Planning July 2020

JAPA Takeaway

7 Principles of Strong Climate Change Planning

It’s time to include climate in all our plans.

Motorists drive through a flooded street in Norfolk, Virginia, during a period of high-tide flooding. Climate change is causing these episodes to occur more frequently. Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program.

Motorists drive through a flooded street in Norfolk, Virginia, during a period of high-tide flooding. Climate change is causing these episodes to occur more frequently. Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program.

By Sara Meerow and Sierra C. Woodruff

As greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts increase worldwide, there is an urgent need for communities to simultaneously mitigate and adapt. But are planners doing enough? In a recent Journal of the American Planning Association article, we examine that question and find that, while there has been progress in recent years, it hasn't been enough given the scope of the challenge. We also suggest a path forward to achieve strong climate change planning.

First, some (very condensed) background. The international planning community has not ignored climate change. In fact, discussions of global climate change have appeared in JAPA since 1990. At first, planners focused on mitigation, or reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and increasing GHG sinks. The focus then broadened to adaptation planning.

Today, climate change planning is increasingly embedded within a broader resilience agenda. Whereas climate action plans (CAPs) focus on mitigating GHGs and adaptation plans on preparing for the impacts of climate change, resilience plans seek to enhance communities' abilities to cope with a variety of shocks and stresses, from earthquakes to extreme weather to racial inequity. We look at all three in our research — mitigation, adaptation, and resilience — and offer seven principles to improve planning.

1. Set ambitious yet achievable goals.

Plans should have a clear purpose, vision for the future, well-defined outcomes, and measurable objectives. While CAP GHG reduction targets are often insufficiently ambitious, these mitigation plans at least have a measurable goal. In comparison, goals and outcomes for adaptation planning can be difficult to define.

Resilience plans tend to better establish goals and objectives than CAPs and also recognize the connections between climate change and other challenges. As an example, Boston's resilience plan recognizes the need to address systemic racism to improve disaster outcomes and economic growth.

2. Provide a strong fact base using the best available data.

To combat climate change, cities need data on current conditions, future projections, and modeled impacts. For mitigation planning, this entails a detailed GHG inventory; for adaptation planning, the fact base usually consists of vulnerability assessments. Plans should explain how data was collected or analyzed, as well as break down emissions and vulnerability by sector and population. Those assessments should identify projected climate change impacts on the water system, natural systems, built environment, economy, public health, cultural assets, and public services. Resilience plans generally appear weaker in terms of their fact base than CAPs, although they better acknowledge underlying drivers of human vulnerability.

3. Outline diverse strategies to achieve goals.

Given the need to mitigate and adapt, strong climate change planning requires diverse strategies. These should include efforts to change planning processes, policies and design standards, land use, physical infrastructure, green infrastructure, individual behavior, education, capacity building, technology, and research.

It is critical to rank identified strategies and attempt to calculate the costs of both implementation and inaction. Identifying co-benefits associated with actions — including adaptation and mitigation win-wins — is also important for broadening support. Green infrastructure is an increasingly popular strategy, in part because of its numerous co-benefits.

4. Engage the public and foster justice.

Planners agree on the importance of broad participation. This principle applies to climate change planning, yet there is room to improve procedural equity, or fair participation, in decision making. Research finds that resilience plans outlined public engagement processes better than CAPs but rarely described steps to include marginalized communities.

Addressing climate change requires grappling with the inescapable planning challenge: negotiating conflicting priorities.

Stronger climate change planning should recognize and seek to address injustices and employ different participatory approaches to ensure all local populations are involved. These engagement processes and their outcomes should be outlined in the plans themselves.

5. Coordinate efforts across actors, sectors, and plans.

Addressing climate change requires grappling with the inescapable planning challenge: negotiating conflicting priorities. If anything, climate change is complicating the conflicts between economy, environment, and equity that Scott Campbell sketched out two decades ago. (For example, cities may want to avoid new construction in flood-prone areas, but they face housing affordability and development pressures). Cities have limited resources and therefore need to coordinate efforts. Planners can use the Plan Integration for Resilience Scorecard, developed by Phil Berke and colleagues to identify inconsistencies across a city's network of plans that stem from conflicting priorities and that may increase vulnerability.

One way to reduce inconsistencies is to integrate climate change into other planning efforts and seek win-win strategies. Yet incorporating future climate projections or risks into hazard mitigation, for example, is still relatively uncommon. This represents a missed opportunity because integrating adaptation into other planning efforts — or mainstreaming — can help highlight the consequences of climate change for different sectors.

Whether climate change is addressed in stand-alone plans or mainstreamed, it requires collaboration. Strong climate change planning needs broad internal support within the city organization and diverse representatives from local universities, different levels of government, the private sector, nongovernmental organizations, and neighboring jurisdictions. Yet a 2015 study of 350 cities worldwide suggests many relevant municipal agencies are only marginally involved in climate change planning. The growing focus on resilience may be helpful in this regard because resilience planning supposedly breaks down siloes.

6. Include a clear process for implementation and monitoring.

A major implementation gap remains in climate change planning. Many climate mitigation and adaptation plans exist, but research suggests few are put into practice and monitored, or even outline clear steps for doing so. One study in the UK finds that although more than 80 percent of local governments had conducted climate risk assessments by 2010, fewer than 40 percent had a plan to address them, none of which had been implemented.

To facilitate implementation, plans need a clear timeline, funding source, and responsible organization for each strategy. Research suggests that mainstreaming climate change into other sectors or plans increases adoption. Even if a stand-alone climate change plan is being developed, it should be linked to other planning efforts.

Funding is a persistent challenge. Cities like San Francisco are creatively applying existing financing instruments to fund adaptation projects. It is proposing a general obligation bond and a special tax on waterfront property to fortify the three-mile seawall that protects its iconic waterfront. Cities may also consider resilience or insurance-based fees, which create revenue and signal for developers to avoid high-risk areas or reduce risk.

It is critical to monitor plans' implementation and evaluate outcomes. Plans should outline the method of evaluation, responsible parties, and requirements for reporting and updating. This is relatively straightforward with mitigation, which focuses on reducing GHG emissions. Indicators and metrics for evaluating adaptation are more contested.

It is important to monitor who is being affected by climate change planning. Most climate justice discussions focus on the fact that the populations and countries most affected are not the primary producers of GHGs. Recent studies point to justice issues inherent to local climate change planning. For example, city size and wealth are predictors of whether citites will plan for climate change. Within cities, vulnerable communities, including children and the elderly, will be disproportionately impacted. Marginalized groups tend to live in more vulnerable areas and have less resilient housing, fewer resources to deal with disasters, and limited options for evacuation or relocation.

These inequalities may be exacerbated by adaptation investments. Researchers have grouped the way adaptation exacerbates inequality into acts of commission, whereby efforts displace poor communities, and acts of omission, instances where investments prioritize wealthier communities. Adaption investments may also lead to climate gentrification, where perceived climate vulnerability makes safer parts of a community more attractive, driving up real estate prices and displacing or excluding low-income populations. Evidence from Miami suggests this may already be happening, with higher-elevation properties appreciating more. This highlights the need to examine the consequences of adaptation strategies for disadvantaged populations and couple adaptation strategies with protective housing policies.

7. Address climate change uncertainty.

Numerous uncertainties, from scientists' imperfect understanding of climate processes to unknown future GHG emissions and political responses, make climate change planning difficult. Luckily, planners are equipped to address uncertainty.

Plans should identify sources of uncertainties and consider different scenarios reflecting the range of possibilities. One promising strategy is adaptive management, a flexible, iterative governance approach whereby adjustments are regularly made based on new information learned through system monitoring. Another is to prioritize no- or low-regret strategies that would be beneficial regardless of future climate impacts. When evaluating different scenarios, it is useful to prioritize robust strategies that are effective across a range of possible climate futures. At a minimum, plans should acknowledge the need for strategies that account for uncertainty.

Promising signs

Although communities and planners are still not doing enough to plan for climate change, there is some cause for optimism.

First, public concern about climate change is growing. Second, communities worldwide are increasingly developing climate change mitigation, adaptation, and resilience plans and exploring novel approaches. Third, planners have access to a wealth of resources for climate change planning, including those from APA, the American Society of Adaptation Professionals, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, and EcoAdapt.

Planners' abilities to think long term, handle uncertainty, integrate across systems, and bring together diverse actors align well with skillsets required for climate action. Indeed, adaptation plans prepared by planners demonstrate stronger goals, strategies, implementation and monitoring, and coordination. As planners work toward better climate change planning, focusing on the seven principles outlined here is a good way to start.


Read the original article for free for a limited time. APA members can subscribe to print and digital JAPA for $48 a year.

Sara Meerow is an assistant professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University. Sierra C. Woodruff is an assistant professor of urban planning at Texas A&M University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation. It appeared in Volume 86, Issue 1, of the Journal of the American Planning Association.