USA: Cities are planning for climate change all wrong

Source(s)
Washington Post, the

By Aron Chang

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[New Orleans's first lesson after Katrina] is that communities starting to erect levees, flood gates and pump stations should do so only after consideration of the long-term consequences of such structures. In New Orleans, fossil fuel-dependent adaptations have created a false sense of security, heightened long-term risk and exacted significant ecological and economic costs. Over the past 120 years, the city has invested billions of dollars in creating pumping systems and perimeter levees intended to protect residents from water, but the sinking of large parts of the city below sea level is a direct consequence of those decisions.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a newly-invented pump allowed the city to move storm water rapidly out of the city whenever it rained and to drain and develop the swampland that surrounded the historic core of the city. In 1965, after Hurricane Betsy flooded large parts of New Orleans, the federal government responded by building a comprehensive ring of levees and flood walls to protect New Orleans’s residents from storm surge. Four decades later, those same levees and flood walls failed with the arrival of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Since then, we have invested another $14.5 billion in strengthening that protective system. But is the city safer and more resilient than it was over a hundred years ago?

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The second lesson from New Orleans is that successfully implementing climate adaptation and resilience plans requires community buy-in. In Louisiana, for example, the Coastal Master Plan, the science and engineering-based document that guides coastal protection and restoration efforts, will cost $50 billion. But it has no long-term sources of funding. In greater New Orleans, the 2013 Urban Water Plan, for transforming existing infrastructure and urban landscapes to “live with water” (which I worked on as a design team lead), has a price tag of $6.2 billion. It also has no local sources of funding or defined implementation pathways.

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The lack of buy-in is rooted in how we go about planning for resilience and climate adaptation. Community engagement is often secondary to planning, and professional planners, designers and engineers often do not reflect the demographics of the population at large. Neither do they share a common language with the wider community. Terms like “recurrence intervals” or “non-structural mitigation” stop conversations rather than sustain them. The solution isn’t to dismiss technical expertise, however, but to invest in environmental education and community-based planning.

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