the landscape! The next steps, a bit more difficult. In another post, I will discuss a related topic, the controversial idea of assisted migration.

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Kat West, head of the Multnomah County (Portland, OR) Office of Sustainability had a lot of sleepless nights as she considered the possibility of climate refugees inundating her region as the West and Midwest become increasingly drought-stricken. How can you plan for something that is so uncertain? What if a wave of refugees does become reality and you haven’t prepared at all?

As West helped draft the Climate Action Plan three years ago and pored over research on climate disruption, she found herself unable to sleep at night.

“Then I came to a place: I can try to make my community as resilient as possible. And that allowed me to sleep again.”

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In days of tight municipal budgets, all costs have to be scrutinized. The job of Parks and Rec departments across the country includes the maintenance of large expanses of lawn. This practice has long been questioned by the ecologically minded (couldn’t there be a greater mix of cover types?). For the past few years, mowing has been reduced in many places, often to a chorus of complaints, but water provision is also a consideration. For example, news from Helena, Montana (pop. ~30K) about the new Centennial Park, a traditional active rec park, being built in 3 phases on 60 acres (first phase construction began last summer):

The budget also increases water funds for the city’s parks. Of about $80,000, Centennial Park is expected to receive about $60,000 worth of water. The city  is looking to lay sod and start planting in the park soon, and Alles said he  thinks the park may be open for use by the end of the summer.

Looks like it is time to dust off the xeriscaping manuals. Public education about alternatives to lawn, and design to make the alternatives beautiful, will have to accompany changes to park planting and maintenance if ecologically beneficial changes are to take root. Otherwise, when (and if) city coffers are filled again, the default mowing and watering will make a return.

Update: A new study in the Journal of Applied Ecology further supports the idea of lawn conversion in city parks.

The study recommends planting more trees on lands currently maintained as lawns. Doing this on just 10% of lawn space would increase [citywide] carbon storage by 12%. (from Treehugger.com)

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2010, 2005, 2007, 2009, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2004, 2001. What do these years have in common? They are the top 10 hottest years (in descending order), according to NASA, since records began in 1870. 2010 and 2005 are tied for being the hottest years (combined land and ocean surface temperatures). So what was going on in 2008? I guess it’s the data point that “proves” nothing is going on?  😉

What can physical planners and designers do to help people, especially city-dwellers, adjust to a future of deadly heat waves? Designers already have the knowledge and skills to create comfortable outdoor spaces, but can heat-mitigating designs be ramped up to a scale necessary to save lives? How would we do this? What more do we need to know? All new research begins with a review of what we already know, and I have an initial summary of research literature for this topic. If this interests you, click here to read more. The diagram below (click on the image for a better view) is referenced in the link. And if you experienced a snowmageddon or snowpocalypse last winter, you might summon up that memory now as an escape from the high temps of July and August.

Framework for reducing urban vulnerability to extreme heat (Wilhelmi and Hayden 2010)

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These lines from a great article in The Atlantic about sustainable farming in Arizona (ht: leslie_a_ryan via Twitter) remind me of what I like best about landscape architecture. I can devote time, energy, and even some anxiety to big questions like urban futures, resilient communities, or climate change, and I can also enjoy the comparatively immediate gratification of garden construction and, even more basic, planting. And I can call it all landscape architecture! Gary Paul Nabhan describes solace found after fighting for sustainable agriculture and food security in his region:

the most reassuring gestures for me are the personal acts of planting, water-harvesting, and soil-building. These practices provide a sense of rootedness to a more resilient future. Whenever words fail to offer me much hope, I get down on my knees and put my hands into the earth.

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Mark Hertsgaard and his daughterThat’s how Anna Fahey describes the response to climate change in her review of Mark Hertsgaard’s book, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. Hertsgaard discusses climate change from the perspective of a father. What will the next fifty years be like for his daughter? Fahey calls herself a “climate policy nerd,” but says that the parenting focus was new for her, despite being a mother of a small child. The other surprise was Hertsgaard’s emphasis on adaptation, which Fahey says has not been embraced until lately because it was seen as a form of surrender on the climate mitigation front. Fahey states:

Adaptation charts a middle path. It takes a problem of atmospheric  proportions and makes it local—and far more concrete. Focus on the imperative to protect ourselves and our assets makes it easier to come  to terms with the problem. Hertsgaard illustrates this with examples of  governments from cities on up—building infrastructure and developing  policy designed for the reality of climate change.

Local, concrete, and easier to come to terms with – this is why adaptation is important for designers and local government planners. Good examples of adaptation practices at the local level, though, are in short supply.

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And on to the details of climate adaptation (facilitating change in practices and land use). Presently, there are few studies like the one that is now getting attention about the effect of climate change on winegrape production. Diffenbaugh et al. predict that warming will limit land suitable for premium winegrape production by as much as 50% in some California counties. You can see how this finding might garner attention!  A key motivation for the research was to “quantify the potential effectiveness of different adaptation strategies.” In this example, the alternative strategies include planting in new locations, planting different varieties or clones, and altering vineyard design. The researchers identified characteristics of locations that might be better in the future. What are other climate change impacts that need this kind of analysis?

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There’s the New Normal Economy and the New Normal Climate, and perhaps others too. Shaping up to be the environmental news of the week – NOAA’s report on 30-year climate averages – just what you’ve been waiting for! The big news is that, yes, the U.S. is getting warmer, in the day and at night. Averaged over 30 years, from 1981-2010, the change is .5 degree Celsius and serves as a baseline for future comparisons. The last 10 years have had the record temps, but this is muted when averaged over 30 years. The distribution of change is interesting.

Statewide changes in annual "normal temperatures" (1981-2010 compared to 1971-2000)

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A good graphic synopsis of climate change effects in the U.S. is found in an article by Wilbanks and Kates (2010) in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers (Vol. 100, No. 4: 719-728). The figure depicts the main impacts, but details are lost at this scale. What does the future hold for your neck of the woods?

Beyond Adapting to Climate Change (Wilbanks and Kates 2010)

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And this is good news. Next summer, twenty years will have passed since the Rio Summit and the Climate Change Convention, precursor to the Kyoto Protocol. Victories in the fight to address climate change have been few and far between ever since. The strategy to address climate has been top-down and international, with the highest hopes pinned on international treaties. These efforts are tremendously important, but frustratingly slow, and, in the meanwhile, climate change is underway. Cities are experiencing the impacts firsthand, and they are now beginning to act on their own behalf, not waiting for anyone else to save them. Perhaps they can drag their states and nations along with them. As momentum builds for climate action (mitigation and adaptation) in cities, opportunities for architects, landscape architects, and planners will grow too.

At the beginning of June, the C40 Large Cities Climate Summit was held in Sao Paulo. Leaders from the 40 largest cities in the world met to seek information and share strategies for dealing with climate. (Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City, is the current chair of the C40.) Action by cities is critical – they will be the locus of most implementation efforts, they will be the place where most change-on-the-ground happens, and they are the home of most of the people on the planet. Cities matter. And much of the change-on-the-ground will involve the built environment and urban ecological systems.

For another perspective, listen to this Seattle Public Radio interview with Grist’s David Roberts, who discusses why city leadership on climate is so promising. It is called Can Cities Solve the Climate Problem?

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