Through customized consultations, online platform helps cities address issues close to home
By Anne Frances Johnson
What would happen if floodwaters surged down your city’s main thoroughfare? Where would you go if a wildfire roared through your neighborhood? How would you get to work if public transit shut down for a week?
All of these scenarios are becoming more likely. In 2015, a disaster was declared somewhere in the United States nearly once every four days, on average.
As the impacts of climate change continue to mount and populations continue to grow, it is ever more imperative for cities to adapt to a changing environment, plan for disasters and bounce back quickly when they happen.
But while all cities want to become more resilient, solutions that work in one place may be inappropriate for another. Each city must juggle its own complex set of vulnerabilities, priorities and constraints. Compounding the challenge is the information overload city managers face when plowing through the bewildering array of research, models and tools that are available to help tackle the problem.
“There are hundreds of resources out there to help with climate resilience,” said Raj Pandya, Ph.D., director of the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange. “But cities don’t want hundreds of resources. They want the handful of tools that are going to work for them.”
That problem is the driving force behind the Resilience Dialogues, a pilot project conducted in late 2015 by contributors from the Thriving Earth Exchange along with dozens of representatives from federal agencies, professional organizations, research institutes and non-profits. The effort is a public-private partnership that emerged out of the White House Climate Data Initiative.
Using an online platform, the project tested an innovative model for linking city stakeholders with climate experts to provide rapid, customized, easy-to-use guidance for climate resilience planning.
Responding to increasing vulnerability
Matt Anderson, sustainability specialist at the City of Coral Gables, Florida, is keenly aware of the climate-related vulnerabilities faced by his city, a 50,000-person community just outside Miami. “South Florida is ‘ground zero’ for sea-level rise in the United States,” he said. “It’s a very serious problem we’re facing, and having these discussions now and in the future is going to be paramount in developing both city-specific and regional adaptation and mitigation strategies.”
While hurricanes have long been a fact of life in Coral Gables, rising temperatures and sea levels have upped the ante by increasing rates of flooding and extreme heat and bringing new infectious disease threats to south Florida. Similar pressures are mounting in cities across America as they bear the brunt of climate impacts like more frequent and severe drought, flooding, heat waves and wildfires. In many areas, population growth and fragile infrastructure lead to cascading problems, making it harder to respond to a crisis and recover from disasters.
Anderson joined the Resilience Dialogues on behalf of Coral Gables, one of five communities that participated in the pilot. The dialogues, conducted over the course of about a month, consisted of regular, structured, online communications between city stakeholders and expert consultants with experience in climate science and adaptation tools. Each city was assigned a facilitator, and pre-set milestones and deadlines—tracked with a “countdown” feature and daily reminders—kept everyone on task.
Most communications were carried out asynchronously, allowing participants to engage when and where they found it most convenient, although some communities held a few conference calls for expediency. By the end of the dialogues process, each city had been matched with a set of resources suited to addressing its particular needs.
“I think the program did a great job of bringing the experts together and providing excellent resources to the participating cities,” Anderson said. “Being able to do this on a platform where you could engage in the online discussions at a time that was convenient was extremely valuable—the platform itself was very user-friendly and made it easy to participate.”
First, ask the right questions
A good portion of the early part of the dialogues was devoted to defining the specific questions each city sought to answer. While climate change is a huge and multifaceted problem, the decisions cities must make on a day-to-day basis are often very granular. This initial exercise challenged participants’ assumptions about what climate resilience means, and helped cities pinpoint where to focus their efforts.
Kelly Muellman, sustainability program coordinator for the City of Minneapolis’s sustainability office, said that initial step was itself a key benefit of the model. She participated in the dialogues on behalf of Minneapolis as part of the city’s effort to develop and communicate a climate vulnerability assessment.
“There are lots of examples of cities that have done vulnerability assessments, so you can sort of pull from those methodologies,” said Muellman. “But I don’t know that many cities actually take the time to think, ‘What’s the real purpose in doing this? What do I want to get out of it?’ That aspect is very useful.”
Sometimes the question-refining process had surprising results. Cara Pike, executive director of the non-profit Climate Access, acted as a Resilience Dialogues facilitator for the Mid-America Regional Council, or MARC, which coordinates city planning across the Kansas and Missouri sides of the Kansas City metropolitan area.
Pike said initially, the MARC stakeholders were focused on climate impacts and how to deal with them. But the expert consultants assigned to work with MARC began by focusing on the resilience assets that were already in place—asking what existing resources the region could build on, rather than what threats it faced.
“This process really reversed it from a threats to assets way of thinking, and that fundamentally changed the energy of the conversation,” said Pike. “Tapping into local pride and having people think in a more opportunistic way instead of a reductionist way was itself very powerful.”
Getting customized advice—and then some
The dialogues model, which borrowed from approaches successfully applied in the context of medicine, education and strategic planning, was designed to give cities tailored, one-on-one guidance.
“We want someone to tell us what works best for our situation,” said Muellman. “There is no way to filter through all of the resources on your own, and you can’t just do trial-and-error to figure out which one’s the best. It was nice to have folks who had designed [the resources] or who had used them to say, ‘Well, based on what you’re looking for, this seems most useful for you.’”
Another key—and perhaps unexpected—benefit was how the process of participating in the dialogues affected how city stakeholders interacted with each other. Every city has a few ‘usual suspects’ for whom resilience is obviously a major focus—departments focused on sustainability or emergency response, for example. But everyone, from urban planning to transit to public health, brings something to the table and has a role to play in building resilience.
“Because we involved staff from many different departments in the dialogues, it sort of forced some deep conversations in a short timeframe that would not have happened otherwise. I hope that we’ll be able to build off of that as we move forward with the city’s adaptation work,” Muellman said.
Pike saw similar benefits for the MARC community, and attributed the project’s success in large part to the dialogues’ structure and format. While the online platform was low-key and non-threatening, she said it provided just the right type of external nudge to keep participants engaged and accountable. The short timeframe helped, too.
“It was a mechanism that really helped to gel their conversations. Because the dialogues were all timed and included particular phases, it’s sort of like ripping the Band-Aid off fast,” said Pike.
A model for progress
Participants agreed that the Resilience Dialogues model could benefit communities across the country and indeed globally. Going forward, organizers are considering ways to tweak and expand the project.
Participating in the pilot test was free, apart from the staff time required, and some participants said it likely would need to remain free or low-cost for it to be feasible for most communities. Some participants said they would have liked the process to be shorter while others wished it had been longer, suggesting it is either just the right length or that it may be desirable to adjust the length according to each community’s needs.
One way to expand the project going forward could be to include mechanisms that facilitate cross-communication among participating cities within a region, several participants said. That way, communities could learn from others who are facing similar problems, and potentially coordinate with each other to share resources and solutions.
“So much of what’s happening with resilience work is not just community-by-community, but across counties and states and regions. This model has a huge amount of potential to help achieve that,” said Pike.
Building resilience can be daunting, complex and unwieldy. But having a ‘trusted friend’ to point you in the right direction—and having a mechanism to force the deep conversations that are needed within your own community—can go a long way. In fact, engaging in these dialogues may even reveal that you’re further along than you might have thought, Pike said: “It really helps you to see the connections across all the different aspects and scales of the issue, and to realize that resilience isn’t this big, separate thing—that it is in fact core to what you’re already doing.”
Anne Frances Johnson is founder and lead science writer of Creative Science Writing and a contributor to the Thriving Earth Exchange.