Avoid climate change debates by leading with the facts

October 1, 2015 John Shardlow

Advice for local planners working toward a resilient community


I was recently invited to speak at the American Planning Association/Minnesota annual conference on the topic “Planning for Resilient Communities.”

I started by sharing my observation that this issue, more than many I have encountered over the years, can become polarized very quickly. Once opposition and discontent surface, it takes valuable time and energy to overcome.  Starting with this awareness, however, planners can help frame community conversations to improve dialogue and drive successful outcomes.  The reality is that our climate has changed and the world has experienced damaging weather events of greater intensity and frequency than ever before. This can be easily proven with objective information. There is little doubt that these trends will continue, and the communities we serve must prepare to adapt to these conditions and recover better once they have occurred. Here are a two tips I’ve learned for avoiding that controversy.

Don’t Play the Blame Game 

It is critical to recognize that the trigger point for an impassioned minority of people is the issue of whom or what is to blame for these changes. The dilemma for planners is that we are ethically bound to provide our clients with the best available information and base our recommendations on the best data. The art in designing a community planning process to advance sustainability and resiliency is to lead with objective information that is presented in as neutral a manner as possible. It isn’t necessary to have consensus about the causes of climate change in order to explore strategies to respond to it.

Photo courtesy of MNDOT


Every planning project we lead includes some form of community engagement and public participation. Inevitably this involves various ways for the participants to share their preferences and ideas. My advice to the planners in the audience was to provide people with information before asking them for their opinions. I have found this to make a big difference in terms of the issues and priorities that participants identify.

Use the Tools
Obviously every community is unique and planners must tailor their process to match the situation and the available resources. In the Midwest and specifically Minnesota, we have a number of tools that I use to more effectively inform and inspire participants.

The Minnesota GreenStep Cities program guides communities through a process of discovery regarding their energy use, water consumption, and other performance measures. It includes great resources, case studies, and best practices for local leaders to consider. The ULI Minnesota Regional Council of Mayors Healthy & Resilient Communities Committee that I co-chair sponsors the Regional Indicators Initiative. This dynamic tool starts by measuring the total energy use for the entire community, measured in BTUs, water consumption, waste generated, and vehicle miles travelled. Each of these metrics is broken down by residential and commercial generators.  Every community that has taken this first step has learned something they hadn’t realized about their energy use and most have discovered easy ways to make reductions.

Finally, I presented the Envision® Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System. I encouraged my colleagues to review the five categories upon which this evaluation and rating system is based: quality of life, leadership, resource allocation, natural world, and climate and risk. In some cases they may choose to complete the ranking process and seek certification, but I suggested that simply using the questions in each of the categories could help lead community conversations in very positive ways.

Arguments about the causes of climate change are counterproductive. Use the great tools we have available to help clients to think creatively about sustainability and resiliency. In that way, the multiple economic, social, and health benefits associated with smart investments can be used to help create the political will to change behaviors.

 For more ideas on what communities can do to be more resilient, check out Don Armour discussing the topic in the video on the right.  

About the Author

John Shardlow

John Shardlow is a senior principal in our Minneapolis, Minnesota, office. John is an advocate of creative reuse and redevelopment with a focus on transit oriented development (TOD)—maximizing benefits from transit investment from a corridor-wide level down to individual projects.

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