As the effects of climate change are already setting in, the city of Charlottesville is working to identify and mitigate the effects the crisis will have locally.
As part of the city’s Climate Vulnerability Assessment Process, community members can fill out a survey about their own experiences and how the climate may affect their day-to-day lives.
“The climate is changing. We are already starting to experience the effects of it. And we’re going to be experiencing more of those over time and so rather than just sitting idly by, we focus on how do we start to adapt to this changing climate so that the impacts that we experience as a community are less severe than they otherwise would be if we were just not aware of them or not prepared,” said Susan Elliott, the the city’s Climate Protection Program Manager.
The city is partnering with ICLEI—Local Governments for Sustainability, an international organization that helps cities develop sustainable urban development. The process is intended to inform the city’s developing Climate Action Plan. Specifically, this process is intended to identify what effects climate change will have locally, what areas and populations will be most affected and how the effects can be mitigated. Elliott said this type of planning works in parallel to climate change mitigation strategies, such as greenhouse gas emissions reduction.
“[The assessment] looks at all the different projection models for climate hazards, and then identifies which ones are going to be the most severely experienced here in Virginia and in the Charlottesville area. It then takes that information and looks at the different community systems that we have, where are we most vulnerable to those climate impacts?” Elliott said.
Elliott said the three biggest climate change impacts that the Charlottesville area is susceptible to are extreme heat, increasing extensive precipitation and flooding and changing seasonal patterns.
On Oct. 25, Elliott and her team talked to roughly 20 city leaders and staff members and 20 community members about their personal experiences.
“This current step in the overall assessment process is then starting to look at and hearing from the community. Of our different community systems, what are the ones that are most vulnerable to those changing climate effects? And then the next step will be digging in deeper on those and saying … what specifically are people concerned about? What are the experiences they’ve had with these types of events so far? And then looking at the projections and how that’s going to change?” Elliott said.
After assessing local vulnerabilities, the next stage is looking at solutions and strategies.
Equity ties right in to this planning. Floods or extreme heat could make public transportation less accessible for the people who rely on it most, for example, Elliott said. She emphasized the importance of getting a wide array of community feedback through the survey and future forums especially for this reason.
“We’re also open to suggestions of what are better channels for doing that outreach and to be able to engage marginalized portions of the population,” Elliot said. “There’s definitely opportunity for much more granular input and we would very much welcome getting that from marginalized populations.”
Susan Kruse, the Executive Director of the Community Climate Collaborative, is very familiar with these discussions.
“Community issues are climate issues. We are making decisions every day about land use, about transportation, about housing, food, all of these things relate to climate,” Kruse said. “I’m glad to see that this process is underway, because I feel like right now we’re making a lot of these decisions that will have an impact on our ability to reach [climate] goals.”
The Charlottesville-based climate action organization, also known as C3, released a local report on transit and climate change in September. The report is the result of a year-long analysis of community needs around transit and how they relate to the community’s climate goals. The report recommends that the city of Charlottesville, Albemarle County and Charlottesville Area Transit (CAT) take action to make public transit more equitable so people will be encouraged to use it to ultimately help reduce emissions.
Kruse said she is glad that the city is working on an assessment of these issues, but she also wants to see more urgency from the city in developing the climate action plan, which she says should already have been in place.
“Without a plan, without giving direction to other departments within the city who may not have climate top of mind when they’re making their decisions … we’re making decisions right now that will impact our ability to reach our climate goals. And I’m concerned that we don’t have this plan in place already and that some of these decisions we’re making might hinder our ability to get where we need to go,” she said.
Inequity and the climate
The city’s Climate Action Planning department worked on collecting heat map data this summer. Charlottesville is participating in the 2021 NIHHIS-CAPA Urban Heat Island Mapping Campaign, a nationwide citizen-science based effort to collect local data on temperatures and humidity levels across the city. How urban environments and neighborhoods are built affects the amount of heat absorbed and retained, which can increase or reduce the impact of extreme heat events. Increases in extreme heat are one of the top projected impacts Charlottesville will experience from climate change.
During the day and night, rural and urban areas are subject to the same sun exposure, yet they have different temperatures. This happens because the composition and geometry of these two areas are drastically different. An urban area is mostly made up of asphalt and buildings, among other opaque materials; in contrast, a rural area is going to have more green areas and typically fewer vertical structures. In an urban area, there is the added factor of this phenomenon called an urban surface heat island as well as an urban atmosphere heat island.
“At night, it’s harder for those areas [of heat islands] to go down [in temperature] because they already retain so much heat and the materials themselves, like the concrete and asphalt, are still releasing that heat back out at night,” Elliott said.
Charlottesville’s 2021 heat data collection was successfully completed on Aug. 24. The data has been submitted to CAPA Strategies for processing, and Elliott said the data is expected back sometime in the next couple of weeks.
“My hope is that we will get the fully processed data on the heat islands delivered over early enough in the process that people will be able to use that data to actually look around geographically within Charlottesville and see how different areas are hotter and cooler, and then be able to use that as a piece of context whether thinking about vulnerability first,” Elliott said.
Heat islands are often connected with the legacy of racial redlining. Communities that experience more extreme heat are often communities that are historically marginalized. Heavily populated urban areas often have less shade and vegetation, especially if they don’t have a lot of funding. This can put poorer populations at a disadvantage.
“That’s one of those perpetual things that gets inherited [by marginalized communities] … a single family property will have a lot more space for trees and a lawn and vegetation type things,” Elliott said.
She said not every property is one size fits all and depending on funding and resources, larger housing complexes could have more opportunities for vegetation growth and shade than smaller lots.
“I think that’s going to be an important piece of the puzzle is to understand that there isn’t one response that’s going to fit for every property in the city. We really do need to get specific in terms of what are the opportunities for different types of development around the city?” Elliott said.
Kruse also said that inequity is an important factor to consider when addressing local climate vulnerabilities.
“Some members of our communities are going to be more impacted,” she said.
C3 published an energy inequity report in 2020 looking at which neighborhoods and residents are paying disproportionately high energy costs and can’t afford their energy bills.
“Rising energy costs are a significant climate vulnerability that our community will experience. Affordable housing is already a huge challenge,” Kruse said.
Kruse said it’s important to acknowledge that lower income community members will face a greater burden when it comes to climate change. For example, the report found that about 50% of households in the 10th and Page neighborhood have a high energy burden, paying 10% of their income or more toward energy costs.
“With rising temperatures, people are not going to be able to mitigate the heat and they’re going to turn their AC off because they can’t afford to run it. So they’re going to be at greater health risk, or they’re going to be paying disproportionately high bills, which means other things in their life like high quality food, doctor’s visits, all those things are going to get set aside,” Kruse said.
“The climate is going to be asking a lot of our lower income households in our community, and our city really needs a plan. And we’re hopeful that the plans we put in place that address climate vulnerabilities also help to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.
Kruse said this is an important opportunity to look at major equity issues like affordable housing and accessible transit through a climate lens.
“If we can get more households with better efficiency and insulation, if we can get solar [power] on lower income households, if we can improve our transit system, those are things which both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address the vulnerabilities that we have in our community,” she said.
The Climate Action Planning department will present its assessment to City Council and city staff in April to help inform the Climate Action Plan.
Elliott said she encourages community members to sign up on the city website for climate news flashes and participate in the upcoming surveys and forums. The survey and more information can be found at charlottesville.gov/climateplan.
“The only way we can really understand that variation and granularity within our community is if we’re hearing from people what do these changes mean to them in their lives. So we really do hope that people do want to be involved and share their concerns, their hopes, their interests, all that are around this topic,” Elliott said.