Experts Give Providence Decent Marks for Climate-Change Planning

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The city is in on the right track regarding climate-change preparedness, according to a recent review.

A three-day assessment, including input from residents, by five sustainability planners from across the country looked at how the city will endure higher heat, more frequent and severe weather, and increased flooding. A report of the assessment done through the city’s Office of Sustainability is expected in a few weeks.

“The good news is you’re really in good shape,” said Wayne Feiden, the director of sustainability and planning for Northampton, Mass. “You are still in better shape than many coastal communities in the country.”

Central to the positive review are the location of recreation centers, schools and libraries that have the potential to serve as emergency shelters, communication centers, safe zones for children, and hubs for community learning and interaction. They can offer an escape from the heat-island effect with gardens and extensive tree shading, and provide emergency water.

A proposed green corridor connected by bicycle and pedestrian paths would link nine of these existing community centers across the city. Landscape architect Richard Roark called it a “connective trail that would be a spine that people would recognize as not only something that would tell you about the everyday nature of Providence but would also be this link that people would recognize when there is trouble.”

Tracy Morgenstern, of Seattle’s office of sustainability, said the most vulnerable are often overlooked when it comes to climate-change planning. The inability to afford an air conditioner or living in a home with inadequate insulation are concerns. Low-income and communities of color have higher asthma rates and have a greater exposure to lead poisoning. She said climate change is going exacerbate these pre-existing conditions. She also noted that undocumented residents and those unsure of their citizenship status are often uncomfortable participating in efforts to make improvements.

“Racism is so imbedded in our social system that in our communities some folks live with different infrastructure conditions and different amenities in their neighborhoods,” Morgenstern said. “So what we see here is that not everyone is equally affected by climate change.”

She praised groups such as the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, Groundwork Providence and the Providence Asthma Project for making progress on social-justice issues.

Morgenstern recommended improving social cohesion and planning within neighborhoods through festivals and block parties, and building small parks and rain gardens.

The Port of Providence is considered vulnerable to flooding and storms, and poses a threat to South Providence and the city’s hospital district, according to the reviewers. Bike travel, aging infrastructure and disconnected neighborhoods also need improvement, they said.

“You have a strong arterial system for highways, but it’s not strong for people,” said Brian Swett of the international engineering firm Arup.

Curt Spalding, head of the New England office of the Environmental Protection Agency, said the region has instilled sustainability in all of its operations and planning. He said plans are moving forward to better avoid flooding disasters.

“What we saw in South Carolina or what we saw in Texas will eventually happen in New England,” Spalding said. “When it does, places like Boston and Providence will be severely challenged from inland flooding.”

One solution being considered in the Boston area is to open up streams and rivers hidden beneath streets and infrastructure.

Planning can be done incrementally or with large-scale initiatives, Feiden said. Climate change requires addressing the slow changes and severe weather events.