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Where Cleveland is most vulnerable to climate change

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/17/18 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Climate

How Cleveland will be impacted by climate change is the focus of a study being produced by the City of Cleveland’s Office of Sustainability and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress (CNP). Principal investigator, Dr. Nick Rajkovich, was hired to study how climate change will mix with urban areas. A native Clevelander and associate professor in the Department of Architecture at University of Buffalo, Rajkovich’s research is on the intersection of human health and climate change in cities.

<br />Most vulnerable to heat areas in Cleveland. From the Climate Hazard and Social Vulnerability Assessment of 2018. Credit: University of Buffalo.

The recently drafted "Climate Hazard and Social Vulnerability Assessment" asks questions like, what will happen in a major American city where more than one-third of residents are living in poverty and struggling with basic choices, such as food versus luxuries like air conditioning, when an expected increase in extreme weather events occurs?

The study was made possible with a $600,000 grant from Detroit’s Kresge Foundation. Cleveland was the only fresh water coastal city awarded; teams of investigators are also working in ocean coastal cities where rising sea levels and Superstorms pose an immediate threat.

One reason Cleveland was selected may be to uncover how tornadoes and other severe thunderstorm phenomena frequently cause as much annual property damage and deaths in the U.S. as do hurricanes, which seem to grab all of the headlines.

“The most interesting thing about the work, since the Chicago heat wave, is the limitation of science,” says Rajkovich about the 1995 event that claimed 700 lives and sparked a new consciousness around urban heat island (UHI). “Scientists love to do the research and assume someone will do something with it. The advocacy role for scientists is uncomfortable, but one we have to get over.”

For Cleveland and older communities, climate change is likely going to amplify inequities that exist in highly segregated, economically struggling areas. The report finds that a Cleveland resident is more vulnerable because of how socio-ecological conditions stack up. Multiple social factors like high rates of poverty and large populations of very young and old will collide with physical attributes of heavy industry, highways and wide, former streetcar roadways and the dominant landscape of impervious, heat-gathering concrete. The report found that large portions of the east side of Cleveland, like the Central neighborhood, have cumulative vulnerabilities and it concludes that a greater understanding of how socio economic factors line up, how they relate to flooding and extreme heat, for example, is needed.

“You’d like to be able to say, ‘someone will get sick on this block,’” Rajkovich says. “There will always be an inadequacy unless we have an integrative approach. Policy makers and organizers collaborating, institutions like museums rethinking their approach to public welfare and where citizen science is part of the solution.”

Identifying the physical and social conditions started with Trust for Public Land and its Climate-Smart Cities/Cleveland project.

“In Cleveland, our focus has been on how climate change factors on increasing temperatures and increasing storms,” says Matt Schmidt, Program Manager, The Trust for Public Land. Schmidt says ground-truthing data at a local level has led TPL to green infrastructure projects in New Orleans and Los Angeles.

“The TPL tool allowed us to dive in and create more detailed geographies and identify opportunities to reuse vacant land for positive purposes and where there are assets in the community to increase response,” Rajkovich added.

A coalition has formed with TPL, CNP, the Office of Sustainability, Bike Cleveland and the Cleveland Tree Plan. They have hosted community meetings for residents to offer their perspective. The process was led by climate ambassadors hired by CNP to work in the Glenville, Central, Kinsman, Detroit-Shoreway and Slavic Village neighborhoods. At a recent meeting, residents considered where planting trees would improve social and environmental conditions, including cleaning up vacant lots and improving connections to schools.

The report will be part of Cleveland’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) 2018 update which will articulate a set of priority areas and actions to protect populations exposed to climate change.

“It can inform emergency planning, flooding and the great work the Sewer District is already doing, health on campuses like the Cleveland Clinic with its climate resilience strategy, the micro grid discussion under way downtown, the Tree Plan can have a neighborhood-level plan,” says Cleveland Sustainability Chief, Matt Gray, who is leading the CAP update. The response falls under the umbrella of Climate Resilience which he says “cuts across every action area in the Climate Action Plan. Corporate leadership, social and climate vulnerability. If we start parsing it out, it’s in every action area, from efficiency to trees to renewable energy, there’s a connection.”

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