This past week I had the opportunity to visit Washington DC; while I love the city, I confess to nearly melting as the temperature rose above 36°C. I enjoy the heat more than most, but even I can recognize the potential implications if this heat wave continues through the summer. In the National Zoo nearly all the animals were out of sight as they took shelter amid the trees. While people were still outside during the day, the concentrated heat posed significant health risks for senior citizens and children, as well as for any adults spending excessive time out of doors. Local public health officials have already released tips to help citizens avoid heat related illnesses.
High temperatures in cities are also a stress on the environment, drying out the landscape, and often translating to increased water and energy consumption as sprinklers turn on and air conditioners are cranked up. DC began to address opportunities for adaptation with the National Capital Region Climate Change Report (released in 2008); however its most recent steps appear to be focused on increased discussion and education, with little tangible action. There are local organizations pushing the city to adopt more active plans in terms of water efficiency, greywater use, and increased guidelines for green space, and the city has partnered with local groups to improve its tree coverage to 40% by 2035. Despite some progress in DC and in other cities, a recent report commissioned by the MacArthur Foundation on climate change adaptation identified that “there is still a big gap between planning and action.” Although a few Canadian cities, namely Vancouver and Toronto, have taken remarkable steps (highlighted below), most other American and Canadian urban centers lack sufficient implementation of adaptation measures.
In Ottawa we deal with hot summers, albeit nothing compared to our southern neighbours. However, we cannot assume the city will not be impacted by climate change, and therefore we should both continue mitigation efforts and consider opportunities to adapt to our evolving climate. The City of Ottawa released a Climate Change Adaptation Plan in 2004, and after calls that City Council lacked a proper adaptation action plan, in March 2013 City Hall hosted a GHG Roundtable where Ecology Ottawa congratulated the Mayor’s leadership as he called for a proper climate plan within the next year. Ecology Ottawa and other local organizations have been active with green projects in the city, with Ottawa’s first energy co-op now linking a third solar project to the local electricity grid this year. The National Capital Commission (NCC) boasts a strong environmental strategy, including a commitment to have its buildings be LEED certified, achieve a 30% carbon footprint reduction by 2017 and have all NCC events be carbon neutral. As the NCC is already engaged, there are great opportunities to expand its work by integrating its programming with the city and other federal institutions in Ottawa to expand their physical impact, along with providing a forum for climate literacy and awareness.
A stated above, a few major cities in North America have taken significant action on climate adaptation:
- Toronto created innovative bylaws that oblige new developments to include green roofs, which help tamper the urban heat island effect, further helping to reduce energy and water consumption, and public health risks.
- Vancouver has one of the most ambitious green plans in North America, if not internationally, with an action plan for 2020 to double green jobs, reduce GHG 33%, require new buildings to have carbon neutral operations, reduce the overall ecological footprint of each citizen 33% and reduce water consumption per capital 33%, among many others.
- Philadelphia has green infrastructure requirements and innovative water efficiency initiatives including building, among other things, pervious pavement that would help prevent sewage overflow and flooding. An idea to paint cement and rooftops white is slowly gaining traction in urban centers led by the White Roof Project in an effort to reduce building temperatures and decrease summer stress on the electricity grid as white roofs can reduce cooling costs up to 40%.
As cities heat up and others face severe storm surges (a danger New York’s Mayor Bloomberg is taking seriously), climate change adaptation needs to increasingly be a focus of municipalities in order to build smart, sustainable cities for the future.