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Midwest cities could be first to meet climate pact

Marc Lefkowitz  |  12/15/15 @ 4:00pm  |  Posted in Transform

Cities are on the vanguard of the new global climate pact signed in Paris. More specifically, cities in the Rust Belt have the most to gain from COP21.

COP21, the world’s first climate commitment, could turn cities into a platform for ways to meet the immense challenge of what to do, Next City writes in The Urban Planner’s Guide to Living in a Post-COP21 World.

<br />Smart Growth America report on rebuilding downtowns highlights Gordon Square in Cleveland.

Cleveland’s high rate of poverty may seem like a reason to hold off on investing in climate change adaptation, but it is the raison d'être for the city, in the lead up to Paris, signing the Compact of Mayors, a chance for Cleveland to demonstrate a commitment to an ambitious, global, climate solution, the city's Office of Sustainability noted.

While much attention in Paris was focused on coastal communities—who may bear the worst climate impact—America’s heartland, it turns out, is also on the front line. From Cleveland to Toledo to Chicago, urban areas in this part of the country are exposed to illness and loss of life (Chicago recorded 40 deaths related to a 1995 heat wave) due to climate vulnerabilities.

Further uncertainty is added by polar vortices, toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie and seasonal floods that have caused millions of dollars of property damage, says Nicholas Rajkovich, a professor in the School of Architecture and Planning, University at Buffalo. Rajkovich’s research dives into his native Cuyahoga County’s climate vulnerabilities. He found that extreme temperature events, amplified by climate change, claim more lives than all of the tornadoes, hurricanes and natural disasters combined.

Cities like Cleveland are ramping up their response to climate change. Climate resiliency will take on greater significant, the Office of Sustainability has indicated, within the framework of the city’s Climate Action Plan.

Timely, too, is Smart Growth America’s (SGA) “ReBuilding downtown: A guidebook for revitalization.” Produced this week for city and suburban town centers to do more to promote lower carbon living, the ideas found here can go a long way in addressing climate change. As this map of the highest and lowest carbon neighborhoods in Northeast Ohio attests, there is a direct link between carbon emissions per household and how dense and walkable is your neighborhood.

SGA’s report helps to make sense and prioritize the great many actions that Cleveland can take in attracting more residents. Here are big picture ideas as communities in Northeast Ohio start to think about what climate change means locally.

Be a good listener

Understand your community—Cities and suburbs need to come up with their own climate action plan, based on what kind of place it wants to be. Mayor Jackson seems more comfortable with the notion of Cleveland becoming a green city on a blue lake (he uses the phrase all of the time). The Vibrant NEO two-year study did a great job capturing how negative our current land-use trend is while contrasting it with a more dense, walkable future. But, a lot of work remains to be done before Northeast Ohio reaches broad consensus on a vision for how to live and act in the interest of creating healthy, vibrant, sustainable communities. It sometimes feels like discussion stops at the many borders between us.

Hold a town hall meeting or conduct a survey—SGA recommends asking your long-time residents what they most want to see for their neighborhood. Again, this gets to, what is the vision, the history, the shared values, what were the high and low points for diversity and equity, for example. Until we understand our past, its hard to heal or build. 

Make no small plans

Specify goals and make a plan to achieve them—the global climate change pact is premised on the carrying capacity of the planet. Earth is our plan a. There is no plan b and c.

The Master Plan that Cuyahoga County is helping communities of Cleveland Heights, University Heights, Parma Heights and Olmsted Falls with could recognize climate change and help these communities think about / adapt to climate change. SGA advises that communities provide answers to what kind of housing, culture, retail, and infrastructure serves this vision.

Clean and bright—Build an organization consisting of citizens, business owners, etc. to promote sustainability through the city. Promote ideas like complete streets, expanding green space, and a culture that values low carbon living. Keep thinking about ways to scale your designs to people and how we like to socialize.

What matters most

Among the many things cities can do, we’ve selected three high-level tactics that will have impact on encouraging low-carbon living:

  • Consider updating zoning to form-based code, which Cleveland announced it will do, to encourage more urbanity and less separation of uses.
  • Examine parking requirements. Parking is an expensive use of valuable real estate. Parking should allow people to park once and then walk to multiple destinations. Cities like Cleveland and even business districts and shopping areas in the suburbs that want to encourage more business could create a single parking authority to manage parking as a shared resource. It lessens predatory parking rates and adds incentive to build over ugly, expansive surface lots.
  • Use transit as an amenity. Think of public transit the same as a shop, a park or a restaurant, an important amenity that can help attract residents, employers and visitors, SGA writes.

For many reasons—chief among them new revelations that cities are something of a canary in a coal mine—cities are renewing efforts to gird against the worst impacts. Creating the opportunity for people to live in an exciting place that can also reduce their personal carbon footprint should be the goal of all Northeast Ohio communities as they become more resilient in the face of climate change.

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