New flood wall

1997 floodwaters

Climate change might sneak up gradually on your community or it may come roaring in suddenly in the form of extreme weather. That’s what happened recently in North Dakota where the Red River crested way over flood stage in a region that took disastrous hits a decade ago. That was when Grand Forks was devastated by the spring melt-off floods. But this year was different, as as Fargo flooded, Grand Forks – due in great part to adaptive planning and lessons learned years ago – averted disaster.

ICLEI tells the story here:

After incurring $1.5 billion in losses to hundreds of homes and businesses in 1997, Grand Forks was able to raise $409 million, half of it in federal funds, for a floodwall and water-diversion system to permanently protect it from the recurrent flooding that had plagued the city since it was founded. In 2007, FEMA certified that Grand Forks’ new levee system was complete and ready to protect the city from floods of up to 60 feet—nine feet higher than the crest during the 1997 flood, and well below this year’s.

The idea, of course, is to learn from others’ experiences, not to wait on building defenses until your community has had the same bad experience. That’s why pResilience is about being proactive, applying foresight, doing the equivalent of buying insurance for your local habitat.

The idea that nothing gets done until communities have a bitter taste in their mouths should be of great concern. Consider that a 2008 study from the University of Maryland found that although global climate models predict that North Dakota will become drier in the future and subject to more intense droughts, it is also expected to experience more intense storms. Given the Red River’s history of flooding, land use changes such as expanding agriculture into wetlands that once might have absorbed flood waters, and more severe weather predictions, there is little doubt that Fargo will face a similar—or worse—flood threat in the years to come.

Other communities also face increasing vulnerabilities to climate change as sea levels begin to rise, wildfires become more frequent and intense, and new public health risks such as extreme heat events increase.

A little money can go a long way in raising local consciousness and building models that the average citizen can appreciate. For the second year in a row, the city government of Minneapolis is sponsoring a program that will distribute about $90K of its own money and the same amount of matching donations to individuals and groups who can make the most impact on reducing the local “warming footprint.”

The grants give organizations funding to launch a variety of creative and unique programs aimed at educating people about global warming on a personal level, as opposed to spreading information through brochures and pamphlets, Prest said.

“We knew we wanted to do something on climate change in terms of working with the public,” she said. “When it really got down to it, we didn’t want to keep inundating them with educational materials on global warming.”

Some previous projects have focused on raising awareness through energy fairs and community get-togethers. Other projects have worked with businesses to increase their energy efficiency.

The Longfellow Community Council received one of the $10,000 innovation grants in 2008, and used the funding to help renters and landlords conserve energy and save money, Joanna Solotaroff , a community organizer with the council, said.

Part of the grant funded workshops to teach renters techniques to reduce energy and heating bills. The rest of the money went to a program that provided up to $500 in matching funds to landlords working to improve the energy efficiency of their properties.

I very much appreciate the thinking and writing of Jamais Cascio, so I enjoy seeing how he frames ideas like resilience, as he has just done in his new column for Fast Company magazine. Since my own ideas can’t be validated by hindsight (great foresight, Cliff!), I can take some comfort in having them validated by a guy who gets invited to speak all over the place.

Here is a nice essay Jamais wrote, titled Resilience Economics, in which he adopts the “look back” perspective of someone living in the late 2020’s, looking back on 20 years of transformed, more transparent capitalism, “decentralized diversity,” and new models for looking ahead at the future to avoid big surprises.

Here are Jamais’s words as he quoted his own column on his blog, “Open the Future.”

One reason why the idea of resilience resonates with those of us engaged in foresight work is that, as troubling as it may be to contemplate, the current massive economic downturn is likely to be neither the only nor the biggest crisis we face over the next few decades. The need to shift quickly away from fossil fuels (for both environmental and supply reasons) may be as big a shock as today’s “econalypse,” and could easily be compounded by accelerating problems caused by global warming. Demographic issues–aging populations, migrants and refugees, and changing regional ethnic make-ups–loom large around the world, notably in China. Pandemics, resource collapse, even radically disruptive technologies all have the potential to cause global shake-ups on the scale of what we see today… and we may see all of these, and more, over the next 20 to 30 years.

I agree totally with what he writes, but would only add that the social adjustments we make in our local communities will prove to be the big difference makers when the impacts of problems and issues. As hard as it may be to wrap our minds around such global shake-ups, it’s not that much of a stretch to think about getting more familiar and cooperative with the people in towns where we live.

Anyone paying attention knows that the Dutch, as a people, are way ahead of the rest of the world in terms of reducing their carbon footprint while simultaneously planning to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Being a coastal nation with much of your land below sea level will do that to a culture. They seem to have developed some very collaborative attitudes and habits over the centuries since they inhabited the lowlands along the North Sea.

This Business Week article describes some of the initiatives under way in Amsterdam, with partnership from some of the big companies in tech and banking helping to push things along.

The projects, all getting under way over the next few months, represent Amsterdam’s initial steps toward making its infrastructure more eco-friendly. The move comes as governments worldwide set aside billions of dollars to create so-called “smart cities,” or towns that mix renewable projects, next-generation energy efficiency, and government support to cut overall carbon dioxide footprints. Yet, unlike cities that could take decades to upgrade their infrastructure, Amsterdam aims to complete its first-round investments by 2012. That makes it one of the first and most ambitious adopters of the smart city concept, attracting attention from policymakers worldwide hoping to glean lessons from the green experiment.

Here’s the beginning of a shared toolset that is on the right path, I think. DIYcity invites people to join from wherever they live, and develop Web-based tools and widgets that can be shared to help people in each place take care of business at their locally-connected-grassroots level.

DIYcity is a site where people from all over the world think about, talk about, and ultimately build tools for making their cities work better with web technologies.

The idea is to improve city living, so it’s not (yet) all about sustainability or adaptation. But the distributed, networked structure is similar to my original thinking about AdaptLocal. The site is only 5 months old and it’s still pretty thin on content, but there are about 400 members representing about 40 group locations. Their Project Pool at this time containg:

On the WordChanging blog I ran across some good ideas developed in the most drought-and-wildfire-impacted region of southern Australia.

Andrew Outhwaite was traveling the area as a member of the Hållbarhet2009 Learning Journey and Conference, witnessing the damage done by the Big Dry – the years-long extreme drought that has transformed huge tracts of land – and the devastating fires that consumed much of the remaining vegetation. In the group’s interaction with local groups of residents, Andrew identified some barriers to community impact in adapting to the new climate, and then thought through some ways in which technology could help leap those barriers. Here are  a couple examples:

Barrier: The desire to ‘get more done urgently, now’ rather than taking the time to really connect, listen and build the trust that underlies collaboration.

Community-Enabling Technology: Reestablishing rituals. For example, Aboriginal people inviting visitors to their traditional lands to participate in welcoming ceremonies, a kind of spiritual technology: circling a sacred fire and breathing in the smoke generates a visceral sense of respect and connection with each other, other species and creation.

Barrier: Being too identified with your own profession/network/clique, and its language, symbols, models, paradigms and habits can seriously inhibit inter-network collaboration, even within the sustainability movement.

Community-Enabling Technology: Encouraging information Cross-Pollination. Universities (e.g. BTH, UTS and RMIT) are encouraging transdisciplinary research to enable innovation across departmental, sectoral and epistemological boundaries.

In the populous countries of the developing world, people have been flocking from rural areas to cities for decades, and the pace continues to quicken as drought, conflict and economic collapse make living in the country less supportable.

Most poor families move into cities or on their outskirts because such locations offer more possibilities for income where wealth is being created and resources are being used, provided and discarded. Slums surround most cities in the southern hemisphere today and, though it would be wrong to claim that slum living is a good end for anyone’s life, some studies are finding threads of a silver lining in the innovative ways that people adapt to their self-made communities.

Stewart Brand has, for years, reminded us of this “major demographic event” as what he calls “squatter cities” formed as villages of the world empty out. Here’s his typically pithy TED conference presentation on the subject. In an essay written for the Long Now Foundation, which he founded, Stewart wrote:

Speed of urban development is not necessarily bad. Many people deplored the huge Levittown tracts when they were created in the ’40s and ’50s, but they turned out to be tremendously adaptive and quickly adopted a local identity, with every house becoming different. The form of housing that resists local identity is gated communities, with their fierce regulations prohibiting anything interesting being done by home owners that might affect real estate value for the neighbors (no laundry drying outside!). If you want a new community to express local life and have deep adaptivity, emphasize the houses becoming homes rather than speculative real estate.

Squatters – largely because they have no choice – have much to teach us about adaptive community. Though we probably won’t find ourselves desperately constructing settlements out of the discarded junk of affluence, we may very well be innovating new ways of collaboration and building to fit our changing circumstances.

Some quotes from an article in the Boston Globe, titled Learning from Slums:

Some frustrating parts of slum life – the close quarters and the need to cooperate with neighbors in endeavors like obtaining services – have an upside: they can contribute to a strong sense of community.


There is an ethos of self-reliance in communities independently built and continually rebuilt by their residents.


Meanwhile, some observers in the developed world have been asking, what if the laudable aspects of these informal communities could be disentangled from the unfortunate parts? To build housing for low-income people, [architect and professor at UC San Diego, Teddy] Cruz has drawn inspiration from Tijuana shantytowns for developments in Southern California, and is currently working on the one in Hudson. It will include communal porches and terraces, and spaces meant to encourage small start-up businesses – for example, providing room to store sewing machines. The intention is to integrate a poorer immigrant population into the area by creating openings for a community to evolve. He calls his vision “club sandwich urbanism – layering. It occurs through time. Our planning institutions never think about time.”


Cruz and [author of "Shadow Cities: a Billion Squatters, a New Urban World," Robert] Neuwirth say we can also learn from the spirit of collaboration in informal settlements, and their ingenuity in the use of space. Their richness suggests to some that the dominant American mode of living, for all its suburban comforts, has come at a price. Municipalities might want to reconsider zoning laws to allow residences to double as businesses, says Cruz: he imagines small enterprises being run out of garages. In Werthmann’s view, we might also emulate the low-rise, high-density model, which is conducive to neighborliness and requires no elevators.

Since living for 12 years on America’s (might as well say “the world’s”) largest hippie commune, I’ve been torn repeatedly about how to frame the experience with new friends, colleagues, clients and employers.

On the positive side, I learned an incredible amount about sociology, appropriate technology, collaboration, low tech living and practical craftwork – water system design, home construction, mechanical repair, farming, ham radio, home birthing…the list goes on. More importantly I established deep, trusting relationships during the 70s that still have meaning and value today.

On the negative side, it has remained a quizical item on my resume that even otherwise progressive people often view with some suspicion, as if I must have a screw loose somewhere to have done such a thing. Would I, for example, be psychologically able to help them make a profit?

I finally resolved that it was most definitely a net positive experience that has since enhanced my life and my ability to advise others on the most important aspects of social relationship in both profit-making and non-profit situations. For without the commitment and agreement we had on that intentional community, we would not have lasted long enough to complete the many projects that we began and aspired to complete in the early days. Organizations and businesses can only wish their constituents would show such loyalty and commitment. It was a remarkable social experiment that continues to offer valuable rewards, both to me and to the people I work for.

One of my current fields of interest where that experience holds special relevance is the future of communities in an era of radical change in economy and climate. By adopting local sharing practices, people can save energy, discover economies of scale, create barter economies and save money while simultaneously building local social safety nets and sustainable resources. But last week I was amazed to discover a web site called, directly enough, Wanna Start a Commune?

Unlike my commune – The Farm – these folks don’t expect people to jump in with both feet and their clothes on (or off, as the case may be). They don’t suggest that neighbors go collective and move to the virgin forest. Instead, they offer some of the more logical baby steps that urban neighborhoods can take to build trust through teamwork. They are also working through a Facebook page that currently has over 300 fans.

Using a few simple tools you can start sharing with your neighbors, friends or co-workers today. You’ll save time and money, connect more deeply with those around you, and do right by the planet. Download our pamphlet ‘Tools for Commune Starters‘ with everything you need to get started, including:

– ‘Getting Started’ Checklist
– ‘What’s in a Commune?’ Resource-sharing Guide
– Potluck & Workshop Planning Tools
– Simple Organizational Documents
– Technology Tips to help you manage and grow your commune

Combine the UK’s Forum for the Future with the international innovators from IDEO, then match them with three local British councils and you have the recipe for devising creative ideas for high impact sustainability change in communities.

This article from FFTF’s site, including a nicely produced video should inspire many other local governments to learn from this project and launch some innovative thinking in their own communities. They call it i-Team because its sequence of activities are inspiration, insight, ideation and implementation.

During 2008 and 2009, Forum for the Future and IDEO have been working with the following local authorities that each defined a climate change problem, and set out to tackle it using this people-centred approach:

  • Kirklees Council in West Yorkshire wanted to incentivise new parents to reduce their energy use by saving themselves money;
  • Suffolk County Council decided to create a simple yet elegant scheme to significantly reduce their business mileage; and
  • St Helen’s Local Authority wanted to encourage 12-14 year olds to take the lead on climate change using a cutting edge viral marketing campaign.

Essential to communities achieving resilience is their acceptance of the new reality in which they are living. They must resist the urge to cling to what they might see as the glory days of American prosperity and recogemptystore1nize that those days were mortgaged to the future. The debts we incurred in those days are now being called for repayment.

James Howard Kunstler is most known for futurizing peak oil and its impacts on civilization. For that, some have branded him one of the doomiest of Doctor Dooms, but I think it unwise to discount his vision. Like Kunstler, I don’t gain any satisfaction by seeing yesterday’s pessimistic scenarios being played out today. If anything, I hope that predictions made in books like The Long Emergency and World Made By Hand and validated in real life will get our attention and make us think more rationally about the future. And not just think about it, but change our practices and lifestyles and priorities to avoid the nasty consequences of sticking to the status quo.

In a column published on Alternet, Kunstler proclaims the death of consumerism and wonders if Obama can “lead us to a downscaled lifestyle.” Can this new president resist the pressure to miraculously deliver American society back to the good ol’ days of unlimited credit, planned obsolescence and obscene wealth to whomever can get it? Does this president recognize just how radically the world has changed with this lurch into economic chaos?

Dear Mr. President, you are presiding over an epochal contraction, not a pause in the growth epic. Your assignment is to manage that contraction in a way that does not lead to world war, civil disorder or both. Among other things, contraction means that all the activities of everyday life need to be downscaled including standards of living, ranges of commerce, and levels of governance. “Consumerism” is dead.

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