Planners, Meet Science

A dispatch from the Virtual World Town Planning Day Conference, during which experts advocated for strengthening the relationship between scientists and planners to shape planning policy to encourage green house gas mitigation and the adaptation of human settlements to climate change.

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A couple of weeks ago I registered for the 2009 World Town Planning Day Online Conference, with the theme “resilience in a changing climate.” Through the conference I had the opportunity to learn how both developed and developing countries around the world are creating unique planning, scientist and community partnerships to create developments and retrofit structures and spaces to combat and adapt to climate change. Phil Hill, a geologist from Natural Resources Canada, along with other scientists around the world, believes that there is enough evidence to suggest that the climate of our planet is changing and that now is the time to plan for it. During the first session of the World Town Planning Day Online Conference, held in mid-November, Hill spoke to a few dozen attendees about the importance of strengthening the relationship between scientists and planners to shape planning policy to encourage green house gas mitigation and the adaptation of human settlements to climate change.

“Science gives us a range of possible futures, not a prediction,” Hill explained during his presentation. In his virtual presentation, he outlined how climate change models work. There are ranges of assumptions that must be made to create the models, Hill explained, but even in the most optimistic modeling scenarios, where for example humans are able to create carbon-neutral settlements, there are increased global temperatures and sea levels. Hill mentioned that the actual increase in sea levels has been even higher than projected in some models, because the older projections did not take into account what Hill describes as an “elephant in the closet” — the melting ice sheets.

Hill believes that it is time for planners to take over from scientists in advocating climate change policies. Planners, he argued, can play an important role in developing and advocating plans that slow down the effects of green house gases and adapt human settlements to changing climates. Through mitigation, planners can try to limit climate change by promoting efficient land use, low carbon infrastructure and energy strategies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In a second approach, adaptation, planners and policymakers adjust human settlements to weather predicted changes. (A current BBC documentary series entitled Hot Cities highlights how regions around the world have been adapting to climate change.)

Canada has been bringing the science of climate change to planners for a few years now. In 2007, the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP), with support from various other organizations, developed and launched a Climate Change Program. The CIP has also adopted a climate change policy that outlines how Canadian planners can help “human settlements to adapt.” For example, as the capacity for places to adapt will be unevenly distributed between different regions and populations within Canada (and the world), the policy calls for partnerships to be developed. This is the case in some of the Artic communities of Canada.

Planners by nature deal with ambiguity and potential futures, Hill said, but he said they can “deal with uncertainty through risk management.” He urged planners to “use expert judgment to monitor [the impact of these climate initiative plans] over time.” With the help of planners, he said, scientists can improve and reflect on climate projections and continue to educate others on natural and unnatural climate cycles.

The organizations involved in the 2009 World Town Planning Day Conference Online are the American Planning Association’s International Division, the Commonwealth Association of Planners, the Canadian Institute of Planners, the European Council of Spatial Planners, the International Federation for Housing and Planning, the New Zealand Planning Institute, the Planning Institute of Australia, and the Royal Town Planning Institute of the United Kingdom.

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Tags: urban planningbuilt environment

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