Category Archives: environmental planning

How is the city of Somerville working towards being carbon neutral by 2050 while also adapting to climate change?

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Hannah Payne (MCP ’16), the Sustainability Coordinator for the City of Somerville, joins the MIT ClimateX team to discuss these topics and more on Climate Conversations, available here.

Payne has considered the roles of public engagement and collaborative decision-making in crafting plans that will successfully navigate a city through the impacts of climate change. In her thesis, Engaging the public in climate adaptation planning: lessons from sixteen American cities, she identified how cities can collaboratively problem-solving for a climate resilient future by addressing the long-term risks and tradeoffs of adaptation policies. To read her full findings, check out her thesis, available via MIT Libraries on DSpace, here.

ClimateX is an online community focused on climate learning, discussion and action. The community originated from an award winning Climate CoLab proposal by two MIT alumni. To learn more about how the MIT community is attempting to share knowledge, ideas and discuss climate change, check out the ClimateX site, here.

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Civic spaces and brownfield redevelopment, a case study of the Social Innovation project in Somerville, MA

art_culture_scribed_imageFormer brownfield sites offer opportunities for economic growth. How can industrial cities dealing with legacy of contained areas promote neighborhood-scale arts-oriented development? Can such sites benefit from policy integration? MCP Allegra Fonda-Bonardi did a yearlong study of the ARTFarm for Social Innovation in Somerville; Massachusetts to better understand how one city tried to find the right balance between environmental clean-up, real estate reinvestment and neighborhood control of the development process. She starts of with the premise that integrating city-wide environmental, social, and economic sustainability is possible, and that civic spaces that aim to meet multiple objectives are more likely to succeed than those that don’t. Allegra also discusses in her thesis the importance of demanding accountability from developers who offer to fund remediation, to ensure that a portion of the remediated land is used to meet neighborhood priorities. Did the ArtFarm create a precedent? You can find the answer to this question and more in Allegra’s thesis, here.

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.

The Power of Information: Unleashing Energy Consumption Data

community_mapEncouraging energy efficiency among residents and businesses is hard work, not least because of the absence of accessible and easily understandable information about energy consumption. Most people don’t understand everything on their energy bills, don’t know if they’re using more energy than they should, and have no way to compare their energy use to that of their neighbors. This information is often guarded closely by utilities, presenting energy efficiency advocates with a formidable barrier.

In her thesis, Alexis Howland (MCP ’13) sketches the possibilities afforded by better energy consumption data. She surveyed efforts across the country to share energy efficiency data. Alexis focuses on incorporating these data into mapping applications—which could lay bare the differences in energy consumption among homes and add valuable information to the housing market. These efforts could be combined to allow no-touch energy assessments that offer actionable suggestions for homeowners who want to improve their energy efficiency.

In a survey of five previous attempts at energy mapping, Alexis notes a common theme: the developer’s inability to access or make public energy consumption data at the household level. This, Alexis explains, is due to privacy concerns that have so far prevented such data from being used to its full potential.

Alexis explores ways of unleashing these data. Several cities—including Boston—have recently passed ordinances that require the disclosure of energy consumption data, and the federal government has offered a framework for voluntary energy data disclosure through the Green Button Initiative. While these efforts must overcome serious privacy concerns, they have the potential to make public vital information about the way people and buildings nationwide use energy. Read more about Alexis’ survey of the opportunities for and barriers to energy mapping projects in her thesis.

How Small Towns Think About Big Gas

Thanks to technological advances in natural gas exploration, many rural American towns are now confronted by a puzzle with which they have little experience: how to regulate gas drilling in their backyards. The reactions of local jurisdictions to natural gas have varied widely, as officials have considered the tradeoff between economic rewards and environmental risks. What explains the disparity in the approaches that local governments take to gas drilling? How do they decide about local policy?

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Marcellus shale gas-drilling site along PA by Nicholas A. Tonelli

Jessie Agatstein (MCP ’13) takes on this question in her thesis, which looks at local responses to natural gas drilling in three communities—Erie, CO, Washington County, ID, and Dryden, NY—all with populations under 20,000. These localities have adopted markedly different approaches to natural gas exploration. Erie has pursued negotiated agreements with specific developers, Washington County has utilized special use provisions to define where and how drilling may occur, and Dryden has banned the practice all together.

Much of this difference, Jessie notes, can be explained by two things. The first is the delegation of regulatory authority over natural gas exploration in many states to local governments, producing a wide array of policy approaches across countless jurisdictions. The second is what Jessie terms “problem diffusion.” It results from differences in how gas issues are viewed on the ground in different geographic contexts. Instead of copying the policies that other nearby jurisdictions have taken, local officials respond mostly to the problems that their neighbors have encountered and formulate policies that are intended to counteract these difficulties.

Jessie also notes the high level of sophistication with which local officials in the communities she studied with have approached natural gas exploration. Contradicting the stereotype of outmatched and incapable small town governments, officials have deftly navigated many complex issues. In some cases they have charted new policy territory. She cites the wealth of public information available online about natural gas impacts and local regulatory policy as strong contributors to the effectiveness of local officials in dealing with natural gas.

What insights can you share about how communities have reacted to natural gas exploration? Post a comment below, or read more in Jessie’s thesis.

Can Sustainable Jobs Programs be Sustained?

Green JobsOne often-cited benefit of a sustainable economy is the creation of a new class of green jobs, but creating these jobs has proven to be difficult. First, there’s no clear consensus on what makes jobs “green.” Second, efforts to encourage green jobs are complicated by the need to satisfy both environmental and economic objectives, which often conflict.

Louise Yeung (MCP ’13) evaluated two green jobs programs—the Oakland Green Jobs Corps and the Baltimore Center for Green Careers—to see how they were handling the tension between these policy priorities. She found that they were taking significantly different approaches.

In Oakland, the Green Jobs Corps takes  a supply-oriented approach to filling jobs by partnering with unions to move green jobs through existing employment pipelines. The Corps trains workers in a broad set of environmental practices, and then inserts them into traditional trade positions. While this approach has given the Corps good access to new positions, the resulting jobs are not always as “green” as might be hoped. Because of union partnerships and other constraints, the program places a high emphasis on employment priorities.

The Baltimore Center for Green Careers, meanwhile, takes a demand-oriented approach. It has encouraged the growth of a new green industry—home energy efficiency contracting. This has led to a somewhat smaller programmatic impact, and the program is dependent on other policies that offer generous incentives for energy efficiency.

The varying tactics that the two programs have adopted—and the pros and cons of each—demonstrate continued uncertainty in how best to fashion green jobs policy. Read more about these programs and the lessons that they offer in Louise’s thesis.

The Problem with Short-Term Thinking: Miami-Dade County’s Experience with Land-Use Management

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In 1993, Miami-Dade County was one of the first jurisdictions in the nation to adopt a plan for climate change. A crucial leg of this plan

was to reduce vehicles miles traveled (VMT) through comprehensive land use management and improved mass transit. Evaluating the plan 15 years later, Haley Peckett (MCP 2009) found that a poorly structured system of political incentives had instead led to a substantial increase in VMT, and set out to examine the root causes of this failure.

Haley attributes much of the blame for poor land-use management with the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners, a group torn across racial and ethnic lines and accountable only to their individual districts and constituencies. Following through on the county’s ambitious land use management plan would require commissioners to “hold the line” against voters and advocate groups unhappy with some negative effects of land use management and transit expansion, such as tax increases and limited availability of developable land for affordable housing.

However, with nobody in the decision-making process empowered to adopt a comprehensive perspective on what is best for the county as a whole, Haley describes how commissioners have time and again compromised the county’s long-term vision for smart growth in the sake of short-term political wins for their constituents. If Miami-Dade is to successfully implement a land-use management plan, she notes, it will have to adopt a longer view on policy outcomes and allow an independent entity with a broader view on the effects of land use to play a serious role in the policy formation process.

 

Read more about the battle over land use policy in Miami-Dade County in Haley’s thesis.

Bringing Power to the People: Community-Scale Energy Efficiency Improvements

5641953722_9267e3147d_bMultifamily building residents—renters in particular—often fall through the cracks of traditional energy efficiency offerings. Building residents rarely have the ability or long-term incentive to pay for energy upgrades in their homes, and building owners have little motivation to reduce energy costs borne by residents. Standard utility energy efficiency programs—which rely mainly on financial incentives to encourage participation—have had little impact in encouraging efficiency.

 

Last spring, a group of DUSP graduate students devised a new model for multifamily energy efficiency in a practicum course led by Professors Harvey Michaels and Larry Susskind. The students proposed a solution that was based in equal parts on the use of non-financial incentives to encourage participation through a engaged city-scale implementer and community-based social marketing techniques, and the better use of building and energy consumption data to identify and target areas for potential efficiency improvements. By orienting program offerings around the social networks of communities and leveraging the energy data sources available to implementers, this model could unlock energy efficiency savings that have previously been off-limits to program administrators.

 

As a result of this effort, NSTAR and the City of Cambridge are working with MIT to scope out a pilot energy efficiency program in Cambridge that takes into account the added complexity of the multifamily sector. Read the group’s report here.

Can We Share Middlesex Fells?

Creative Commons license

Creative Commons license

Located 8 miles from downtown Boston, Middlesex Fells provides a rare natural escape from the hustle of urban life. It is a popular retreat for hikers, dog walkers, and mountain bikers. The multiple uses of the Fells has become a source of conflict and reports of off-trail wandering, unfriendly dogs, and unruly bikers have led to animosity among the park-goers.

In 2010, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) set out to address these conflicts and establish a clear set of rules for the park. Andrea Christenson (MCP ’11) was there to document the process. The DCR organized a public forum to discuss the uses that would and wouldn’t be allowed in the Fells, and quickly found itself the subject of an impressive lobbying effort on the part of groups representing the park’s different users. The hostility among groups made it hard to reach agreement, as hikers and mountain bikers traded barbs and op-eds about the destruction that the other group was causing to the park’s trails. Despite this, the DCR made an admirable effort to craft an agreement that worked for the various stakeholder groups invested in the Fells.

The resulting draft Trail System Plan issued by the DCR tried to accommodate the multiple uses of the park and minimize opportunities for conflict among groups. The plan received a mixed welcome, and intentionally left no group fully satisfied. Hikers and their preservationist allies criticized the plan for failing to protect the park from destructive biking uses. Ultimately, DCR bowed to the political pressure that these groups were able to muster and chose not to implement the plan until a larger and more comprehensive Resource Management Plan could be completed.

Andrea’s in-depth narrative offers a close-up view of the challenges that planners face when they try to reconcile the concerns of multiple stakeholder groups. The title of her thesis fittingly describes what so many planners and constituent groups have found to be the truth: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Read more about the planning process at the Middlesex Fells in Andrea’s Thesis here.

No Perfect Prediction Regarding Climate Change Risk? Plan for It Anyway.

Climate change science is improving, but the relevant predictions are far from ideal. If you are a City Planner in a coastal city, a 60 cm rise in sea level over the next 20 years will present very different problems from a 130 cm rise. But, that range might be the best that science can provide at the moment. How should you proceed?

Melissa Sapuan (MCP ’12) looked at climate adaptation planning in New York City and Rotterdam with this question in mind. She found that one way to handle uncertainty is for cities start with what they do know, and take steps to reduce the vulnerabilities they already face. She also emphasizes the need for flexible risk management strategies that can be adapted over time as projections improve, or conditions change. Melissa notes that stakeholder interests ought to set the agenda for climate adaptation planning. A dynamic exchange among policymakers, the public, and scientists is required. Check out Melissa’s full thesis, “Using uncertain sea level rise projections: adaptation in Rotterdam and New York” and share your thoughts on this topic in the EPP Facebook Group.