By Bob Freitag, Director at the Institute for Hazards Mitigation Planning and Research, Affiliate Faculty at the University of Washington
with Katherine Faulkner and Mercedes Stroeve
It’s mid-century, and a coastal neighborhood is responding to rising seas: some have elevated their homes on piles, others have put floats under their houses. Docks connect these structures to the shore. And, wave buffering devices have been placed along the shore. Another story for this community could have been that homes were removed and shore lands rehabilitated— development rights could have been purchased or transferred to a designated growth area.
These stories put a face on the future, and they helped discover additional ways to reduce expected risks.
Creating and telling stories, influenced by several drivers of change, can enhance a community planning process. Storytelling, referred to as scenarios, can also provide an exciting way to engage communities. We have all used scenarios, whether to plan a dinner party or decide the advantages of one job offer over another. When creating these stories, it is best if we consider different influencing factors.
Our students at the University of Washington have been experimenting with multiple drivers of change, and within this context, they explore different alternatives for risk reduction and opportunity enhancement.
Creating Stories-- an Example:
The figure above illustrates four stories for a coastal community built on a sand spit within Puget Sound and threatened by sea level rise. The risk reduction approaches (as well as opportunity enhancement measures) were easier to recognize with a scenario planning approach.
Climate change provided one of two drivers, and the measurable impact considered was sea level rise. For this exercise, students did not consider it uncertain that seas would wash over and eventually consume the community. The uncertainty was when that would happen.
The other driver was behavioral, addressing whether the response to sea level rise would be through individual actions, such as home elevation, or approaches that would require direct government involvement, such as the transfer of development rights.
Storytelling was helped by illustrating these two drivers along “X” and “Y” axes. Climate change was described along the “Y” axis. At the lower end of this axis, sea level rise was assumed not to have reached the homes. The upper end of this continuum referenced a condition where sea levels were above grade and home lots were permanently under water during low tidal conditions (MLLW). Using estimates from the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group, we assumed that “King Tides” could begin washing under most homes by mid-century.
Along the behavioral axis (“X”), options ranged from those centering on individual measures on the right side, to those approaches available through direct government actions on the left. Individual actions included home elevation, or other measures required by the National Flood Insurance Program. Communal alternatives included those that would rely on actions directly funded by government. These included government-financed structural improvements such a levees, home purchases, or the purchase or transfer of development rights.
Students in teams researched and defended the four stories created by these two intersecting drivers. Special attention was given to identifying tipping points such as opportunities for accommodation and retreat offered by extreme weather events. The teams also kept an eye out for specific measures or path dependencies which would limit future options, such as the financial and emotional commitment of constructing a protective sea wall.
Through storytelling, students recommended that the community consider a three-tier approach.
The first-tier approach supported the existing County vision and recommended measures that would have a minimal cost, not overburden property owners with additional regulation, and not greatly limit future strategies. These measures rejected protective sea walls that would limit future actions and suggested incentives for NFIP compliance.
Second-tier approaches would be considered when the risks increase following an extreme event or when high tides begin to reach existing homes. Measures included providing additional relocation incentives and, if pushed by the community, allowing the homeowners’ association or individuals to construct flood protection devices at their own cost, where there would be no adverse impact to others, and where life cycle costs would not exceed structural life or usefulness of the project.
The third-tier actions would be considered when the “writing was on the wall,” so to speak, and it would be clear that properties would not be habitable within the foreseeable future. Property owners would be looking for a way to recoup their losses, and the County would be exploring ways to remove flood-isolated or damaged properties and restore the shoreline. These could include dis-incentivizing onsite development or substantial improvements, incentivizing home deconstruction, purchasing homes and leasing properties with conditions, granting occupancy permits conditioned on assurances of future site restoration, and transferring or purchasing development rights.
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