Going Local with Climate Change

At Strong Towns we’ve worked to tie together the case for big change in American land use by calling on logic rooted in planning, public finance, urban and regional economics, and engineering. We’re grateful that we have readers, partners, and constructive critics to help us do our part in developing this case, as a key way to address the challenges ahead. Among the core challenges is how to move toward sustainable land use. While we’ve called out climate change in previous posts, the Strong Towns analysis has tilted more to fiscal sustainability than ecological sustainability.

The environmental arguments for reforming our development pattern are as strong, and as interwoven, as the fiscal case. A new direction for our places simply must include a commitment to dramatically reduce carbon emissions. The impetus for this commitment needs to emerge locally, and culminate in national policy change. The rhetoric in the ongoing Presidential primary contest reflects in gruesome detail that Americans’ concern about global warming has been trending down since 2006.

As we all know, however, local innovation continues (accelerates?) even when national leadership is incomplete. Here are three issues that Strong Towns will address as they pursue their own strategies to deal with climate change:

  • Pressure on credit will continue to increase in communities viewed as particularly vulnerable to natural disaster associated with climate change. Federal and state resources in the future look to be flat, diminishing or encumbered. The costs to insure housing or commercial property deemed vulnerable to disaster are higher, and claims resulting from natural disasters can increase the premiums of all policy holders. The key finding here is that investable public and private capital – able to educate and train Americans and finance new businesses, for example – will be under greatest stress in areas hit hardest by climate events. Strong Towns need to orient toward more density and less infrastructure costs per capita, as one way of managing this stress.
  • Even presuming that some of the increase is due to improved measurement, the rising incidence of natural disasters means that Strong Towns must anticipate continued volatility in our weather. Public infrastructure planning needs to anticipate the likelihood of damage by natural disasters. Clustering residential and commercial development will reduce risk; it may also allow us to reduce the costs of mitigating ongoing threats. Beyond the fiscal merits of a more compact development pattern, denser places are more protectable places.
  • The relationship of climate change and public health is an emerging field. While much health policy is formulated at the federal and state levels, counties and cities are the main implementers of place-specific plans and care. While we don’t yet understand the prospective health effects of climate change, it’s apparent that local communities have an opportunity to play a key role. Work on that micro scale may distinguish those cities and towns that invest in addressing climate change. 
These three issues represent a modest sample of the ways that communities will confront climate change. Resilience is the capacity to experience dramatic shifts while preserving integrity, and climate change represents a multitude of linked such shifts. Strong Towns are communities that incorporate ecological and fiscal sustainability.