Hey, Business! Cities Are Planning for Climate Change While the Feds Fiddle

Last Updated May 24, 2011 3:31 PM EDT

Some cities -- tired of waiting for Congress to decide whether global warming is real -- are busy preparing for the coming storm with a slew of projects designed to lessen the effects of climate change. Investors and entrepreneurs, listen up: These cities are willing to spend money now in hopes of preventing the steep economic costs of tomorrow's droughts and floods.

That doesn't mean it'll be easy, or any less controversial. And in some regions, it may mean traditional businesses like builders may lose out to environmental consultant firms and shoreline restoration companies.

Still, the movement to adapt cities to climate change is underway. And in almost every case, it's being driven by activist mayors and city councils. That's spurred a change within the investment community over the past year, according to Deutsche Bank. Investors are now more willing to pour money into state and local projects than those driven by federal policy.

Heat waves in the Windy City
Who knew former Mayor Richard Daley was so tuned into climate change? Indeed, the Second City's leader -- inspired by the Kyoto international treaty for reducing carbon emissions -- began investigating how Chicago would be effected by climate change back in 2006, according to a special report from the NYT. The forecasts shocked city planners into action. Scientists told planners that based on current trends the city will feel more like the Deep South than the upper Midwest by the end of the century.

Since then Chicago has aggressively ramped up its climate-change coping efforts. A six-point intersection on the city's south side is a prototype for future climate resilient projects. Among the features illustrated in this NYT graphic: sidewalks widened to include landscaped areas filled with drought-resistant plants that look nice while sopping up excess water; and permeable pavers for new bike lanes and parking spaces that allow water to absorb.

So far, those lucky enough to land Chicago's big road construction, landscape and infrastructure projects are the prime beneficiaries. But the private sector, aware that climate change will squeeze existing energy resources, have started to jump in as well. One not-so-small example: Chicago's Willis Tower -- formally the Sears Tower -- is installing a pilot solar electric glass project with photovoltaic glass developed by Pythagoras Solar.

On the waterfront: Battle lines drawn in the Bay Area

The threat of rising sea levels caused by climate change has prompted coastal cities like San Francisco to take action. Or at least try to.

The San Francisco Bay Area Conservation and Development Commission, the agency charged with developing a climate-change strategy, has run into a powerful and well-funded road block. The commission has proposed banning development in certain waterfront areas to prevent flooding and allow shorelines to build up natural barriers as seas rise. Enter angry builders, real-estate agents and developers, all folks who worry more about the lost economic opportunities of today than the climate-change costs of tomorrow.

At least one group is convinced that rising sea levels -- and total mayhem -- are just right around the corner. The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association issued a report this month urging officials in the region to take immediate steps to plan for volatile weather, scarcer sources of freshwater and increasing temps. The report is a dramatic read and even suggests that transit authorities abandon Highway 37 if the sea rises to projected levels. Still, it's unlikely the report will bust through the political gridlock.

It could, however, give the business community pause. Established companies probably won't pick up stakes tomorrow and head inland. But it might discourage new companies from setting up shop along the waterfront and cause them to head for the hills instead.

The Big, Steamy Apple
Imagine New York with more blackouts and frequent heat waves. A city where sewage-flooded basement apartments become a recurring theme, and in which severe droughts force officials to pass Draconian water-saving laws. Now imagine one million more people living in New York by 2030. This time Snake Plissken won't come to the rescue.

But never fear, New York has a plan to adapt to climate change. The city is just getting started and it will likely take years to march through the bureaucratic labyrinth. Still, Mayor Bloomberg has made it a priority and is attacking the problem with two approaches: prepare for the worst, and create a more sustainable community in the meantime. So while the city establishes a climate-change monitoring program and works to ensure toilets and sinks can operate during blackouts, it's also planting thousands of trees and coating rooftops with a reflective surface to help keep buildings cool and save energy.

Chula Vista
San Diego County's second-largest city has been trying to do its part to prevent climate change since the 1990s. These days, Chula Vista is focused is on how the city will adapt to climate change. By 2050, annual average temps in the San Diego area are expected to increase 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Urban areas will be even hotter

The city agreed this month to expand the city's urban forests, use cool paving materials that store less heat for all municipal projects and private parking lots over a specific size; change building codes to promote gray water use; and give builders incentives to install Energy Star cool roof technology into new residential developments.

The newly converted
The country's biggest cities aren't the only governments to embrace climate-resilient design. Places as far flung as Homer, Alaska are making preparations for climate change. Even conservative communities -- thanks to the threat of higher premiums from insurance companies -- are at least thinking about how to adapt to climate change.

And one organization, the ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, has kicked off a climate resilient communities program. Its inaugural members include: Arizona cities Tucson and Flagstaff; Miami-Dade and Lee counties in Florida, Grand Rapids, Mich., as well as Boston and Cambridge, Mass. Once again, road construction and landscaping companies will benefit from city-funded projects. It could also be a boon to a variety of small businesses including energy retrofitters, a burgeoning industry that makes buildings more efficient.

Photo from Flickr user mjn9, CC 2.0

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  • Kirsten Korosec

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