No Longer Shocked: Urban Planning in the Time of Climate Change

By Camron Bridgford, AICP
Principal at Cityfi

“We’ve…we’ve already seen 1, 2 subdivisions burn to the ground. We…we don’t want to watch anymore. We shouldn’t have to watch anymore.”

The day before New Year’s Eve had started out ordinarily enough; the second to last day of a thoroughly mediocre year plagued by the continued ups and downs of a nearly two-year-old pandemic. Still, I felt a sense of optimism as I stared down the barrel of 2022. While many things in the world felt off-kilter and discombobulating — including my nearby city of Denver recently experiencing yet another mass shooting — the promise of a New Year, however trite, would allow us to turn a new page and try again. Instead — Coloradans’ spirits were about to be destroyed like the rubble that would soon surround us.

By 7pm, my dinner plans were discarded and I was glued to the edge of my couch, transfixed by the stunned local television reporters doing their best to report on the quickly unfolding, evolving and devastating story of the Colorado Marshall Fire. I’m trained in classical journalism, but it doesn’t take Edward R. Murrow to tell you that normally, reporters are not attempting to hold back sobs during a live shot.

While the fire’s cause remains unconfirmed (originally believed to have begun from downed powerlines, there is now an investigation potentially tying a religious cult to the start of the blaze), what is understood is that Colorado was experiencing the “side effects’’ of weather systems aggravated by climate change: extreme drought and up to 100 mph hurricane-force winds. In short, the weather conditions of December 30th didn’t give firefighters a shot in hell at defending the suburban homes in Louisville and Superior. Flames were described as leaping football field lengths in a matter of moments. Christmas lights on automatic timers came on as dusk settled, and the juxtaposition between the unrelenting blaze and these symbols of peace and good will was almost too much to bear.

And yet, it was impossible to look away. The whole event lasted less than 12 hours (with the majority of damage taking place in only six hours), but in that time, more than 1,000 suburban homes and other structures — including Superior’s historic downtown — burned to the ground.

I recount this not only as a journalist, but also from the lens of being an urban planner. In fact, I am a principal at Cityfi, a nationally-recognized boutique firm that specializes in managing change in our highly interconnected, complex urban environments. The questions I am constantly exploring are — how do you create more resilient and regenerative cities? How can our cities more gracefully manage and anticipate circumstances when change is the only constant?

Despite laboring daily in how cities can best anticipate and guide urban evolution, the Marshall Fire brings one word to mind more than any other — shocked. The entire region was taken off guard that such devastation from the natural elements could occur at such dizzying speed, and in a reasonably dense area, rather than a rural community high in the mountains or on the Eastern plains.

In the short time since the Marshall Fire, what I’ve come to realize is that we — those of us in the city-building business at the least — cannot continue to be shocked by events like this if we want our governments, our communities and our environment to become more proactive and resilient. To act surprised is to stand on the railroad tracks with our eyes closed despite an oncoming train headed unmistakably in our direction.

With this reproach, I am speaking to myself as much as anyone else. As an urban planner, I have regularly been exposed to the data, reports and articles written about climate change. Yet, I have still laughed at the explosion of memes of 2021 telling 2020 to “hold my beer,” as if our challenges are a streak of bad luck that will subside. To place our misfortune on otherworldly forces neglects our own complicity in the way our climate is changing, and lets us off the hook for proactively changing the policies and actions that can alter our course.

My personal coming-to-grips with the consequences of climate change deepened last summer, when Denver’s skies were filled for nearly two months straight with a continuous, hazy smoke from California and Oregon wildfires. I don’t remember seeing the sun more than twice during that period of time, and a thin layer of depression colored my day-to-day experience as I dealt with chronically bloodshot eyes and an inability to run outdoors. A frustrated helplessness and my own lack of personal responsibility, both as an individual and a planner, grew within me — this is not the Colorado that I know and love!

But the truth is, this is my Colorado. It doesn’t matter that I can fondly recall what used to be my state’s habitual “robin’s egg blue skies,” the conspicuous lack of ozone settling at the foothills, or the clear marks in time created by four distinct seasons. It doesn’t matter that I can still remember when Interstate 25 wasn’t gridlocked near downtown around the clock, or when trash didn’t permeate the tops of our “14’ers.”

Rather, dwelling on these memories perpetuates a continued state of helplessness in the face of very real circumstances that require action. Those circumstances are summed up powerfully in the August 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) United Nations report on climate change, prepared by 234 scientists from 66 countries, which concludes that climate change — indisputably human-caused — is a “code red for humanity.” In short, we are already locked into severe and adverse weather events for the next 30 years, where everything from temperatures to wind speeds to hurricanes to droughts will become more extreme and more commonplace. Tangential confirmation of this ground-breaking report is never far away; I only needed to open my email recently to see the news report that the eight hottest years ever recorded occurred in just the last decade.

It probably goes without saying that, by the nature of my work, I am an urbanist at heart. I believe in universal mobility that leverages transit and walkable, bikeable streets; erring on the side of strategic density rather than less; and investing in public spaces that offer all people a right to the city.

But what has become undeniably obvious to me is that, without a heavyweight planning approach to climate change, I’m unclear what else matters or which of these ideals could ever be accomplished. Which begs the question: why haven’t I — and many urban planners I know — given planning for climate change the dire front-and-center attention that it deserves?

So let me return to where I was on the morning of December 30, ready to start a new year with resolutions of change and optimism for what can be accomplished. We in Colorado know that we must act. As an urban planner, I commit to building resiliency into every aspect of planning for cities, just as I use equity as a continuous lens with which to evaluate the impact of every alternative. Furthermore, I hope my profession will engage more with social psychologists and behavioral economists to incent the behaviors necessary for change, and to drive dollars into marketing and communications that better inform our communities about how individual action generates collective consequences. We need to build a common language around what “resilience” means for a city, and develop collective tools and frameworks for how to prioritize resilient actions based on local context and align them with dollars. It is time to admit that pursuing greater “sustainability” is no longer enough, both when designing cities as well as when educating future urban planners. It’s also time to view our private sector technology partners as one actor in this fight, not as a future panacea that will release us from the grips of this crisis without taking ownership for our actions. Irrevocably, climate change must be placed at the centerpiece of our overarching vision, strategies, and measurable actions for a city.

The need for this sea change will last far beyond 2022. But the stakes are too high not to start immediately. Look outside your window, or at the bewildered anchor crying on the news, or the devastating fact that just landed in your inbox. There is no other choice.

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Cityfi

Cityfi advises cities, corporations, foundations and start-ups to help catalyze change in a global, complex urban landscape. Twitter: @teamcityfi