How can private interests as well as federal and local governments interact to promote climate change adaptation?

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Many coastal and riverine communities in the United States face serious flooding risks from sea level rise and increased frequency of severe storms. From a municipal perspective, planners and elected officials must decide what tools they will use to help private property owners adapt to climate change impacts. In her thesis, Julie Curti (MCP ’15) evaluates how two communities in Rhode Island, Cranston and Westerly, have utilized buyback and elevation programs to adapt to future flooding risks.

Julie was especially interested in how federal and local governments interact, planners prioritize and fund projects, and equity considerations are incorporated into local-level decisions. While exploring these questions, she identified the danger of merging hazard mitigation programs with climate change adaptation efforts. Julie argues for an approach to adaptation planning that balances justice-oriented distributional and procedural equity at the local level. She also suggests ways in which state and federal agencies can facilitate stronger adaptation planning at the local level. To read more about Julie’s observations, analysis, and findings, click here.

Female Entrepreneurs, the Building Block of a New Economy?

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In her 2015 thesis, MCP Ellen Chen, studied how female “social entrepreneurs” have spurred micro-level reforms, and how their efforts have fueled broader institutional changes in Malaysia. These innovators are working on topics ranging from transportation safety to sex education. Most have left lucrative professional careers to pursue causes that are important to them, either as organizers or volunteers. From what Ellen was able to document, policy changes at the national or regional level are not enough. Widespread action by risk-takers on the ground is essential to realize greater sustainability. On the other hand, fighting for the rights of disadvantaged groups or using the media to lift up voices for change are also important to achieving sustainable development.

Ellen investigated the proposition offered by political economists that nations can grow their economy more rapidly if they are willing to break with past institutional patterns. Ellen’s research suggests that this has been difficult to do in Malaysia, especially with regards to women’s roles. The state-influenced system of education continues to promote Islam’s gender-specific norms of virtuous behavior. While Malaysia has embarked on an aggressive effort to promote economic growth and launched multiple programs to encourage female entrepreneurship, there is still a prominent cultural aversion to risk-taking. Ellen’s thesis consists of both a traditional written portion, available here, and a video presentation, viewable here.

 

Short term gains, but long term inefficiencies? A case study of smart thermostats in residential buildings.

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Smart technologies, such as smart thermostats, appear to offer a cost-effective approach to transitioning to a cleaner electricity grid. That is to say, they can balance real-time supply and demand for electricity, making it easier to integrate intermittent renewable energy sources into the grid. Brian Bowen (MCP’ 15) offers a case study of Austin Energy’s demand-response thermostat and their Wi-Fi connected smart thermostats. He analyzed the ability of these thermostats to reduce energy consumption during the summer of 2013. While he affirms the success of smart thermostats during peak demand, he also lays out a convincing case for the limited long-term energy efficiency potential of smart thermostats. To read more about Brain’s analysis and findings, please read his thesis here.

How can we improve the results of major public transit investments?

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Washington D.C.’s 2014 Metrorail expansion runs, on elevated track lines, through the sprawling and auto-oriented Tysons Corner. Originally conceived as a means of transforming Tysons Corner into a true urban downtown with high walk-ability, the Silver Line’s expansion became mired in a fight over whether to go underground or above ground. In her 2015 thesis, Katie Blizzard (MCP ’15) examines the history of this debate and how the public controversy led to a suboptimal. She presents strong evidence supporting a conclusion that flawed federal funding criteria, the costs associated with high-level political disagreements and the constraints imposed by uncompetitive contracting were all to blame. To read more of Katie’s analysis and conclusions, click here.

Urban Agriculture Contributes to Sustainable Development of Cities: How do we make it permanent?

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In the 21st century cities have increasingly adopted sustainability as a guiding principal, offering a window of opportunity for the incorporation of urban agriculture into city land use planning efforts. In addition, the engagement of commercial urban farms with local economies has allowed urban agriculture to enter the realm of economic development. Despite these advancements, many still frame their understanding of urban agriculture as interim land use while waiting for appropriate real estate development to happen. In his 2014 thesis, Andrew Cook (MCP ’14) argues the sustainable development characteristics of urban agriculture can only be accessed by treating it as permanent rather than a temporary land use.

 

To illustrate his argument, Andrew draws on a case study of Baltimore City, specifically the temporary use on city-owned land programs: Adopt-A-Lot and Homegrown Baltimore Land Lease Initiative. Andrew traced the historical relationship of urban agriculture to city development, Baltimore’s shrinking population, Baltimore’s policy environment as well as the histories of each program. He found that Baltimore’s view that urban agriculture runs counter to the economic growth objectives of a city, has limited the sustainability, economic, environmental and social benefits of urban agriculture projects. Through his evaluation of several urban commercial farms, community farms and demonstration farms, Andrew provides an alternate view, showing how urban agriculture can drive rather than hindering economic development. He offers a series of recommendations that woucl allow cities to realize the maximum benefit of urban agriculture. To learn more, read Andrew’s full thesis here.

How can we do a better job of promoting investment in green infrastructure?

Image Source: EPA (water.epa.gov)

Image Source: EPA (water.epa.gov)

A Methodology for Greater Impact of Green Infrastructure Projects

The planning community has increasingly recognized green infrastructure as the most effective approach for cities to manage the environmental impacts of stormwater runoff, a major sources of contamination to urban waterways. Despite this recognition, green infrastructure has not yet achieved the desired scale of implementation, in part, because implementation produces highly variable results. However, green infrastructure pilot studies, called ‘demonstration projects,’ have been conducted throughout the United States with encouraging results.

In his thesis, Alex Marks (MCP ’15), uses the case of Boston to explore how demonstration projects can further green infrastructure implementation. Alex identifies four major objectives of case studies: (1) testing the physical performance of green infrastructure for wider use, (2) fostering interdepartmental learning to construct and maintain green infrastructure projects, (3) cultivating public awareness and support for green infrastructure, and (4) achieving regulatory compliance. If demonstration projects are designed to reflect these four objectives, they can reduce the hazards of stormwater runoff. Alex constructs a recommended demonstration project methodology to assist city planners in formulating green infrastructure initiatives. Green infrastructure can contribute to greater equity in the allocation of stormwater discharge permits. To read more, see Alex’s thesis, here.

How Can Cities Fund Themselves for Adaptation to Climate Change?

SuratDespite a growing acknowledgment for need for cities to adapt changes presented by climate change, the question of adaptation finance remains uncertain. Often unable to access global climate funds, cities must seek out alternative sources to support their adaptations to climate change.

In her thesis, Toral Patel (MCP ’14) examines the particularly challenging environment for local governments in India, where incomplete fiscal decentralization resulted in developmental deficits and resource constraints. Using Surat, Gujarat, as a case study, her research examines how cities in India might fund climate adaptation despite limited fiscal and administrative autonomy. It furthermore explores how the urban finance system might affect the implementation of climate adaptation strategies at the city level.

The study of Surat suggests that cities can effectively marshal funds from international, national and state sources to invest in climate adaptation. However, relying on external sources for funding has required trade-offs between policy agendas, resulting in a fluid understanding of “climate adaptation” on the ground. While the urban finance system appears to have encouraged experimentation in Surat, it may constrain the effectiveness of climate adaptation at the city level.

In addition, limited fiscal autonomy has hindered access to alternative sources to finance, such as public-private partnerships and municipal bonds. Combined, these factors have contributed to a project-based approach that may compromise longer-range and comprehensive adaptation plans.

To further cities ability to adapt to climate change, Toral identifies experimentation and innovation in financing climate adaptation as the crucial elements. Read more about Toral’s work in her thesis.

How Can We Limit or Mitigate Contention Over Solar Power Infrastructure Development

920x920Human reliance on fossil fuels has led to a wide range of adverse environmental and health effects. As our understanding of these impacts has grown, so has the search for other, more sustainable sources of energy. One such source is solar power. The federal and state governments of the United States have created various policies and financial incentives to encourage adoption of solar energy technologies.

While solar energy offers tremendous potential benefits, siting utility-scale ground-mounted photovoltaic arrays can give rise to strong public reaction. In her 2014 thesis, Siting solar energy facilities in New York state: sources of and responses to controversy, Casey Stein (MCP 2014) examines the controversy, or lack thereof, surrounding the siting of utility-scale solar energy facilities in New York by exploring two case studies – the Skidmore College Denton Road solar array and the Cornell University Snyder Road solar array.

Despite the large number of commonalities between these two solar energy facilities, the Skidmore College array created a much greater level of controversy than the Cornell University array. Analysis of this divergence indicates that choice of the physical site is a crucial determinant of the extent of controversy. While local impacts are an important concern, Casey demonstrates the reasons for controversy go well beyond those tangible impacts. Issues related to information, equity, and trust played roles as key sources of controversy.  By comparing and contrasting the controversy surrounding these two solar energy arrays, Casey is able to offer recommendations to limit or mitigate contention around future solar power infrastructure development.

To read Casey’s thesis, click here.

Building Stability Through Decentralization

Kathmandu-MüllabfuhrAs India continues to industrialize and urbanize, levels of consumption and waste continue to grow, placing stress on waste management systems.

Traditionally, Indian cities relied upon a combination of a formal municipal collection and processing; informal recycling, collection and processing; and waste pickers. However, urban sprawl and a lack of sites for new landfills have outpaced the capacity of traditional systems. The response has been to turn to private enterprise to manage waste, but this approach comes with severe draw backs in terms of social and environmental justice.

India’s waste pickers are vulnerable to changes in solid waste management policies. A shift towards more formal privatized systems, leaves little room for this large labor force.  Privatized waste management also hinges on maximizing profits at scale, thus leading to greater reliance on landfills. This disproportionately effects the most vulnerable groups in cities, since they do not have the political power to resist the siting of new landfills.

In her 2014 thesis, Caroline Howe argues for Indian cities to build the capacity of the informal waste management sector and to invest in decentralized waste processing. By investing in these ways, Caroline finds, Indian cities would develop a more sociall- just, economical, and environmentally friendly waste management system. In addition, by protecting a large population of workers in India, cities would be more resilient to economic and social challenges.

Read more about the potentials of decentralization in Caroline’s thesis.

What are the real costs and benefits of fracking in Pennsylvania and West Virginia?

Are the models used to evaluate the costs and benefit of natural mineral extraction reliable? Do they accurately account for the most important benefits and costs communities are likely to experience during a process like fracking?

In Sara Lynn Hess’s 2014 thesis, Extracting the Economic Benefits of Natural Resources in the Marcellus Shale Region, she highlights the key challenges associated with  valuing the impacts and products of shale extraction.   Focusing on West Virginia and Pennsylvania, Sara compares the benefits of resource extraction with their capture and distribution costs. In addition, she develops a simple framework that communities can use to assess whether their utility companies and regulators are focusing on the “right” costs and benefits prior to allowing drilling to begin.

In her case studies of Virginia and Pennsylvania, Sara illuminates the natural resource curse, wherein areas rich in resources often fail to realize the economic and social gains associated with extraction while bearing substantial immediate costs. Both Virginia and Pennsylvania have experienced severe environmental damages while realizing limited economic booms. Both states have approached shale gas mining with the hope of limiting damage and ensuring the sustainability of the natural gas industry. However, Sara’s analysis shows that uncertainties abound, both in terms of the long term commitments of the companies involved and in the ability of regulators to limit environmental damage. To learn more about these uncertainties read Sara’s thesis, here.