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Climate Change in Massachusetts: Land Use for Adaptation and Mitigation

Principal Investigator/Project Leader: 
Department of Project: 
Landscape Arch. & Regional Planning Dept.
Project Description: 

The causes of climate change are global, but the impacts are experienced locally. Communities across the New England region and the country are facing challenges from climate change including more extreme storms, hotter and longer-lasting heat waves, more rain in winter and less in summer, as well as the slower but significant effects of sea level rise. Given the incremental development and long lives of the built environment, changes in municipal regulations take years to significantly change the buildings and infrastructure that make up our cities and towns. As a result, it is essential that communities begin now to adapt their built form regulations (zoning, building codes, road specifications, sewer infrastructure, etc.) so that as climate impacts worsen in the next decades, harm is minimized. However, outside of the major global cities such as Boston and New York, it is not clear how many communities have taken steps toward climate change adaptation.

There are a range of ways that communities could progress local adaptation policy, including preparing adaptation plans, including climate projections into other policy, or increasing resilience to current hazards and hoping that will help with intensified future risks. Choices among those may be related to the initial situation faced by the community, characterized as barriers and enablers to action. For instance, planners in communities that face primarily political barriers may choose to focus on getting widespread community participation and buy-in via an adaptation plan, with the full public process that entails. Alternatively, a planner in this situation may choose to focus on adding expertise and data rather than public process. A different explanation may be that there are particular problems that lend themselves to planning (zoning issues, for instance) and other problems that lend themselves to expert-driven approaches (appropriate free-board height for the first floor of homes, as an example). The connections are difficult to predict in advance, which is why the project is interesting.

To explore these issues, this project will pilot a web-trawler that can identify adaptation actions at the local level in the New England region, and compare these to the situations of the communities. We will also survey Regional Planning Agencies and a sample of communities in the region. Taken together, this work will allow us to identify the status and types of adaptation actions underway in the region, the goals and barriers they are designed to address, and characterize these connections. Increasing knowledge of municipal adaptation implementation will bring a range of benefits to Massachusetts' smaller towns and cities, as well as the broader region. First, it will generate empirically-based findings on what communities are doing to become better adapted to future climate, and why. This will lead to improvements in our ability to advise communities on how to move ahead on this important topic based on their particular situation.