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Local Governments Must Take Charge of Building Resilient Communities

By Haris Alibašić, Office of Energy and Sustainability, Director, City of Grand Rapids, Michigan

Community-wide resiliency preparedness takes into consideration emergency preparedness, energy planning, health, and safety issues. Weather patterns are no longer predicated upon existing patterns, and the impact on regions, cities, and especially urban areas will be significant.  There have been more frequent and severe heat waves, excessive rain events and flooding, and changes in temperature and precipitation pattern impending social systems, ecosystems, and the economy. The U.S. Department of Energy reported that “at least three major climate trends are relevant to the energy sector: Increasing air and water temperatures; Decreasing water availability in some regions and seasons; Increasing intensity and frequency of storm events, flooding, and sea level rise.” (p. i). Climate change presents a whole new set of challenges when it comes to emergency planning and preparedness for municipalities.

Taking into consideration those critical elements, emergency plans incorporate the latest science to better understand impacts from such changes, and develop various alternatives. A group of national organizations including ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, US Green Building Council (USGBC), and National League of Cities formed the Resilient Communities for America. The group recognized that “local governments are on the front lines of these challenges and must respond.”

Grand Rapids' resiliency building

In addition to being the first signatory to the Resilient Communities for America, the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan, was among the first local governments in the nation to use the ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability’s Climate Adaptation Program: Climate Resilient Communities™, a comprehensive program to assist local governments with preparing for climate change impacts.

Tying its sustainability plan directly to emergency planning, the City is able to respond to heat wave events, more hazardous rain events, and to have a better control of the events arising from extreme weather. The City of Grand Rapids has implemented these climate mitigation and adaptation strategies:

  • Developed energy conservation and efficiency strategies to reduce its energy consumption and demand throughout the organization. Since 2006, the City reduced its electric consumption by over 10 percent.
  • Achieved 22 percent of the City's electricity from renewable sources, working toward a 100 percent goal by 2020. Diversified energy sources are essential for local resilience and for greenhouse gas reduction.
  • Reduced total fuel consumption by 19 percent over the last eight years, saving over $500,000 annually.
  • Set a goal to increase its tree canopy cover to at least 37.5 percent between 2011 and 2015 and diversify the type of tree species planted.

Putting plans to the test

In the past two years, both the planning and investments in infrastructure made by the City were put to the test with the recent flood and the extreme heat waves in the summers of 2012 and 2013. In both instances, the City and the community responded well. In April 2013, the Grand River crested at 21.85 feet downtown, nearly three feet above the flood stage. The city suffered little damage as a result of the historic flood threat, in large part due to “preemptive investments, sustainability and emergency planning, and quick response at the time of the event,” investing “$12 million to raise the flood walls that protect the city” in 2003, and over $300 million in the last ten years in an attempt to end combined sewer overflows. In response to recent heat wave events, the City made adjustments to its emergency action guidelines to coordinate services with the American Red Cross, other agencies, and utilities, in regards to resources, services, and cooling centers.

Next steps

Partnering with West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), the City is developing a community resiliency report to further focus on climate, energy issues, economy, transportation, infrastructure, and to inform decision making in the areas of sustainability, ordinances, policies, and adaptation and mitigation strategies. The report, coupled with an acknowledgement of climate change impacts, will serve to prepare the community and make it more agile and adaptive to extreme events and disasters.

Another step will be building the regional resiliency plan. Recently, the West Michigan Community Sustainability Partnership (CSP), a diverse network of organizations embracing sustainability held its summit, which focused on areas for regional collaboration of sustainability and regional resiliency planning. Moving resiliency planning to a regional level brings the whole new phase of outcome-driven sustainability planning and incorporates best practices. By using a dynamic approach to resiliency planning, cities continually adapt to changing economic, environmental, and social conditions as a result of new realities. Sustainable organizations and communities need to constantly build upon existing plans, layering and preparing to adapt and mitigate new occurrences.

For more information about the City of Grand Rapids’ sustainability efforts, please visit www.sustainablegr.org.

Haris Alibašić directs the City of Grand Rapids’ Office of Energy and Sustainability and teaches graduate courses in public administration and sustainability at Grand Valley State University. Mr. Alibašić is a Ph.D. candidate in Public Policy and Administration at Walden University, with a research focus on sustainability, energy and public policy, and is a recipient of the Commitment to Social Change doctoral scholarship.

[image credit: Kasey Ann: Flickr cc]

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