Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

One of the most popular stories today in the New York Times is about the “Brooklynization” of Hudson River towns. Even with the weak national economy, or perhaps because of it, New Yorkers are seeking the comfort of small town life and bringing their creative enterprises and locovore habits with them. While this has been true for the closest towns for a long time, the wave of newcomers is reaching farther into the hinterlands today. Ned Sullivan, president of Scenic Hudson, calls this a “green economic revitalization,” suggesting that environmental groups are not opposing this population influx as they might have in the past. Many of the towns in this region have been down and out since their industries left long ago, so the transformation is nothing less than astonishing for the chosen ones.

…for all the images of upstate decay, the population of the Hudson Valley is growing more than twice as fast as that of the rest of the state — 5.8 percent over the past decade, compared with 2.1 percent for New York State and New York City. (While there are no universally accepted boundaries to the Hudson Valley, this reference includes the counties north of suburban Rockland and Westchester and south of the capital region: Putnam, Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia and Greene.)   … and snip…

But optimism is one thing you find in the Hudson Valley, to an extent not seen elsewhere. It is true that, even here, it takes more than art, farm stands and caffeine to make an economy work — especially for those who don’t make a living with a laptop or a paintbrush. But in a culture sometimes whipsawed between a desire to be in the middle of the storm and to be a million miles away, the Hudson Valley offers the promise of both, the upstate hills and quirky towns just 90 minutes from Manhattan, said Bradley Thomason, who moved his small technology and organizational development consultancy, Miraclelabb, from Manhattan to the mighty metropolis of Accord last year.

“This isn’t like the tech revolution,” he said. “I’d be worried if there were some big kaboom Hudson Valley moment. But I think what you’re seeing is a slow progression toward something that can sustain itself.”


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Climatewire (subscription service), from E&E Publishing, reports the surprising conclusion of a study just published in Environmental Research Letters. Some cities, like Dallas, TX, may not be cooled by deployment of white or light-colored roofs and pavements while other cities, like Los Angeles, are. Regional variation is apparent. The study also looked at the effect of desert photovoltaics, with their low albedo (reflectivity), on temperature and found that they can increase an area’s temperature by approximately 0.5° Celsius. White or light-colored roofs and pavements deflect heat, bouncing it back into the atmosphere and creating the cooling effect we desire. But, the study conducted by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory suggests that there is a feedback effect whereby the bouncing sunlight can disrupt wind and cloud patterns, leading to changes in a region’s hot and cold spots. In humid Dallas, for example, clouds have a cooling effect on a hot day, and deflected heat from white roofs (if deployed widely) could limit cloud formation and therefore raise temperatures according to the study’s model. The researchers conclude that cool roofs are still useful tools, but that the effects might not be as uniform as we may have thought. Regional weather patterns should also be taken into consideration.

The study is available here.  Milstein, D. and S. Menon. 2011. Regional climate consequences of large-scale cool roof and photovoltaic array deployment. Environmental Research Letters 6(3).

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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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What do you do when historical data is no longer useful for predicting the future? Climate change is making the already-difficult proposition of predicting environmental phenomena even harder. Consider societal efforts to manage the flood system. The concept of a 100-year flood is based on the idea that history is useful indicator of future states and “most likely” scenarios. A 2010 paper by Gersonius et al.* tackles the question of how we might begin to plan for shifts in flooding regimes by using adaptive management strategies. This paper is at the leading edge of climate adaptation design research, and there is a need for much more.

Gersonius et al. contrast the traditional approach with an adaptive approach. They say that traditional approaches are based on the assumption “that it is possible to define a singular optimum adaptation strategy according to the ‘most likely’ or average future projection” (p.15). Big investments of public dollars are common with the traditional approach – essentially a large bet on the promise of a singular optimum strategy (one-off interventions). The paper’s authors argue for an adaptively resilient approach instead, an approach better suited to the uncertainties of climate change.

Rather than taking a traditional approach, responsible climate adaptation requires an alternative approach that attempts to assess and manage the resiliency of the flooding system for long-term future change. The aim of this approach is to keep the system within a configuration of states that give at least acceptable functioning despite the occurrence of possible changes (Walker et al. 2002**). This means that the approach acknowledges that projections are ‘always wrong’ and that it is necessary to plan for a range of possible future conditions.

The authors’ modeling results suggest that adaptation decisions that include LEARNING about future climate parameters could reduce overall costs between 5 and 17% over a single high risk traditional, or “robust,” intervention. The figure below illustrates the concept.

(a) Adaptively resilient approach contrasted with (b) traditional "robust" approach

*Gersonius et al. 2010. Managing the flooding system’s resiliency to climate change. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers ES1: 15-22.

** Walker et al. 2002. Resilience management in social-ecological systems: A working hypothesis for a participatory approach. Conservation Ecology 6:14.

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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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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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PlaceMatters, a nonprofit that developed from the Orton Family Foundation, recently published Bridging the Divide Between Science and Planning: Lessons From Ecosystem-Based Planning Approaches to Local and Regional Planning in the United States. There are six case studies in the report, chronicling the efforts of a partnership between PlaceMatters, the Packard Foundation, and NatureServe to better integrate ecosystem science into community planning. The subjects of the planning efforts are quite varied, and the locations range from Maine to Hawaii. The report is a welcomed contribution, especially given that there are not enough documented cases like the ones detailed here. I was struck, though, by a key finding:

Throughout all of the case studies and lessons, one underlying theme becomes apparent: although good data, robust models, and a logical decision process all matter, the politics matter even more. How effectively a community planning process unfolds is determined in large part by who participates, how they participate, and what power they each wield. How effectively such a planning process incorporates good scientific information depends on how much credibility the experts and their tools have in the process. In other words, community planning efforts are not exercises in abstracted rationality, but rather they are fundamentally political processes involving multiple parties with divergent interests. All community planning processes and decisions, not to mention subsequent implementation, are subject to the politics of their communities, and any approach to EBM that fails to recognize this is much less likely to produce effective implementation of a scientifically appropriate plan. [Emphasis added.]

Whoa, how was this not known from the outset? Because of the gulf between the science of the landscape and the real world of land use decision making. And this is precisely why efforts like this are needed, and why the title, Bridging the Divide is so appropriate. Using scientific knowledge to enhance land use decision making is valid and important, but the local politics of place have to be acknowledged from the get-go, or the planning effort will be doomed.

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I have been trying to convince people (colleagues, professionals) that climate adaptation is an area where demand will only grow. Unfortunately, the climate change debate has muddied the issue in people’s minds. The debate is largely about the causes of climate change (anthropogenic or not?) and perhaps whether or not specific climatic events are part of a trend. But most people agree that changes are occurring. Planning for adaptation to an already changing climate is lagging far behind where it should be because of the contentious politics. But the changes themselves, from rising sea levels to urban heat-related mortality to failing stormwater infrastructure, will force a response at the scale at which the problem is most acute – the LOCAL level. Unlike the hard sell for mitigation efforts (you MUST change your behavior!), adaptation needs will create their own demand for a response.

Along these lines, PreventionWeb highlights the role of cities in climate adaptation. Eric Chu, author of the post, says

Cities are uniquely positioned to deal with climate challenges because they have the most detailed knowledge of local conditions and the needs of their citizens. The concentration of people and economic activities in cities means that managing the impacts of climate change, which range from rising sea levels to increasing extreme weather events, is essential to avoid human and economic losses.

And he gives the example of Boston, a city that is well ahead of most other U.S. cities in terms of adaptation planning.

the City of Boston, USA, has been actively addressing climate adaptation and promoting climate action amongst its citizenry. In 2010, Boston published Sparking Boston’s Climate Revolution, which presented to Mayor Thomas Menino recommendations on green development mechanisms and urban adaptations to sea level rise, expanded flood zones, and more frequent heat waves. The City followed that up by publishing A Climate of Progress: City of Boston Climate Action Plan Update 2011 to highlight how city departments have started putting these recommendations into effect.

Why Boston cares – Map from the Sea Level Rise Planning Maps site.

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