Role-playing addresses reality of changing climate in coastal New England
By BRIDGET MACDONALD/ecoRI News contributor
Residents of the Upper Cape would probably feel right at home in the town of Shoreham. With beautiful beaches and waterfront homes, Shoreham is a popular summer destination for tourists. But it’s also a thriving community with a well-educated workforce, a bustling commercial district and a sizable year-round population.
Shoreham is a great place to live, but for two things: the increasing occurrence of severe storms poses a serious threat to coastal infrastructure, and Shoreham doesn’t exist.
While there’s no getting around the latter, researchers are working to address the first, with help from residents of a real town with similar characteristics.
The fictional town of “Shoreham” was created as a proxy for Barnstable, one of four coastal communities chosen to participate in the New England Climate Adaptation Project (NECAP) — a partnership between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Science Impact Collaborative, the Consensus Building Institute and the National Estuarine Research Reserve System.
All four communities — Cranston, R.I., Wells, Maine, Dover, N.H., and Barnstable — were selected to participate because of their proximity to a National Estuarine Research Reserve. In Barnstable’s case, that’s Waquoit Bay.
Through role-playing games designed to incorporate multiple-stakeholder perspectives on issues related to climate change, NECAP is exploring the potential for at-risk communities to find common ground in the face of a common threat.
“Shoreham has had a couple of freak storms lately,” said Katie Blizzard, a master’s student in city planning at MIT who works as a research assistant on the project. “The townspeople are demanding that the town manager do something.”
In the role-playing game set in Shoreham, the town manager decides to respond to concerns by forming a Coastal Flooding Task Force — that’s where real Barnstable residents come into play. Over the course of eight workshops held between June and December of last year, more than 130 volunteers recruited from the community assumed the identities of Shoreham stakeholders. They grappled with issues such as regulating development within the bounds of 100- and 500-year floodplains.
It’s up to the real residents of Barnstable to decide whether Shoreham’s narrative is a cautionary tale or a call to action.
More than just a mirror image, Shoreham is a kind of crystal ball for Barnstable. The creators of the game used climate data provided by the University of New Hampshire to produce community-scale projections for each of the four New England communities that are participating in the project.
“The idea was to take a look at some specific attitudes about climate change in our community, and start a conversation about climate change based on real information,” said Elizabeth Jenkins, the principle planner for Barnstable’s Growth Management Department.
Jenkins said the scaled-down climate-change projections provided by UNH are an asset, but she noted that the social data is just as important. “We thought it was important to start with education and awareness before even considering regulations,” she said. “I don’t think we had really taken the community’s temperature before doing this game.”
The temperature taking began in 2012. Researchers conducted in-depth interviews with community members to develop a biographical sketch of the town. They conducted a survey to gauge public perception about climate change in advance of running the simulations, and will administer another survey this spring to measure whether attitudes have changed.
By getting the community’s input before and after the workshops, the researchers hope to be able to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of role-playing exercises as a means to engender collaborative risk management in adapting to climate change.
The project’s lead investigator, Lawrence Susskind, who is the Ford professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at MIT, literally wrote the book on the subject — numerous books, in fact. He is the founder of the Consensus Building Institute, and has years of experience in environmental diplomacy, land-claim mediation and multiple-party negotiations.
Although there is ample precedent for the consensus-building approach, success demands time and effort. “You need to identify all of the stakeholders, find facilitators, set up times that work for everyone,” Blizzard said. “There are payoffs in the long run, but there are certainly barriers.”
So can negotiating a fictional conflict of interests generate real empathy?
“It’s always a healthy exercise when we step outside of our normal roles,” said Ed Dewitt, the executive director of the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod. Dewitt participated in one of the workshops, representing a civic association that opposed increasing property taxes in Shoreham.
“I think there probably times when it’s good for me to see the world through the eyes of a taxpayers association,” he said.
Dewitt’s response was a common refrain. “That’s one of the most consistent things we heard,” Blizzard said, noting that at the end of each workshop the organizers solicited feedback through a group debriefing and a survey. A subset of about 20 percent to 30 percent of participants also took part in in-depth follow-up interviews.
She said one of the most powerful effects of this kind of exercise, the thing that most people internalize: “Taking someone else’s experience into account is actually really enjoyable and eye-opening.”
Different viewpoints were built into the game through the scripts written for the fictional members of the Coastal Flooding Task Force, but in order for the NECAP team to draw conclusions about Barnstable, it was important that the participants themselves be representative of the community.
Blizzard said they issued the casting call for the workshops through newspapers and on Facebook, and took advantage of Waquoit Bay’s extensive network. The reserve organized three of the eight workshops, and help spread the word throughout the community. Based on preliminary observations, Blizzard said most participants seemed knowledgeable about climate change and interested in learning more, but skeptics were represented as well. Some people questioned the science behind the simulations.
Jenkins agreed that some participants were doubtful of the evidence supporting climate change, but said she was impressed with everybody’s willingness to engage on issues that transcend ideological lines. “Whether you think it’s attributable to climate change or not,” she said, “flooding is a universal issue in a coastal community.”
Dewitt said the extreme ends of the opinion spectrum were represented in the workshop that he attended, but he worried a key demographic was absent. “The people in the middle? I don’t think they were there as much,” he said.
He also expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the workshops as a means of developing practical solutions for the community to respond to climate change. “It is such a multifaceted issue that it’s probably not going to happen in the course of a workshop,” Dewitt said.
While it can be difficult to grasp the community-level impacts at the scale of a single workshop, Jenkins said just having a public forum in which to unpack issues related to climate change is a step in the right direction. “We wanted people to start talking about climate change, and to start to understand these issues,” she said.
In order for a community to develop practical solutions, everyone has to be on the same page. Toral Patel, another MIT research assistant who is working with the city of Cranston, said giving people a common vocabulary is one of the project’s goals.
“Part of what we want to do is just have a broader dialogue with a lot of stakeholders,” Patel said. “So it’s not just the engineer and the town planner implementing a solution that they think is best, but that might not be best for the business owner down the street.”
NECAP is wrapping up the data collection phase of the project, and will dig into the analysis this year. The data could provide valuable insight for the participating municipalities regarding how to involve multiple stakeholders in planning for climate change, but it’s up to the communities themselves to move forward with the process.
Ultimately, the best advocates might be the participants themselves. “I would hope that someone who didn’t participate in a workshop would recognize that their neighbors who did were willing to acknowledge different points of views,” Blizzard said.