A Local Response to Climate Change

People love talking about climate change. But climate action, that's a whole different ballgame. Sure, there are various organizations within each community working to make a difference in some area of environmental sustainability: Community gardens and non-motorized transportation efforts are all the rage. Ypsilanti City Planner Teresa Gillotti has witnessed such actions within her own community. 
"We have Growing Hope, a non-profit that does a lot with urban agriculture, the Huron River Watershed Council, there is a whole movement called the Transition Town movement," says Gillotti. "We have Bike Ypsi. We just have a lot of really great efforts going on, and we were like, ‘What does it look like when it's banded all together?'" 
As it turns out, it looks like a climate action plan. And it's not all that easy to organize. It takes a lot of manpower, resources and time to create a comprehensive plan including  sustainability efforts that are already underway in a city; how much progress they'd made, what their goals are and what actions need additional attention. 
The long and short of it is, small cities don't typically have the capacity to get climate action plan done. Not without help, anyway. That's where the Michigan Suburbs Alliance came in.
"The project was prompted by a notice from DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) in 2010," says Programs Director for the Michigan Suburbs Alliance Richard Murphy. "They have pollution prevention grants every year, and one year it was specifically for climate action planning."
The Michigan Suburbs Alliance was already active in connecting with a number of cities on regional efforts, such as the BetterBuilidngs of Michigan program. The DEQ grant provided an opportunity for the organization to connect those cities in a new way. 
"Many of the cities who are doing this are Chicago or Denver," says Murphy. "A city of 50,000 people doesn't have the same resources. We decided we would coordinate applications, and in addition to the [resulting] local climate action plans, we would put together the action plans for other smaller cities."
Though not all cities decided to take advantage of the grant, Ypsilanti, Southgate and Hazel Park saw an opportunity worth taking. 
"We've done a lot internally in our municipal complex to be as energy efficient as we could," says Southgate Mayor Joseph G. Kuspa. "When we had the opportunity to offer the benefit to our community, we jumped at the chance."
"Offering" it to their community is the key word. Because real climate change action takes community action as much as municipal action, it's not something the cities could pull off internally. It seems climate action plans take what citizens do best: voluntary social responsibility action and combine that with what municipalities do best: organize people and keep track of things. 
"It's a volunteer program," says Kuspa. "The more buy-in you have from the community, the better it's going to be." 
After receiving the grants coordinated by the Suburbs Alliance, each of the three communities began a yearlong process of research, study, public forums and evaluations. They were tasked with learning about their city's current carbon footprint, what climate actions could shrink that footprint, as well as what climate actions were already being taken. 
"Ypsilanti has benefited greatly from really involved community members who have taken on initiatives related to sustainability," says Gillotte. "A climate action plan was an opportunity to collect them all and create a strategic approach to that." 
In working with their own community members, data and each other, what many of those involved with the planning found most surprising, was just how much Hazel Park, Southgate and Ypsilanti had in common in terms of sustainability challenges.
"They do have a lot of similarities," says Murphy. "Every city is rocking the same old streetlight technology. The residents in each community are interested in the same things. That's something we try to take advantage of in our guidance for other cities."
That led the cities to be able to share solutions, as well as planning resources. Included in each community's climate action plan is a collection of strategies, each of which is rated by the level of investment, payback period and emissions reductions. Such strategies include recycling programs, bike share programs, anaerobic digesters, geothermal utilities and more. 
Each community's plan has now been adopted by their respective councils, and while they're technically waiting for the final nod from the DEQ, they're not exactly waiting around to put them into action. 
"We're starting a small city nursery, and will eventually have street trees for planting throughout the community," say Gillotte. "On the land-use side, we want to work on more transit-oriented development."
For Southgate's part, the first action on the ground is all about greenspaces.
"We are trying to redesign space," says Southgate City Manager Brandon Fournier, "to turn our corridor into an interactive pedestrian corridor. We're trying to establish more greenspace where people can come together." 
Of course, what happens next all depends on what community members themselves are truly motivated to take on.
"Some may be things city staff takes on directly," says Murphy, "but others might be things that somebody in the community will be the champion of."
The larger power of the climate action plans for Ypsilanti, Southgate and Hazel Park doesn't end at the cities' boundaries, and not only because each community's climate health benefits their surrounding region. The plans themselves will now live on as templates to help other cities create their own plans. After all, if these three cities have so much in common, won't other Southeastern Michigan municipalities as well?
"It's been a learning opportunity," says Murphy. "It's something that we will probably work with other communities on in the future. It is something that we have provided to the state as a resource for other cities."

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the news editor for Capital Gains, and a regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.
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