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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Nine low-tech steps for community resilience in a warming climate

Kaid Benfield

Posted March 22, 2012

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  heat vulnerability in the US (by: NRDC)

Over the past 50 years, our average global temperature has increased at the fastest rate in recorded history.  That is fact, not opinion.  Scientists say that under current trends, average US temperatures could be 3 to 9 degrees higher by the end of the century.

This is not abstract, nor are the effects limited to the developing world.  These changes will have - indeed, are already having - major effects on our cities, suburbs, and towns.  Chicago is becoming warmer.  So is Orlando.  So are Spokane and Dallas.  So are smaller towns such as Louisville, Colorado and suburbs such as Gaithersburg, Maryland.  Everyone has weather, and everyone’s weather is getting warmer.  By fits and starts, to be sure; but, if you don’t believe it, ask a landscaper.  The serious impacts beginning and yet to come are not pretty and, as my colleague Kim Knowlton has reported, even the insurance industry is noticing.

global temperature trend (by: NOAA)There are many things we can and must do to reduce the warming trajectory.  First among these is reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, the most common and potent greenhouse gas, particularly by transitioning to a clean energy economy.  But turning this ship around is going to take time, even under the best scenarios. 

Meanwhile, there are also measures we need to take right now inside our communities so that we are as prepared as possible for the warmer climate ahead.  Some of them are related to technology, of course, perhaps including personal technology.  But that isn’t my personal strength as an environmental observer.  This article focuses on a few things that we can and should do for our cities, suburbs and towns that are low-tech.  What’s below is by no means a definitive or complete list, but it’s a start:

  1. Bring more vegetation into neighborhoods.  I’ve written often about the benefits of green infrastructure - green roofs, roadside plantings, rain gardens, swales, and so forth - to stormwater management, and I’ve applauded the way these practices can bring bits of nature into our neighborhoods.  But they also lower the temperature, compared to hard surfaces, green roof, Washington, DC (via Richard Sebaka)and absorb carbon dioxide from the air.  So do street trees and parks large and small.
  2. Plant city-scaled community gardens.  One type of vegetation that is a special case is gardening, including small urban orchards (such as the one incorporated into the plan for Via Verde in the South Bronx).  These, too, can help lower temperature, and growing some of our own food right in our neighborhoods can also reduce the number of errands we need to run, while increasing health and fitness.  Health and convenience are good things in a warming world.  But note my caveat that they must be the right scale, to enhance and complement walkable urban densities, not displace or preclude them.
  3. Use drought-resistant landscaping.  It’s going to be not just warmer but also drier in many communities.  We should use native species and xeriscape wherever possible, so that homes, offices and neighborhoods can enjoy the benefits of attractive landscaping without exacerbating water shortages.  In fact, when practiced collectively, drought-resistant planting can help stave off the water shortages likely to come more frequently with warmer temperatures.         drought vulnerability in the US (by: NRDC)
  4. Use light-colored roofing and pavement.  Dark surfaces absorb heat, while light-colored surfaces reflect it.  Writing in Clean Technica, Zachary Shahan reports that, on the hottest day of the New York City summer in 2011, a white roof covering was found to be 42°F cooler than the traditional black roof it was being compared to.   That is an amazing difference that not only helps reduce the on-site temperature but also lowers electricity demand for air conditioning, which in turn reduces carbon emissions from power plants.  This finding was part of a study led by scientists at Columbia University and announced by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Earth Science Division.   (Shahan also notes that an earlier study that claimed a net warming effect in the atmosphere globally from white roofs failed to account for the reduced energy demand.)
  5. Get serious about sea level rise and storm surges.  It’s making less and less sense to build in low-lying parts of coastal areas.  As my colleague Dan Lashof recently wrote, what used to be a storm of the century is becoming a storm of the decade.  Last week, researchers at Climate Central published studies and released an interactive map that shows increasing flooding risk for the entire US coastline.  storm surge flood, Ft Myers, FL (by: ShutterSparks/Phil, creative commons license)Anyone who lives near the coast can enter her zip code and see a localized map of the areas that will flood at various storm surge levels.  Dan examined a map of Virginia Beach, for example, showing that a four-foot storm surge (which has about a one-in-three chance of occurring in the next twenty years as sea levels rise) could flood more than 10,000 homes and affect almost 30,000 people.  We should make sure that flood plain demarcations take account of warming trends, and keep future buildings out of those zones. 
  6. Save older buildings.  New construction generates heat and disrupts existing vegetation while frequently failing to generate carbon-reduction benefits over older buildings, even with newer and more efficient technology.  Our older buildings also remind us who we are as a community, and tend to knit together existing neighborhoods.
  7. When building new, follow “Original Green” practices.  Especially in a warmer climate, it is important that buildings be constructed and sited to take advantage of natural processes.  Bring back real front porches.  Plant deciduous trees on the south side, where they provide shade in summer while allowing sun in the winter.  Plant evergreens on the side that will benefit by protection from winter winds.  Use close-to-the-source materials and naturally insulating design.  Place new buildings in walkable settings with everyday conveniences nearby.
  8. Keep the regional footprint small and well-connected.  Sprawl exists, and it will take some time to repair or retrofit it into a more sustainable pattern.  But, in the near term, we absolutely should not add to it.  This means no more leapfrog development, period.  traditional homes, Greensboro, NC (by: Paula McLean, creative commons license)Instead, we should accommodate growth by inclusive revitalization, grayfield and brownfield redevelopment, and the right kind of infill that enhances neighborhoods without overwhelming them.  Internally to our communities, we must make public transit robust and walking and bicycling to common destinations easy.
  9. Update our zoning and building codes to facilitate resilience.  As I observed just last month in my article on DC’s current zoning update, in most communities it will take affirmative code amendments to make walkable, diverse neighborhoods legal again.  Let’s do it.

While this article focuses on strengthening communities in the face of climate change, these steps also provide other kinds of resilience.  Since fuel prices will continue to rise, for example, reducing demand for electricity and gasoline through smart building and growth management conserves financial resources.  So does obviating the construction of infrastructure expansion to accommodate sprawl and employing green techniques to manage stormwater instead of building larger concrete sewer and drainage pipes.

As I wrote at the outset, this isn’t meant to be a definitive list.  Nor is it intended as an antidote to global warming.  Rather, it’s meant to start a conversation about the reality of a warming climate and what we can do with our built environment to respond to it in the most realistic and sustainable way.  What would you add to the list? 

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 

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BSMar 22 2012 08:54 AM

Why does your global temperature graph only go through 2007? It's 2012 now. Data is available through February 2012.

Are you afraid to show that the earth's temperature has leveled off for the past 12 years or so?

Efficiency and conservation is always good, so I still appreciate your recommendations.

Kaid @ NRDCMar 22 2012 04:20 PM

Readers who wish to view the most up-to-date data on warming from NASA should go here. The main reason that recent warming may appear to some to have "leveled off" in the most recent years is that there was a major spike in warming around 1998-99 (which can be viewed in the graph above). Temperatures that appear level when compared to the spike remain on an upward trajectory when viewed in comparison with the years preceding and following it.

David JorgensenMar 23 2012 12:41 AM

So how do you achieve #6 and #8 at the same time? You have to break a few historic eggs to make a smart growth omelet. I agree that historic buildings add character, but some preservationists take this rationale to the extreme and object to replacing anything with historic character. If you take into account the life cycle emissions of the occupants, then replacing a one-story historic building with a 4-story green building is by far the greener option.

Toby ThalerMar 23 2012 04:09 PM

BS, your comment is as your name indicates; global temperatures continue to rise. See news of the latest World Meteorological Organisation data release, released today.

BSMar 24 2012 02:20 PM


You're blaming it on the spike in 1998? Give me a break.

Look at the graph. The two years after 1998 were much cooler. The temperature then came back up and has been about the same ever since.

Let's look at this differently. Let's go all the way back to 1990. In the 20+ years since then have warmed much less than the IPCC predicted it would. Could you explain that?

BSMar 25 2012 10:44 AM

"Temperatures that appear level when compared to the spike remain on an upward trajectory when viewed in comparison with the years preceding and following it."

OK, I'm still chuckling at this statement. Yes, temperatures today do appear flat compared to 15 years ago when they were going up. Having the slope of the curve go to zero will do that. Great spin, but most uf us are smart enough to recognize it as such.

BSMar 26 2012 03:11 PM


I'll skip the personal comments and stick to the facts. Your story reports 2011 as the 11th warmest on record. If the earth was continuing to warm, we'd need to see a continuous stream of 1st and 2nd warmest. 11th warmest means we're near the top of the curve but still below it. If we start gradually cooling and later report the 20th warmest year on record, will you still use that to say the earth continues to warm?

Don't use real statistics to tell lies, ok?

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