Alex Felson is not interested in debating the politics of climate change or global warming. As an assistant professor at Yale University since 2009 and director of the school’s Urban Ecology and Design Laboratory (UEDLAB), he’s among the overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists who agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities. Instead, Felson is focused on dealing with the indisputable impacts that more frequent and extreme weather events and rising sea levels are having on towns along Coastal Connecticut.
“It’s clear that storms are increasing and that there is real risk related to them. You can’t deny billions of dollars in loss,” says Felson, referring to the devastation wrought by superstorms Irene and Sandy. While too many residents and local politicians haggle over how to prepare for and react to the next climate calamity, Felson is playing a prominent role in a long-term, comprehensive plan to redesign the ecosystems and infrastructure of shoreline communities as a way to mitigate destruction and the economic consequences.
UEDLAB has partnered with The Nature Conservancy on what they call the coastal resilience plan, which addresses not only the environmental repercussions of climate change —in particular salt marsh destruction and sea level rise—but also the related financial implications to Connecticut homeowners, businesses, and governments across Long Island Sound. Guilford is the first town to formally study the idea, and the town has prepared its own Community Coastal Resilience Plan that was presented to the public last summer. Actual implementation of the report’s recommendations is a work in progress, yet its goals remain intact.
“Initially, the town will be focusing on infrastructure such as roads, water supply, and wastewater; coastal real estate and buildings such as homes and businesses; and shoreline protection methods such as hard structures and living shoreline,” the report’s executive summary reads. “The town also plans to increase its ability to monitor sea level rise and storm damage over time, which will help inform future updates to this plan.”
A basic element of coastal resilience planning is the concept of “zones of shared risk.” This refers to climate-related risks shared within specific geographic areas—including to homes, schools, commercial buildings, roads, and utilities—though recognizing that residents and businesses in those areas have differing perspectives and priorities in dealing with risks. Beyond agreeing on how to mitigate risks—from raising low-lying roads and strengthening seawalls to engineering alternative egresses and erecting berms—how to pay for such public projects is a major concern. Of course, this has a direct bearing on a wide swath of individual homeowners as far as insurance, taxes, and real estate values.
Felson contends that public forums and debates on these practical concerns are essential in turning plans into action. “People need to work through how to solve their targeted issues collectively, and not try to take on too many multifaceted concerns,” he states.
He hopes that Guilford’s approach becomes a model for other towns. “It introduces ideas that may seem somewhat radical, but also an overall strategy,” he says. “It’s about thinking across boundaries, not being beholden to property lines, and about larger needs of towns and their shared risks.
“Towns that recognize this and are proactive are more likely to get federal funding to retrofit in a way that convinces future homebuyers that there’s less risk,” Felson adds. “If you don’t adapt and the town next door does, they’re more likely to attract home buyers. Being conservative is not the best approach for climate change scenarios.”