By Bill McAuliffe
Evidence of a warming atmosphere is nearly everywhere—from the temperature and rainfall tables, to the length of growing seasons, to homeowners’ heating bills. But city hall may be where the climate is changing the most.
Across Minnesota and the U.S., communities large and small are looking beyond barking dogs and parking regulations toward the reality of a warmer planet, and the local impacts that might have. It’s known as global warming or climate change, but whatever you call it, it’s being seen more and more as an imminent threat.
City leaders are considering how it could threaten public infrastructure, water and power systems, air quality, and public health. They’re gauging how it could expose vulnerabilities of poor and disconnected populations. It’s brought a new idea to prominence on many city hall agendas: resilience.
The meaning of climate change resilience
Resilience addresses how well a community might not only confront a threat, but emerge from it. It’s tied closely to strategies for mitigating climate change by reducing greenhouse gases. It’s also tied to strategies for adapting to climate change—say, by increasing the capacity of the stormwater system to cope with increased rainfall. And it’s intertwined with aspects of sustainability, such as local food production and renewable energy.
“Adaptation and resilience is really a local issue,” says Laura Millberg, a principal planner with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), whose Minnesota GreenStep Cities program offers cities large and small a template for dealing with climate change. “It’s like that phrase, ‘All politics is local.’ It’s about making sure your own community is going to handle whatever the climate is going to throw at us, and thrive.”
Cities play key role
Many Minnesota cities and city organizations are taking the idea of resiliency to climate change seriously. In the Twin Cities metro area, for example, the Metropolitan Council now requires cities to include climate change planning in their comprehensive plan updates.
The biggest cities have staff assigned specifically to climate and resilience strategies. Minneapolis and St. Paul are taking inventory of all their greenhouse gas emissions (not just those from public buildings) and making their public buildings more energy-efficient.
Cities of various sizes are assessing the threats that come as a result of global warming—threats like increased flooding and excess heat. They recognize the public health costs of these developments, and they’re doing things like planting more trees to absorb excess rain and keep things cooler.
Cities have become “mindful, purposeful, and deliberate” in adapting to climate change and pursuing resilience, says St. Louis Park Mayor Jake Spano.
And it’s important that cities continue to do so, says Cooper Martin, program director for the Sustainable Cities Institute at the National League of Cities. “If you look at the problem, it’s caused by energy and transportation in urban areas. It’s going to be the collective action of cities that’s going to get us out of it.”
City strategies have been gaining momentum across the nation in recent years. In 2005, the U.S. Conference of Mayors launched a climate protection initiative. Mayors doubled down in 2014 with the Compact of Mayors, a global initiative to get major cities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Minneapolis and St. Paul are two of the 125 U.S. cities that have signed on.
GreenStep Cities adds focus on resilience
Within Minnesota, more than 100 cities of all sizes have been designated GreenStep Cities since the program began in 2010. They’ve voluntarily adopted some of the 29 “best practices” in transportation, buildings and lighting, environmental management, land use, and economic and community development. The program is administered by MPCA in partnership with several organizations, including the League of Minnesota Cities.
Best practice No. 29 was just added this year. Titled “Climate Adaptation and Community Resilience,” it’s intended to “strengthen cities against the shocks and stresses of Minnesota’s changing climate that are not addressed in other GreenStep best practices,” explains MPCA’s Millberg. Those shocks and stresses might range from floods or other extreme weather events, to economic impacts such as threats to local tourism from changes in the climate.
Best practice 29 recommends getting all city departments—not just public works or the zoning office—to coordinate efforts to adapt to and anticipate climate change impacts, through planning and investing in physical improvements. It also recommends improving connections with poor, immigrant, and other communities that may be underrepresented in city activities.
For Minnesota, increasing rainfall may be the most forceful driver of adaptation efforts. Of the 12 greatest short-term rain events in Minnesota since 1866, five have occurred since 2002, causing millions of dollars in damages. That’s consistent with many climate scientists’ studies projecting that a warmer climate will bring more intense rain.
In the City of St. Louis Park—which suffered a major flood in June 2014— leaders have made resiliency a priority, says Mayor Spano. Last year, the metro area city of 48,000 hired an environment and sustainability coordinator, and developed “Ready and Resilient,” a guide for residents on how to cope with hotter summers, warmer winters, and more severe weather. (Download the guide at http://bit.ly/1UjGNSL.)
The guide surveys residents on insurance, health, and communications issues, and shows what residents should have in a basic emergency preparedness kit. It also recommends that residents plant shade trees, reduce flash flooding with permeable pavement and rain gardens, keep storm drains clear, and check on neighbors. To announce the guide and further inform residents about climate change, the city also held a Climate Resilience Event in August 2015.
St. Louis Park is also beginning to develop a Climate Action Plan with emissions reduction goals and a conversion to all renewable electricity in 10 years, Spano says. The city has been a leader in recycling and waste-reduction for years.
In the metro area City of Falcon Heights (population 5,400), city leaders have performed a resiliency analysis, partly funded by an MPCA grant, which assessed both the city’s vulnerabilities to climate change and areas where it plans to build strengths, says Mayor Peter Lindstrom. The city has installed 222 solar panels on its City Hall roof, joined a solar purchasing program along with Minneapolis that discounts the equipment, and is considering subscribing to a solar garden. Its resiliency goals include having rooftop solar panels on 25 percent of new residential developments and 20 percent of commercial buildings.
It doesn’t end there. Teaming with the Capitol Region Watershed District, the city installed a sophisticated underground and electronic system to reduce flooding from a retention pond near some homes. The result is less flooding and a more usable park, Lindstrom says.
In addition, a community garden was recently doubled in size and “there’s always a waiting list” to rent plots in it, Lindstrom says. The city also worked with neighboring communities and the University of Minnesota to get a federal grant for a bike lane running from Rosedale Shopping Center to the University of Minnesota. Transportation alternatives are another resiliency feature, reducing stresses on roads and air quality and helping make a city an attractive place to live.
Outstate city actions
Small and Greater Minnesota cities are also taking action to become more resilient. In Arlington, a city of 2,200 in the south central part of the state, an onslaught of record rains and then high winds in the summer of 2014 revealed major flaws in the city’s wastewater system.
The system has seen some fixes and redesigns, and city workers now actively seek out vulnerabilities, making them more prepared for such situations, says City Administrator Liza Donabauer. “If we get 7 inches of rain again [in one day], things will be different,” she says.
Meanwhile, the city has joined the 40-Gallon Challenge, a national effort aimed at getting residents to reduce their water consumption by 40 gallons a day—or by almost half. And Donabauer regularly visits businesses to promote energy savings and rebate programs.
The flood got the attention of many people and organizations in the community. Climate change was something they’d all been thinking about, but it was now staring them in the face, and they realized they needed to address it together locally, Donabauer says.
“It started the conversation,” she says. “We were all doing things on an individual level. But then we started coming together, and saying, ‘OK, we need to do something.’”
Further south, the City of Austin (population 25,000), is also taking steps to become more resilient in the face of climate change. For starters, it’s increasing sustainability by converting to LED street lights. But it has also received $3,000 from the MPCA for events designed to develop better relationships with its immigrant communities.
Language barriers and poverty tend to make such groups more vulnerable to crises, including climate change, MPCA’s Millberg says. If cities can work with neighborhood groups to build community bonds, then people become less isolated and more likely to look out for each other during calamities.
Barriers to overcome
Despite city efforts, there are some barriers to sustainability and adaptation measures. One hurdle is making changes to residents’ long-held views.
In Arlington, Donabauer notes, many citizens, proud of the city’s unusually wide streets, have choked on a plan to narrow them and give way to more water-absorbing green space. Likewise, a plan to allow Falcon Heights residents to plant tall prairie grasses along streets as a way to cut down on lawn watering has gone nowhere.
“People are used to looking down the street and seeing yards with turf grass,” Lindstrom said. “Anything that varies from that is just suspect.”
Cities are definitely making progress, though. And, ideally, all these measures will enhance their ability to cope with changes to the climate, social structures, and other dynamics.
But what if the climate were, somehow, to stop warming? Would the efforts have been wasted?
“You mean, what if the 3 percent of climate scientists are right?” Falcon Heights’ Lindstrom asks. “If that’s the case, the end result will be that we’ll have cleaner air, cleaner water, cleaner land, and we’ll have a clean-energy economy that is well-prepared to be a global leader for the 21st century.”
Bill McAuliffe is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.
* By posting you are agreeing to the LMC Comment Policy.