Weitzman News

Posted August 23, 2022

Excerpt: Barnett and Bouw on Designing and Building for Climate Change

In a new book from Island Press, Managing the Climate Crisis, Jonathan Barnett, professor of practice emeritus of city and regional planning, and Matthijs Bouw, professor of practice in landscape architecture and McHarg Center Fellow for Risk and Resilience, share their approach to addressing the inevitable and growing threats from the climate crisis using constructed and nature-based design and engineering and ordinary government programs. This excerpt, taken from the book’s first chapter, lays out the principles they feel should guide efforts in managing the immediate threats from a changing climate.

The Need for Immediate Action

In this book, we outline the physical measures and the policies that will be needed to manage the changing climate between now and the middle of the century so that people remain safe and the economy is not unnecessarily disrupted. We do this by describing actions that can be incorporated into normal decision-making, although sometimes they will require new funding sources. Often, these measures have already been implemented somewhere but need to be replicated on a much larger scale. Our recommendations follow principles that you will see throughout our book.

Base All Climate-Related Actions on the Best Available Science: Climate change is different from place to place, so all actions to manage climate change should be based on the best possible scientific predictions for what to expect in each locality.

Restore and Enhance Natural Systems: Working with—not against—natural forces will almost always prove to be the most effective and economical way of managing the rapidly changing climate, especially for flood protection, wildland management, heating and cooling of buildings, and agriculture.

Make a Public Process Part of All Government Decisions about Climate Management: Managing the climate crisis will require many difficult decisions. Everyone affected should know what the issues are, take part in decisions about what is being proposed, and feel they have been treated as fairly as possible. Comment periods after plans have been prepared are not a substitute for public participation in decisions.

Lay Out Adaptation Pathways for Climate Management Decisions: Dealing with future conditions that are only partly predictable requires flexibility. After a phase of adaptation is complete, there may still need to be decisions about what to do next.

Make Future Climate Considerations Part of All Codes and Regulations: Zoning and subdivision regulations shape all new development and also control changes to what exists already. Geographic information systems (GIS) technology can inform decision-making by mapping environmental factors and relating them to potential zoning changes as overlays. Building codes establish minimum requirements for all inhabited structures and set standards for protection from fires and—in some places—earthquakes, but few codes have extended comparable safety protections to risks caused by floods, by wildfires that engulf whole areas, by heat waves, or by freshwater shortages.

Make Future Climate Factors Part of All Infrastructure Decisions: Much of the infrastructure in the United States needs to be repaired or even rebuilt. All expenditures for infrastructure should be made with an understanding of future resilience from climate threats. Railroad rights-of-way often follow shorelines because the land is relatively level and the grade changes gradually. Highways often follow shorelines for similar reasons. Utilities were designed for worst-case storm conditions that might now be surpassed. Intakes for water systems and outfalls for sewers were determined at a time when water levels were relatively stable. These critical structures may need to be rebuilt or relocated.

Begin Planning and Building the Protections Needed Now and by Midcentury: Rising sea levels and more extensive flooding are making climate disasters more frequent and extending the places affected. Unprecedented flooding is already taking place. Densely populated regions will need to have additional protections in the form of enhanced natural barriers, engineered seawalls, and combinations of both. These protections will be expensive, but the expense will be justified by the safety they can provide for residents and businesses. The costs can be managed if the necessary work starts now and is done incrementally up to what will be needed by midcentury.

Stop Building in the Wrong Places: It should be obvious, but apparently it is not, that people should stop building in places that are close to—or within—wildland that is in danger of burning or places where recurring flood conditions are already happening and no additional flood protection is anticipated. In the past, disasters might have been infrequent, and insurance policies were available if things went wrong. In the future, insurance—even government-backed insurance—will stop covering properties that are clearly liable to be damaged by recurring climate disasters. But local governments should not wait to have lack of insurance coverage force decisions; they need to study the potential for future change and plan for it. As mentioned earlier, buildings made uninhabitable by a changing climate mean less tax revenue, which could affect bond ratings, as does the risk to municipal infrastructure.

Start Building in the Right Places: Places with a more stable climate future, both locally and nationally, should be identified as opportunity zones for future development, but based on policies that protect existing residences and businesses.

Plan For and Fund Equitable Relocations: Inevitably, there will be places where enhanced protections from present and future climate disasters are either not feasible or not economic. But identifying these places using only engineering and financial analysis will create huge inequities. Some of society’s most vulnerable people and businesses are likely to occupy the most vulnerable real estate, often as the result of deliberate exclusionary policies. These people might lack the resources to move. And even adequate financial resources will not protect people from wrenching decisions about where to move and when to sever their connection to a place where they may have lived for a long time. Yet state and local governments need to identify locations where future human occupation is questionable, using the best scientific information available. Feasibility studies can show whether physical protection is possible and, if not, what the relocation options are. This process has to be accompanied by extensive involvement of the people who will be affected. No one wants to hear that their property investment may lose its value and that their life will be disrupted. The politics of initiating such discussions are daunting. But it is better to begin while options are available and not wait for the aftermath of the next disaster. Governments should recognize from the beginning that there will be high costs either for protection or for buying out the people and businesses that have to move. These costs will be more manageable if they are incurred incrementally, before the worst-case scenario becomes a reality.

Make Climate Management an Opportunity for a Better Future: The investments required to manage a changing climate are also an opportunity for reimagining our communities to be more inclusive, more livable, and more in harmony with natural processes.

Toward Current and Future Climate Management

We have written this book as a summary and guide to managing the way the climate crisis will affect the built environment between now and midcentury, drawing on our extensive experience in urban and environmental design and the best additional information we could find. Making decisions about managing the effects of a changing climate is going to be a very difficult process with few precedents. It will require substantial amounts of money—although nowhere near as much as the costs of failing to act. It will also force difficult choices on a high proportion of the US population. Making these choices as equitable as possible, and giving everyone acceptable options, will take a long time and a great deal of public discussion.