Climate change has been part of our public discourse for decades. As global temperatures rise, the resulting change in climate and weather patterns and long-term implications for the stability of our environment continues to be called into question.
Yet for just as long, climate change for many in the United States has been an issue that is large and abstract — one with implications that have little impact on our current lives.
As the climate crisis becomes increasingly urgent, the effect on human life, from intense storms to flooding to even personal health, have become much more difficult to ignore.
“When most people think about climate change, at least until very recently, it’s been this out there, looming kind of problem that needs to be addressed somewhere in the future,” says Kelly Fleming, Neighborhood Design Center Program Director of Environmental Resilience and Landscape Design.
She continues: “People thought about it on a global scale, but it didn’t seem to have any real-time effects on everyday life. However, now we are seeing the changes that are happening because of rising climate temperatures.”
Kelly shares her insight into some of the human factors driving climate change, the challenges this crisis presents, and steps that can be taken on a local and individual level to help mitigate the impact on our communities:
“Rising temperatures create more energy in the atmosphere,” says Kelly. “With more energy revolving around typical rain storms than we had before, the effects of climate change are more visible through things like more intense storms or flash flooding.”
When discussing important climate change indicators that pose a threat to our society, she references an excerpt from the Climate Action Plan drafted by the Prince George’s County Climate Action Commission in January: “In the past five years alone, the region has experienced unprecedented flooding, prolonged periods of extreme heat, record-breaking snow days, and a series of severe storms. Extreme weather events like these are expected to become more frequent and more severe as the climate crisis accelerates.”
This means that issues like rising waters, often discussed in reference to polar ice caps, or more regionally, their impact on small islands in the Chesapeake Bay, are, in reality, affecting local communities from flooding in businesses to water collecting in our basements. Flooding is a natural phenomenon, however, urbanization and development and “land use patterns that convert forest and agricultural land to the built environment” (Climate Action Plan) in conjunction with the more intense storms brought about by climate change have and will continue to exacerbate flooding issues.
“We have too much impervious area, too many roadways and not enough open green spaces, so that creates issues like stormwater,” says Kelly. “Stormwater pollution has been the issue over the past few years with the EPA requiring municipalities to report and to reduce their pollutants. But now, the actual volume of the water is causing more hazardous conditions through flooding.”
Kelly points to how these patterns and the resulting issues became highly visible in Maryland when Ellicott City suffered from devastating flash floods in both 2016 and 2018. The flooding claimed multiple lives and caused millions of dollars worth of damage, shuttering many businesses in the historic town. Once viewed as something that would only happen once in 1,000 years, this historic flooding occurred twice within two years.
The effects reach beyond the environmental impact of changing weather patterns, extreme temperatures and flooding to also impact human health and well-being. Higher temperatures exacerbate respiratory illnesses, and increase the spread of other illnesses like lyme disease and the West Nile Virus. And while the effects of climate change have a broad impact, low-to-moderate income communities, which tend to have more impervious surfaces and more outdated infrastructure, tend to be at an even higher risk.
The magnitude of the climate change crisis is so large that it can cause a sense of helplessness, motivating many people to disengage from the effort all together. The issue is much larger than any individual, community, or municipality. The solution is complex and nuanced, and will require the urgent action of global leaders and industries to turn the tide.
Yet local communities are not entirely powerless in creating change. Just as the effects of climate change can be felt at the local level, efforts to combat the impact of climate change can be made at the local level also.
“Electric cars, reducing our carbon footprint, reducing emissions, these are all the big things that people think about when they talk about climate change,” Kelly says, “...there are a lot of things at the local level that you can do that have cumulative results.”
Much of what can be done at the local level involves prioritizing nature-based solutions. Also known as green infrastructure, nature-based solutions are design and planning practices that protect, sustainably manage and restore ecosystems by introducing natural processes into the built environment.
These interventions can help combat many of the effects of climate change, including reducing flood risks, reducing urban heat, and restoring water quality. Green infrastructure also helps take some of the burden off of overtaxed “gray infrastructure,” which includes man-made elements like pipes and sewer drains, that we have traditionally relied on.
To create these results, she outlines ways that local government, communities and individuals can begin to create change.
With the aid of our landscape plan, we helped Fort Washington Forest Elementary increase their tree canopy.
One of the most effective nature-based solutions to help curb the effects of climate change on the local level is by increasing and properly managing the urban tree canopy.
“We’re really talking about just trees,” Kelly says, “installing and planting more trees in your neighborhood.”
Trees help reduce the ambient temperature of the air around homes in a community. Expanding the tree canopy and preserving the tree canopy that already exists can help mitigate the effects of rising temperatures. This is particularly important in reducing urban heat islands in many disinvested areas which tend to have more impervious surfaces while also having less natural shade.
Trees also help with stormwater management. Their leaves provide surface area to reduce the amount of rain water reaching the ground while their roots soak up water from the soil. This helps curb the amount of stormwater which causes flooding due to too much impervious area.
Local government can support the expansion of the tree canopy by making necessary updates “to municipal codes and ordinances to enhance regulatory capacity.” By also being proactive in identifying areas with more impervious surfaces and less tree canopy, and working with communities to install and preserve more trees in those areas, this nature based solution can help balance some of the inequities in urban areas exacerbated by climate change.
Soils remove about 25 percent of the world’s fossil fuel emissions each year (Columbia Climate School, Can Soil Help Combat Climate Change). Due to agricultural practices that disturb soil, such as converting land to cropland, the Earth’s soils have lost much of the carbon they once held, increasing the manmade greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
Much of the work that needs to be put in place to employ better practices and improve the world’s soil must be done on a global scale. However, locally, improvements to soil can help mitigate climate change’s impact most effectively through stormwater management.
One method of improving the soil around homes and businesses is by understanding that “the landscape is not just for decoration,” Kelly says. “I don’t think communities have a good grip yet on how important the landscape is for our very existence.”
Communities can take one step in the direction of improving the soil and effectiveness of their landscape by adjusting what is planted around their homes and businesses. “Lawns are nearly as impervious during a heavy rainstorm as a sidewalk,” says Kelly. Traditional lawns don’t soak up much water because they don’t have deep roots. Replacing lawns by putting in compost and planting native plants and shrubs helps reduce the amount of water in the soil because, unlike a lawn, the roots of the shrubs and plants pull water from the soil, reducing the amount of stormwater and the risk for a flood.
Using native plants also provides conservation benefits by feeding and providing habitats for native wildlife, unlike non-native plants that do not provide the same value to the wildlife in your area.
Due to its low-lying location near the Anacostia River, the North Brentwood neighborhood has experienced decades of flooding. The Neighborhood Design Center is proud of our work on the Windom Road Green Street, which addresses these issues through new native plantings, better stormwater drainage, and permeable concrete.
Impervious surfaces, like roadways and sidewalks, are all elements of the built environment that don’t allow water to infiltrate through the ground’s layers down to the groundwater. Where there are more impervious surfaces, more stormwater is going directly into storm drains instead of going back into the groundwater.
More development upstream means more impervious surfaces, which creates a greater capacity of water that flows downstream, causing flooding. “When you think about capacity, you have to think about the whole watershed. You have to take into consideration development-wise what’s going on upstream.”
Many disinvested areas are disproportionately affected by urban heat islands, which are geographic areas that experience higher than average temperatures due, in part, to a high concentration of paved surfaces. These areas are particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures caused by climate change.
Municipalities need to be proactive in identifying these areas to implement strategies that increase community resilience against these effects. In addition to tree planting, adding shading structures and cool roofs and pavements are some ways to address these issues locally.
“Resilience hubs” are also a community-based way to support residents in vulnerable neighborhoods. These locations supplement traditional emergency facilities by providing heating and cooling centers, places to access electricity, refrigeration and information during extreme weather emergencies.
Climate change is a broad issue that has a wide range of impacts. Local and state governments are limited in their jurisdiction and may not be able to drive much of the action that is needed to be taken on climate change issues.
True progress will require holding global leaders to task. Yet local government must still play a role in building and maintaining a collaborative relationship with communities to become more adaptive and resilient. It’s important to hold them accountable.
The Maryland General Assembly recognized the need to address urban flooding with the passing of Senate Bill 227 SB227. The Bill tasks the Maryland Department of the Environment (Department) with developing plans to evaluate current flooding risks and update regulations to improve urban stormwater flood management.
The Department released a report “Advancing Stormwater Resiliency in Maryland,” that provides a roadmap towards modernizing stormwater management in Maryland.
Kelly sums up: “The community can advocate for environmental protection and support from local government but meaningful change happens one person at a time.”
Well-designed public landscapes and gardens provide meaningful community spaces, mental restoration, and room for reflection and healing. We work across scales and specialize in participatory planning, because great designs are informed by and for the community.
The Architecture and Community Planning team at the Neighborhood Design Center specializes in participatory architectural design, place-based arts initiatives, and planning. Our team of architects, designers, planners, and engagement specialists hold strong commitments to design excellence, social justice, and responsive plans that prioritize community power and increased local self-determination.