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City planning for a changing climate

Ecologist developing new tool to aid cities and towns in land-use decisions 

August 12, 2019

In a new project funded by the Commonwealth, Timothy Randhirenvironmental conservation is developing a planning tool to support and improve community and agency decisions in the Connecticut River watershed. Randhir is developing a new decision tool for cities, towns, farms and landowners to help assess climate impacts on urban and rural areas that include storm water flooding, drought, disrupted water supply, heat waves, soil erosion and loss, groundwater depletion, soil deterioration, and variable rainfall and temperature patterns

It will provide a broad look at possible future effects of climate change on water resources and other ecosystem services like soil health, and the “heat island” effect. The work is supported by an 18-month, $82,000 grant from the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation; Randhir hopes to deliver a prototype of the decision tool in the fall. 

He says, “One thing we want to help people identify is, ‘What is the common good in your project?’ Commonwealth planners and I want this benefit to be valued more highly now than it has been in the past. There is a need for developing scientific information on landscapes that can help in land use and water use decisions.” 

Randhir explains, for example, that “developers and towns plan things all the time with limited information and thought to how many impervious surfaces they’re adding, with no vegetation, and they get approved. I’m hoping that our tool will help more planning commissions that are considering developments to think about such impacts on water resources. We want to give them new facts and a new perspective, to think twice about the impact now and in the future.” 

In order to adapt to climate change predicted in the future, it will be useful to look beyond the immediate project area and beyond the project time, because cities and development have large impacts on natural systems,” he adds. His approach will bring a new dimension to such problems, recognizing that effects on agriculture and urban water resources are broader and more long-term than allowed in the past, he notes. It will evaluate short- and long-term benefits with and without climate change. 

Randhir says his decision-support tool will be easy to use and helpful to those weighing benefits and costs of land-use decisions. Among other tasks, he plans to identify ecosystem services – the benefits society gets from a well-functioning ecosystem – and to map water flows in the landscape. 

Randhir adds, “Now we’re seeing the results of the loss of riparian systems 100 years ago when every factory was built next to the river or the pond. Mitigation is great, but we also need to adapt to future climate change because that train has left the station. Let’s try to pay more attention to ecosystem services, to protect what we have and restore what has been lost when development didn’t pay attention to these things in the past. 

The water resource ecologist will use two sample locations, Springfield and Pittsfield – both part of the state’s Gateway Cities program – to test, calibrate and validate a new online tool that eventually will cover the entire Commonwealth, he says. These tests should help in fine-tuning the tool and evaluating where to deploy it first. 

For example, he adds, “Some people see urban trees as a nuisance and a potential hazard to their structures, while others recognize their temperature-reducing shade value that also saves energy. Our model tries to build in more than just the traditional energy-saving benefits. We want people to see that money spent on trimming and taking care of urban shade trees is more beneficial than it looks just standing on its own.” 

The tool also addresses the role of urban forest trees and shrubs mitigate storm water and how protect local water supplies, he notes. Also, of interest is whether urban trees can bring regional benefits to ecosystem services and soften the urban “heat island” effect. The tool will also address how farms gain benefits from cover crops to improve soil health, which supports a healthy environment and resilience to climate change. 

This study also proposes to develop a baseline assessment of the landscape conditions at current conditions. A baseline is critical to evaluate changes in benefits/ costs under two alternative scenarios to be assessed, he says. They are 2050 and 2100, mid- and late-century dates. For each, projected temperature and precipitation will be calculated as differences from the 2010 baseline. 

 

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