Does climate resilience matter for small-town America?

Where are you from? Your parents? Chances are most of you will answer from small or mid-sized town. These communities offer incredible opportunity for climate resilience – and incredible loss if left out of the resilience renaissance led by large cities.

In the U.S, with only roughly 700 cities above 50,000 in population and with two-thirds of Americans residing in these small and mid-sized cities, it begs the question: Does resilience matter to smaller cities?   

For the past four years, I have convened resilience-related events at Climate Week New York. This year, with dozens of small and mid-sized cities rebounding from Hurricane Florence and from the summer’s destructive wildfires, an expert panel at the recently concluded summit offered some answers. (By the way, it’s great progress that while our events used to be the only ones offering resilience programs, about a dozen events explicitly about felt climate risk and resilience dotted this year’s schedule.)

During Monday’s panel session, panelist Patrick Howell, director of resilience initiatives at the Institute for Building Technology and Safety (a client), maintained that based on the Institute’s provision of daily operations and disaster recovery assistance to 130-plus small communities, three reasons explain why resilience matters to smaller cities:

  • Unlike in large cities where significant civil society, nonprofit, and corporate engagement resides, small and mid-sized city governments are on the front lines of disaster resilience. These local governments must provide day-to-day life safety and quality of life and are responsible for the first 72 hours of response after a disaster event erupts.

  • Even more than in large cities, resilience planning and action in these smaller communities are often constrained by lack of resources and capital.

  • Leaving smaller communities out of the resilience movement exacerbates the urban/rural divide.

The other panelists – Franco Montalto, director of the North American Hub for the Urban Climate Change Research Network; Cooper Martin, program director of the National League of Cities’ Sustainable Cities Institute; and William Solecki, director of the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities and lead author of several chapters in the International Panel on Climate Change assessment and the National Climate Assessment – identified four resilience-related essentials smaller cities need:

  1. Actionable risk assessments: Assessments specific to a community to help inform pragmatic and incremental resilience plans – IBTS has found their city partners appreciate a framework and tools for community resilience assessment – they call it “CRAFT”.

  2. Priority solutions: Avenues that supply the larger needs of the community and resilience to future threats. “Building resilience through an understanding of community needs builds relevance and broad-based support,.” explained Montalto.)

  3. Better valuation of projects: Traditional and innovative models to finance and fund the next era of climate resilience, including an emphasis on project revenue generation.

  4. Engagement: Stakeholders beyond the government, such as school Parent Teacher Associations and Chambers of Commerce, are key partners in resilience success.

But what do these smaller communities require that is unlike their larger counterparts? The answer is nuanced, yet  a few key elements are evident:

1.    A local government resilience intrapreneur: Someone within the government who surfaces resilience themes and uses political drivers to draw interest to resilience from other government quarters. Just one official in a small city government – whether a civil servant, mayor, city council member or a utility leader – can trigger resilience engagement. NLC’s Leadership in Community Resilience possesses a dozen examples of nascent mid-sized city resilience inspired by intrapreneurs in smaller communities such as Kingston, N.Y.; Durango, Colo.; Annapolis, Md.; Bozeman, Mont.; and San Leandro, Calif. Often, noted Montalto, these leaders are town engineers or public works and water and drainage utility officials.

2.    Coordination across regions: With limited resources and significant interoperability between jurisdictions covering first responders, water treatment and other utility services to employers and schools, some smaller cities rely heavily on metro area and cooperative regional councils to magnify and leverage resources. This insight reflects regional collaboration that IBTS supports in and around Guymon, Okla.; Bossier City, La.;  Norristown, Pa.; and Hudson Valley, N.Y., as well as Solecki’s work with the Consortium for Climate Risk in the Urban Northeast.

3.    Community loyalty leverage: An area for significant opportunity cited by both Montalto and Solecki involves looking beyond government to resilience stakeholders in small and mid-sized cities who are loyal and deeply committed to their communities and excellent stakeholders for bringing resilience forward. Their help will enhance the adaptation solution set since myriad knowledge sources – indigenous, local, and science-based – exist and are needed to build resilience’s brain trust and action bank.  

4.    Enhanced interoperability of systems: In smaller communities with fewer staff, civil servants may have responsibilities across several services and systems, such as both water treatment and potable water service delivery. Martin noted that, by law, mayors are in charge of water service delivery in their communities and Howell remarked that “Smaller cities have agency over the trajectory of their development.” While disaster-driven cascading failures affect cities of any size, leaders in smaller cities responsible for multiple systems but potentially more resource-constrained may actually be better able to enhance adaptability across systems.

Also, the experts explained that several best practices in smaller cities mirror those of larger cities, including:

•      Don’t miss opportunities for multifunctional infrastructure. Ask resilience questions of capital projects early in the concept and design phases and throughout procurement through operation.

•      Aim to create scale and complementarity, asking if decentralized initiatives are up to the major challenges ahead.

•      Seek to integrate risk management, city development and greenhouse gas mitigation to create truly climate resilient development pathways for those, Solecki points out, provides a reminder of the power of transformation in any setting.

So, remember where you’re from, and take that heartfelt affection and consider reaching out to your hometown with offers to support its resilience efforts.

As I write this, I’m off to Boulder, Colo., my hometown and home to climate change-induced wildfires and flash floods as well as sophisticated adaptation and resilience strategies and leaders from whom I hope to learn more lessons on adaptation and resilience approach.