A Placemaking Journal

CNU Climate Summit Highlights

A group of concerned urban designers, architects, ecologists, and economists gathered last week in Alexandria, Virginia, to discuss resilience at the CNU Climate Summit. Unable to join, I reached a few participants by phone and followed the Twitter hashtag, #CNUClimate, to hear highlights of the presentations and working groups. Several of their ideas resonate with the resilience thread here, and is another step in the process of answering some of the questions we often pose. Warning, this blog is long and heavy on direct quotes.

The central idea of the gathering, in the words of Shelly Poticha: “Urbanists need a lot more friends to make an impact. More cross-sector collaboration is key to climate resilience.” Susan Henderson agrees, “The Summit was an intense conversation between groups that usually work independently. One outcome is a wiki of resources that spans many organizations and tools, where we can organically learn from one another, post the value of an improved physical environment, and provide the narrative for change.”

Marina Khoury finds encouragement from the group’s track record, saying, “CNU is well-positioned to assist in the climate mitigation and adaptation effort, as we have successfully reformed systems and changed the national dialogue on complex cultural issues, like car-centric versus walkable development. Climate resilience is a greater task of overwhelming complexity. How do cities learn? Know what we know – and know what we do not. Then nimbly apply proven solutions to other places, as well as develop homegrown interventions.”

The Context

“In 65 years, there have been 3,443 federally-declared disasters. In the 12 years since Hurricane Katrina, there have been 1,482 federally-declared disasters. That’s an increase of over one per week between those two periods,” per disaster recovery worker and FEMA policy expert, Laura Clemons. “Harvey impacted 229 cities and counties – most you’ve never heard of – 80% of which were under 20,000 people. Because of funding structures, if you cannot get to a community in the first three weeks, you lose the chance to build back better.”

“Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria will cost the US government $280 billion, at last estimate. The intensity of these three storms in three weeks has never happened in U.S. history,” Steve Mouzon relays. “During the last superstorm year of 2005, we suffered through Katrina, Rita, Wilma. That year, we ran out of letters to name storms and the Great Recession of 2008 soon followed.”

“Now, we are experiencing again a challenging time for the U.S. economy. We have to have models that are financially self-perpetuating to get locals to harden their assets, in terms of savings on insurance and federal support over time,” Mouzon warns. “We cannot expect to be rescued every time. It’s a bootstrap thing. We have to quickly evolve into the mental toughness of our grandparents. What we can do, as urbanists, to adapt to the new realities that are coming our way?”

Trees on King Street in Alexandria add significant value to people, planet, and profit. Image: CreativeCommons ShareAlike License with Attribution to Susan Henderson at

Trees on King Street in Alexandria add significant value to people, planet, and profit. Image: CreativeCommons ShareAlike License with Attribution to Susan Henderson at

What’s Your Story?

To say our political context is fractured is putting it gently. Stories are essential to finding common ground. When the story is about the economic and social benefits of livable places, the political divide fades somewhat.

Even for people who don’t think climate change is real, the majority of people want places where they can walk, bike, or take transit, and where we can gather in public places to form communities. Happily, those sorts of complete, compact, connected, complex, convivial places that are rich in nature are easier on the planet. As households per acre increases, emissions per household decreases exponentially.

“Maybe your story is just about a tree,” says Steve Mouzon. “Each street tree my city plants on my block makes my home value go up by about $2,000, by the time it matures. Each street tree we plant on our lot makes our home value increase by about $10,000, once it’s grown. While this value capture may be the reason that I plant trees, the act significantly helps reduce the urban heat island and greenhouse gasses. A significant portion of the population denies climate change, but most care about the first part of this particular story, if not the second.”

Tell the story that moves the community toward common ground. One story isn’t enough. Every angle is needed. “Physical, social, infrastructural, and economic resilience are all necessary. For much of resilience, there is no data sets telling us what people value,” per Dr. Janice Barnes, the Global Resilience Director for Perkins+Will.

“How we frame the problem is as key as how we begin to solve it,” cautions Marina Khoury. “Most cities do not know how to solve the magnitude of climate resiliency issues. We have time-tested, innovative solutions that can drive down carbon emissions and provide a better quality of life. Our public engagement forums greatly assist us in gleaning from people what they care about and help illustrate trade-offs and scenarios tied to the core values of citizens.”

The Citizens Climate Lobby talk by Jay Butera eloquently spoke of giving people hope (tied to how we message), solutions (simple and relatable), and citizen advocacy (energizing with results, empowering collaboration, and understanding individual contributions).

King Street in Alexandria is the sort of walkable urban place that the tools below seek to incentivize. Image: CreativeCommons ShareAlike License with Attribution to Susan Henderson at

King Street in Alexandria is the sort of walkable urban place that the tools below seek to incentivize. Image: CreativeCommons ShareAlike License with Attribution to Susan Henderson at

Measuring Tools

“Land use is not a big consideration in today’s climate action plans (CAPs) being adopted by cities. Affordable transportation is not prioritized,” per Jen McGraw of Center for Neighborhood Technology. Not unsurprisingly, she says, “The counting counts. Most CAPs are performance based, so we have to get better at measuring the particulars of the places that people love, which are usually the places that perform. If great New Urbanist plans are not keeping score of climate impacts, they generally don’t count toward the plan. About 82 million households (out of about 117 million) in the U.S. live in low densities of about 3 households per acre. We have to move that needle to make a difference.”

Change happens at the speed of decision making. Better tools allow for better decisions and better places. Climate change, tragically, is not a high priority to most people. We can’t sell climate change if all we talk about is climate change. It doesn’t trump all issues to everyone.

“My passion for last 15 years is to get a wake-up tool in everyone’s hands, and bust a lot of silos,” says Peter Calthorpe. “All areas of government intersect in urban planning. Cities are not a collection of silos! Central to all climate change impacts (transportation, energy, land use) is urban form.”

Calthorpe’s new tool, UrbanFootprint, sorts out those effects on the scales of the project, city and region. You never know which issue is the tipping point for political will, so Calthorpe measures most all of them. For instance, business as usual versus The Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008, or SB 375:

  • Reduces emissions as much as forest covering half of California
  • Saves households $10,000 per year in utility cost
  • Saves 10,500 miles behind the wheel per household every year
  • Reduces land lost to development by about the size of Delaware plus Rhode Island

While SB 375 is all about reducing carbon, the side effects include creating community, thanks to visionary California urbanists. That’s because California’s SB 375 pays attention to land use and transportation patterns.

“We need to get past the slogans, and down to the numbers that matter,” Peter Calthorpe encourages us. “States and cities are the solution to mitigation rather than the gridlock of the federal government. We can’t win the debate by talking about climate change. Urban form has the greatest impact on mitigation.” Watch Peter’s full lecture here.

Every project should begin with clear questions. Dr. Janice Barnes suggests these: “What are climate projections on your site? What are vulnerabilities as a result? How does your design address the gap?” Lynn Englum adds, “How do you turn vulnerability into hotbeds of design?”

A growing set of tools measures the impact of urban form on climate. Here is a selection, but more are welcome in the comments section at the end of this blog. Watch for a collaborative wiki from soon.

  • ALLTransit: CNT’s new national database counts the benefits of transit systems
  • GreenTRIP Connect dashboard analyzes driving, greenhouse gas emissions and parking demand of specific parcels for residential developers in California
  • H+T Index: CNT’s index for housing and transportation affordability tracks an array of outcomes per U.S. census track, including carbon emissions
  • Urban Footprint from CalAnalytics measures impacts to the environment, economy, and society at the scales of the project, city, and region
  • Walk Score + Bike Score + Transit Score tracks the active transportation and transit performance of street addresses in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

A companion set of tools help us improve these scores:

Equity and Adaptation

It is essential that climate adaptation be for everyone, and not just benefit the wealthy. Dr. Janice Barnes says, “Resilient design can shift the conversation from building a landfill to reducing poverty. We want to have design in everything we do and resilience in all our design. We need a Climate Action Plan (CAP) for each city. We need to listen and learn how a community can best build resilience into their fabric over time. Match deliverables with local government’s internal language. Architects are trained to play lead guitar, but in resilience work, we need to know how to play rhythm guitar. The speed of trust is essential to effective recovery work.”

“For decades, the United Nations saw slums as something to be eradicated. Now, they see them as places to be made healthier. Most slums are very productive; everyone works. They are very aspirational and over 1 billion people live there,” via Doug Kelbaugh.

Even outside of slums, lower-income populations tend to live nearer high auto emissions like near freeways and in low-lying areas. People are unaware how much location impacts health. Rebuild by Design says, “Design must be interdisciplinary, regional, replicable, implementable, inclusive, and collaborative. Build forward, do not ‘build back.’ What should the future look like?”

USGBC wants the future to look “safe, healthy, inclusive, smart, productive, efficient, equitable, sustainable, responsive, and resilient.” Elizabeth Beardsley says, “At USGBC, we want green buildings to simply be the normal way of building, not something special. We see our role at as activating people to act and to advocate for building more sustainably.”

Resiliency: The Need for Lean Regulations

There is so much we can learn by the developing world and the savviness of the people there. Dr. Janice Barnes shares stories of Southeast Asia and encourages us to, “Stop looking at the developed world as a paradigm.”

Wet flood-proofing is not currently recognized by FEMA, but Ryan Jacobson from NYC Department of City Planning says it should be. “Shared walls, cellar spaces, and building access are all adaptation challenges on Main Street. Inviting access to customers is a problem when a shop is raised but street is not. Healthy retail corridors are not supported by existing flood plain regulations. Tenants on ground level have greatest incentive to elevate building; those on upper levels, not so much. In New York, cellar spaces are prevalent because it’s ‘free space’ that doesn’t count against FAR. In the end, ground resiliency efforts must pair design solutions with policy solutions.”

As adaptation becomes a reality, every community has to answer the hard question, “What do we do now?” Steve Mouzon, a Miami Beach resident and architect says, “Some places will have enough land value to elevate and harden, with their own dollars. Those are voices from the front lines of adaptation. The City of Miami Beach is already raising the streets, but not yet raising the buildings, so they are already flooding. Cities should not expect anyone from outside the city limit sign to give them any money.”

The few cities in the U.S. that have elevated buildings include Galveston, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, adding 17 to 26 feet of elevation of masonry buildings. Chicago did it to a drum beat. There are models for how this can work. However, we also need affordable solutions. Not everyone can lift a house.

These are times when community-based economic development – and strong ties to each other – are essential. The climate change conversation needs to include smart planning, capital stacking, equity by design and economic development.

“We must get comfortable with change,” Marina Khoury encourages us. “No one thing ever does it. We need constant change over time, much like the growth of cities, but at the local, regional and national levels. Subsidiarity must ensure that decisions can be made at the lowest competent level. The greatest changes will likely need to happen at the local level and forging as many partnerships as possible. We disagree on the role the feds can play, with some thinking we must rely less on the feds and empower regional partners, while others are optimistic that the feds must be part of the solution. A set of climate resiliency toolkits, organized around the four levels of planning, can begin to frame the solutions. We need to get stronger at taking ownership of and highlighting every success story.”

Every small win matters. Every new solution set must be freely shared.

Thank You!

Thanks to these climate changer Tweeps for sharing ideas and supplying much of the content of this blog via #CNUClimate:

Alissa Akins‏ @AlissaAkins
Benjamin Holland‏ @BenHollandATX
Build a Better Burb‏ @BetterBurb
Carla Mays @CarlaMays
Center for Neighborhood Technology @CNT_tweets
Citizens Climate Lobby @citizensclimate
Civic By Design‏ @CivicByDesign
CYP studios‏ @CYPstudios
David Capelli‏ @DavidKCapelli
Elizabeth Beardsley @lizbeardsley1
Greater Places @GreaterPlaces
Island Press‏ @IslandPress
Island Press Urban Resilience Project @IP_URP
Janice Barnes @Janice_Barnes
Jay Butera @JayButera
Jen McGraw @CO2e
Kemal‏ @kokirca
Laura Clemons @DoersGuide
Lauren Borsa-Curran‏ @Seaglass67
Lynn Englum @lynnenglum
Lynn Richards @lrichardsCNU
Mallory Baches‏ @mallorybaches
Marina Khoury @MarinaRKhoury
NewUrbanism‏ @NewUrbanism
NYCPlanning @NYCPlanning
100 Resilient Cities @100ResCities
Perkins+Will @perkinswill
Peter Calthorpe @CalAnalytics
Rain Powered‏ @gogreenautocare
Rebuild by Design @rebuildbydesign
RISD Architecture @RISDARCH
Shelley Poticha @ShelleyPoticha
Steve Mouzon @stevemouzon
Susan Henderson‏ @suhender
Transition Network @transitiontowns

Hazel Borys

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