Land Use Planning and the Road to Thoughtful Response to Climate Change

Land Use Planning and the Road to Thoughtful Response to Climate Change


Land Use Planning and the Road to Thoughtful Response to Climate Change

Christopher Visentin


More frequent and powerful storms and record-setting temperatures have brought climate change concerns to higher prominence in recent years. As international initiatives like the Paris Climate Accord suggest, climate change is a global issue, requiring proportionately large-scale action to address it.

Given the global scale of the problem, as well as the surplus of responses required to mitigate its effects, smaller communities may be forgiven for feeling powerless. Certainly, responding to climate change is a collective effort, but such effort is still no easy task.

Even when communities recognize that they have a role to play, difficulties arise given that sheer number of different responses to climate change: with such a wide array of mitigation strategies, decision makers might soon succumb to a tyranny of choice.

With so many different avenues to go, where does one begin? What kind of measures might best empower (and incentivize) communities to face—and adapt to—climate change?

In their article published in the Harvard Business Review, “Cities Should Start Small When Adapting to Climate Change,” Authors Ward Lyles, Philip Berke, and Kelly Heiman-Overstreet argue that there are meaningful initiatives to be done at a smaller, local level; in fact, they say a narrow approach is the best course of action to take, at least initially.

Acknowledging the difficulty of choosing how to begin to address the problem of climate change, the authors set out to determine the best planning approach for city leaders. Their first question was whether cities should “develop ‘broad-scope’ plans” that address a number of different climate issues, or rather begin with “‘narrow-scope” plans that focus more on mitigating the threats of climate change.

As the article’s title suggests, the authors found “clear benefits to starting narrowly.” In particular, they found “narrow-scope” approaches that focused on mitigating the hazards of climate change—rising water levels, more powerful storms, more volatile weather—especially promising.

A key component to these hazard mitigation plans is land use planning, even though “most cities underutilize land use approaches” in their approach to climate adaptation. Land use plans—efforts committed to “steering development out of hazard areas while preserving natural landscape features”—help to avoid future damage brought about by climate change while taking advantage of the area’s natural defenses.

External benefits bolster the case for such a tightly focused approach on land use planning, the authors note:

  • First, many cities have a natural starting point for these adaptation efforts. Cities that have devised a “hazard mitigation plan” (as is required in the USA by the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000) can use this as a “strong and natural starting point” for land use plans that address dangers they are likely to face.
  • Second, a narrow approach is more politically feasible than large-scale responses to climate change. Noting that climate change remains “a political flashpoint,” the authors suggest that “adaptation planning can occur within the hazard mitigation framework,” which might meet less resistance from those not receptive to climate change issues.
  • Finally, these more focused approaches “[do] not preclude making other more ambitious plans” to address climate change later, but rather are a good first step to avoiding its most immediate threats.

This “narrow approach” can nonetheless be employed in a number of situations. The U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit’s short article, “Planning and Land Use” notes the importance of thoughtful zoning and land use planning policies in building community resilience, and provides a number of examples of a more studied approach:

  • City planners should take care to consider “the percentage of impervious surface” in city areas: parking lots, sidewalks, and other paved areas increase a city’s vulnerability to flooding, the article notes.
  • On the other side of the spectrum, those areas vulnerable to wildfire should consider the impact of “dense subdivisions” that can quickly spread fire from one structure to another.
  • Sometimes, it might be best to ensure an area stays undeveloped. In these cases, a “having a community or land trust organization” purchase the land in question is an excellent way to control its development.

Though hardly a complete solution for addressing climate change, responsible land use planning to mitigate the dangers of climate change is a realistic approach that can empower communities to begin their response to climate change and see tangible local benefits as a result. The money saved by being prepared for future disasters brought about more frequently by climate change could then help spur on further efforts.

As to those next steps, community land use planning can also help to reign in emissions, thus slowing down climate change and warding off those same future environmental hazards. In their article, “Land Use Planning: the Critical Part of Climate Action that Most Cities Miss,” authors Emily Wier and Alisa Zomer argue that land use planning is an (again) overlooked yet important tool for reducing the environmental impact of the transport sector in particular.

Of a “small yet a diverse group of U.S. cities,” the authors found that only those cities that incorporate land use measures in their transportation sector actually succeed in reducing transport-related emissions. On the other hand, “cities that fail to incorporate land use measures actually see an increase” in the same.

The oversight is not inconsequential. Transport-related emissions can make up a large percentage of a city’s total emissions: of the cities included in their study, Grand Rapids, Michigan topped the list with 57% of their total emissions resulting from transport, while most of the others hovered from a still significant 24% to 39%.

To reduce these emissions, cities often try to reduce the total miles traveled per person within the city through public transport and other “alternative transportation options,” the authors write.

The approach those same cities might overlook, however, is to reduce the “physical distance driven” through land use planning by encouraging people to live closer to work and employing infrastructure that further encourages them to move throughout their environment more efficiently—say with dedicated walking paths, biking paths, and rapid bus transit lanes.

Importantly, these concrete steps move cities past mere aspirational policy making. Wier and Zomer note the failure of many climate change response plans is that they are untethered to real policy measures or specific measures of performance, but merely vaguely state goals without strategies. By “creating policy measures that are both actionable and quantifiable,” communities better set themselves up for success.

Of equal importance in their article is their recognition of the importance of individual community action in response to climate change. The authors note the importance of “city climate plans” that set out emission reduction targets and lay down strategies to achieve these targets, and observed the attention cities received in recent climate conferences. After all, they observed, “70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are from cities.”

Rather than regional actors outclassed by a global problem, then, these communities are the very centers for change. With such an array of tools to address the hazards of climate change locally, and such an outsized impact on climate change globally; cities should have no small incentive to work toward building an appropriate response to the problem.

Menu Title