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MIT students help cities plan for changing climate

South Africa trip prompts work on online tool with global application
MIT graduate student Tijs Van Maasakkers, right, examines one of the water lines near Durban, South Africa.
MIT graduate student Tijs Van Maasakkers, right, examines one of the water lines near Durban, South Africa.
Photo / Sai Balakrishnan

Ten graduate students from MIT recently spent three weeks in Durban, South Africa, working on a project to develop an online tool that could help municipal governments around the world adapt to a changing climate.

During their trip, the students concentrated on gathering information from representatives working in diverse municipal agencies and uncovering adaptation activities that are taking place in the course of routine work. Over the next year, that information will be used to develop and refine the planned tool that could aid Durban and other cities in initiating adaptation efforts.

In their interviews and field trips, the students were learning "what people understood about climate change and current climate activities in Durban as well as trying to identify innovative adaptation techniques that could readily be adopted elsewhere," says JoAnn Carmin, associate professor of environmental policy and planning in MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning, who taught a class on urban climate adaptation that culminated in the May-June field trip to South Africa.

Originally, the group was thinking of developing a very specific planning tool for Durban, but agency representatives there urged them "to make it one that any municipality could use," Carmin says.

Among other things, the online tool will help cities learn what others in similar situations have already tried to do, especially relatively simple steps that can be implemented in the course of their normal activities.

For example, a common climate change challenge is receding water levels in reservoirs due to water scarcity. By following repairmen around, the students found that in the course of their routine work, they would connect pipes conveying water from different reservoirs at the points where they intersect. This way, when one reservoir has low water capacity, the other reservoir can feed the city. By connecting the pipes, the workmen were initiating a quick and inexpensive measure that ensures that the system can adapt to fluctuations in water availability.

Carmin says that many of the things that agencies are urged to do to prepare for a changing climate seem remote from the day-to-day pressures they face, and thus don't end up being implemented. "While it is important to have a long-term vision, implementation requires that we meet people where they are," she says, "and this often means starting with the easy win--helping agencies identify ways they can initiate the adaptation process that do not require additional resources or an entirely new agenda."

The trouble with some proposals, she says, is that "if you don't set achievable targets or link measures to current work or performance targets, people become overwhelmed and don't do anything." Instead, the best strategy may be to "start with what we can actually do now--ideas that may seem so obvious, people say 'why didn't I think of that'--that normalize what it means to prepare for climate impacts and set the adaptation process in motion." By meeting with representatives working at all levels of municipal agencies, Carmin says the students found that "sometimes, it's the people on the ground who recognize climate problems more quickly and come up solutions that are straightforward to implement."

The online tool will be organized around critical municipal functions such as emergency management, health, water and sanitation, energy, environment and biodiversity, housing, social services and so on. People will be asked to input basic information about their work and then receive output that will help them identify ways they can link their ongoing efforts to short and long term adaptation measures.

As the project progresses, Carmin says, she expects to hold "focus groups in several South Africa cities as well as those in other countries to make sure the tool will be something that is truly useful." The tool will continue to be developed as part of classes over the next academic year, Carmin says. It will be "an open-access tool that any municipality can use, but with output that will be oriented to the specific locale."

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