PLAN 72: Article
Helping Cities Cope With Climate Change

A Project to Develop an Online Tool for Urban Planners

Ten graduate students from MIT spent three weeks in South Africa last summer working on the development of an online tool to help municipal governments around the world adapt to climate change. Led by JoAnn Carmin, associate professor of environmental policy and planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, the trip was part of her class on urban climate adaptation.

The need for the effort arises from the fact that local governments around the world are faced with the challenge of integrating complex climate change issues into their local planning processes. But despite the importance of the need, few tools have been developed to help urban planners meet that challenge. This project was the first step toward developing such a tool.

Originally, the group was aiming to develop an instrument specifically for Durban, but agency representatives there urged them to create something that any town could use. For starters, students met with public officials, NGOs and other stakeholders to learn what they know about climate change, what preparations they have made to date, and what information they need to ensure an appropriate planning response, concentrating on uncovering adaptation activities that are already taking place in the course of routine work and identifying techniques that could be easily adopted elsewhere. Students then developed a preliminary tool that planners and other city officials can use to inform their work and set their adaptation priorities.

Among other things, the online tool will help cities learn what others in similar situations have already tried, especially simple steps that can be implemented in the course of their normal activities. For example, a common challenge is the problem of receding water levels in reservoirs due to water scarcity. By following repairmen around, students found the workers routinely connected pipes from different reservoirs at the points where they intersected so that when one reservoir was low the other could feed the city. By connecting the pipes, the workmen were initiating an inexpensive measure to ensure the system could adapt to fluctuations in the availability of water.

Carmin says that many of the things that agencies are urged to do to prepare for a changing climate seem remote from the day-to-day pressures they face, and thus don't get implemented. While it is important to have a long-term vision, she says, 'implementation requires that we meet people where they are, and this often means starting with the easy win – helping agencies identify ways they can initiate the adaptation process that do not require additional resources or an entirely new agenda.' Indeed, the students found that sometimes it's the people on the ground who recognize climate problems more quickly and come up with straightforward solutions.

When fully developed, the online tool will be organized around critical functions such as emergency management, health, energy, water and sanitation, environment and biodiversity, housing, social services and so on. People will be asked to input basic information about their work and then receive output that will help them identify ways they can link their ongoing efforts to adaptation measures. It will be an open-access tool that any municipality can use but with output that will be oriented to the specific locale.

Carmin aims to further the tool's development in subsequent versions of her class. As the project progresses, she expects to hold focus groups in several South African cities as well in other countries to make sure the tool will be truly useful.

This story is based on a story by David Chandler of the MIT News Office.

Posted November 2008