Sea Level Rise: A 'Wicked Problem,' an Amazing Opportunity

After four days of focused learning, sharing, and networking, the 2016 National Planning Conference ended with the big picture. Oceanographer John Englander talked to hundreds of planners about what he called our "wicked problem": sea level rise.

A wicked problem isn't something evil. The concept was described by Horst Rittel decades ago as a problem that's difficult or impossible to solve because its elements are complex, contradictory, or changing. "It's not like a normal problem, like how to build a new bridge or increase the size of the city. A wicked problem doesn't seem to have an endpoint. Plus the solutions that you apply to the problem [also] affect the problem," said Englander, author of the book, "High Tide On Main Street."

"Sea level rise — and planning for it — is a wicked problem."

What makes it so difficult is that the sea level rise that we can expect in the next 50 or 100 years is unknowable. A March Washinton Post article noted that scientists have just said that sea level rise could be twice as much as we thought. "The melting of ice on Antarctica alone could cause seas to rise more than 15 meters (49 feet) by 2500."

Sea level rise impacts

This increase in global sea level will affect all coastal communities, and we're already seeing this in the U.S. Annapolis used to have four days of major flooding every year four decades ago. Today they have 40 annually. In San Francisco, monthly flooding courses over a sea wall built 100 years ago to withstand regular tidal activity. When that infrastructure was built, no one had any idea the sea level would rise.

One thing to understand about sea level rise, he said, is that it is not like a tsunami or other catastrophic event. The waters from those events will soon recede. Sea level rise is a much slower creep—the proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water.

But, more importantly, that wicked problem will also not just affect the coasts (as the San Francisco Bay example shows) but will have tremendous impacts far inland. It will travel into the marshes and up waterways to flood low-lying areas far from the shore. "In Florida, the first area to be affected will be the Everglades, and then it will go up the rivers," he said.

Addressing the audience, Englander said: "You are right in the [right place] to plan for the future. I want to get you to think, ‘Where is there an opportunity to do better planning?'"

"We are now in a new era, and we need to face up to a new reality. We need to do a new kind of planning ... How high [of a sea level rise] do we have to plan for? We can't possibly know that [in individual places] and that's truly a wicked problem." But planning for a sea level rise that's the average of various projections is either "silly or stupid," he said. We need to be prepared for the highest rise.

Again, what can planners do? They can help make this problem approachable. As major community influencers, planners can help explain this unknowability and advocate for planning for the worst-case scenario. Englander suggests that as planners help communities get their heads around a potential sea level rise of many, many feet more than initially expected, planners should also start planning right now for a rise of at least three feet.

Planners also understand how to plan not just for today, but for years and decades in the future. "Thirty years is a prime planning horizon. We need to get people to look 30 years out," at the least, he says.

Englander applauded APA for tackling this weighty, global issue. "The important thing is that there is no greater professional group in the world [to help plan for this problem] than the one sitting right in front of me."

After Englander finished speaking, planners waited in line to talk to him. One, Hal Hart, AICP, a planner from Anchorage said the presentation was perfectly on point for the planning his community is doing right now. "Throughout Alaska, this is a very, very important topic."

"It was an amazing ending session," echoed Kurt Christianson, FAICP, economic and community development director for the City of Azusa, California, in an interview. "This is something for planners to think about today, tomorrow, a year from now, 10 years from now."

"We can be the change agents."

Image: John Englander delivers the closing keynote. Photo by Dustin Calliari.

About the Author
Meghan Stromberg is Planning magazine's executive editor.

April 5, 2016

By Meghan Stromberg