Smart growth for climate adaptation

Climate change presents an urgent, existential threat to our communities, and those who are most vulnerable in our society today are disproportionately affected. Smart growth is one of our best strategies for reducing emissions and enhancing preparedness for future climate impacts.

Climate Week 2021 comes at the end of one of the worst summers on record for climate events. July was the hottest month worldwide of the 142 years of data available from NOAA, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. Unbearable heat waves gripped the Pacific Northwest, historic drought led to the first-ever declaration of a water shortage on the Colorado River, and destructive wildfire and hurricane seasons remain underway. The data on unreported deaths from heat in the Pacific Northwest earlier this summer underscores the urgency of supporting communities to address climate impacts now. 

Beyond our extensive work using smart growth as a tool to curb emissions in the short-and long-term to avoid the worst effects of climate change, its effects are already here, and they are not being felt evenly. The increasingly frequent and intense events are a threat multiplier, not only leading to destruction and loss of life, but also compounding other stresses and leading to significant health impacts and other inequities, including racial inequities. COVID-19 has recently presented another significant compounded risk; one 2020 study focused on post-wildfire air quality and COVID-19 cases rates and deaths in Reno, Nevada found that wildfire smoke exacerbated the impact of the pandemic. 

Yet, development continues at pace in locations in harm’s way. Between 1990 and 2010, the U.S. Wildland Urban Interface (WUI)—the area where homes and forests intersect— grew by 41% due to housing development according to the U.S. Forest Service. And by the end of this century, an estimated $1 trillion of real estate in the U.S. will be at risk from flooding due to sea level rise, storm surge and groundwater, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The Great Real Estate Reset, by Smart Growth America and the Brookings Institution, noted extraordinary growth in counties associated with high climate risk, such as in the Sun Belt.

Climate resilience and adaptation are also key parts of our work: ensuring that land use and development decisions take into account climate impacts which present grave risk to other communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color who have been historically marginalized by land use decisions. Policies need to prioritize the people being most impacted today and tomorrow and future land use strategy, infrastructure investment and building standards need to address the current and future threats we face.

For future development to be equitable, accessible and thriving, it must be better prepared for and adapted to the impacts of climate change. We’ve been working on climate change and smart growth for well over a decade, trying to mainstream the idea that we need to think beyond just the footprint of our buildings and start considering where we live overall and how we get around to reduce emissions and be more prepared for climate impacts. Now, we’re calling it out by name. At SGA, we see many synergies between smart growth and climate adaptation such as: 

  • Holding new development and investment to standards that are informed by climate impacts: Investors and developers are increasingly using forward-looking climate data to inform real estate decisions. To safeguard current residents and future development, municipalities must do the same and update land-use and development strategies accordingly. For example, last week, the city of Boston released new regulations for new construction and renovations for a 5,000-acre area vulnerable to current and future flooding, but not within today’s federally designated floodplain. The new requirements use a base-flood elevation assuming up to 40 inches of flooding, envisioning the impacts of both sea level rise and surge during a severe storm. Occupiable space in residential buildings will be required to be two feet above that point, with commercial buildings requiring flood-proofing measures up to that threshold.
  • Supporting communities in harm’s way: Communities that have been historically marginalized in land-use and development decisions, especially low-income communities and communities of color, are disproportionately impacted by climate change. Some frontline communities are seeking strategies to safely and justly relocate away from flood vulnerable locations, despite the emotional and financial challenges of leaving home. This roundtable discussion, hosted by the climate justice network the Anthropocene Alliance, explores the dynamics of migration, relocation and how systemic racism has led low-income communities into harm’s way.  Methods to address environmental injustices and better safeguard communities against climate impacts include relocation support such as floodplain buy-outs, and grant programs supporting investments in flood preparedness, home hardening, retrofits and community resources such as resilience hubs. 
  • Delivering higher-density development, and protecting affordability in locations which are the least susceptible to climate impacts: Locations which are the least prone to climate impacts offer important opportunities to deliver higher-density development, to safeguard future residents, and anticipate likely future market trends. Some cities in the U.S. are taking this approach for long-term planning: For example, in Norfolk, the Vision 2100 planning strategy uses sea level rise projections as a key criteria for determining future development strategy. In some regions, increased market interest in high-ground locations is already leading to climate gentrification, a phenomenon by which demand for high-ground housing prices out long-term, low- or middle-income residents. While local governments and community organizations have significantly increased awareness of climate gentrification in recent years, few local governments have introduced anti-displacement measures in anticipation of this phenomenon.
  • Using nature-based solutions that both protect communities and create amenities and foster placemaking: Living shorelines, green infrastructure and other floodable parks and public spaces can both protect new and existing development and otherwise contribute to quality of life. Last week, FEMA announced the FY 2020 Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) awardees, including a number of natural infrastructure projects which also improve public health and meet other needs of underserved communities. These projects present an important model of the agency investing in preparedness, and infrastructural approaches which offer other co-benefits, as well as recovery.
  • Address climate hazards through multiple policy avenues: Climate hazards such as extreme heat will have dire impacts on many aspects of our lives, from public health to the economy. Our decisions about the built environment and land use can better protect  communities, but they can also make these problems worse. Solutions will only be found through interdisciplinary, coordinated action. One high profile example of interagency collaboration came this week, when the White House launched an interagency effort to respond to extreme heat, including creating workplace heat standards, studying the disproportionate impacts of heat on vulnerable populations and providing more cooling resources to households and communities.
  • Maintaining an aligned commitment to climate mitigation: Climate mitigation and adaptation are both essential to addressing the climate crisis. Reducing reliance on single occupancy vehicles (like the work our team at Transportation for America is doing), transitioning to renewable energy sources and embracing net-zero building technologies are critical pathways to reducing emissions so that already-disastrous climate impacts do not continue to worsen.

Read a short summary about Smart Growth America’s climate change and resilience work here. Reach out to us on Twitter to share your perspective on this important topic and help us shape this growing program of work.

Climate Change Resilience