City in Hot Water? Students Help New Haven Confront Climate Threats
A recent F&ES course was structured to not only support student learning but also to help the city of New Haven plan for future impacts of climate change.
By Timothy Brown
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.
It can sometimes be difficult for graduate students to see how their coursework relates to the “real world.” But for those who enrolled in “Cities in Hot Water: Urban Climate Mitigation and Adaptation,” a recent course at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), there’s little question that their work will have a positive impact in New Haven.
In fact, the course was intentionally structured to not only support student learning, but also to help the city of New Haven plan for future impacts of climate change. Their policy recommendations were used in the city’s new Hazard Mitigation Plan, which was submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) this month.
The idea for the course came from Xuhui Lee, the Sara Shallenberger Brown Professor of Meteorology at F&ES. A climate scientist whose work tends to be theoretical in nature, Lee wanted to teach a course that had more practical application for students.
“We can talk about heat waves in very abstract terms, but it’s almost irrelevant if you don’t bring it to bear on local issues and local concerns,” Lee said.
Students in the capstone course, co-taught by Lee and Brad Gentry, Associate Dean for Professional Practice, assessed both the biophysical threats and social impacts of climate change in New Haven, and made policy recommendations to city planners and administrators.
“The essence of a professional research school is doing great research and then figuring out how to connect it to management of whatever resources people are thinking about,” Gentry said.
All Masters of Environmental Management (M.E.M.) candidates are required to complete a capstone course or project focused on applied problem solving. But “Cities in Hot Water” uniquely challenged students to apply their knowledge to local problems.
F&ES has a long history of collaborating with the City of New Haven. For a quarter of a century, the F&ES-based Urban Resources Initiative [URI] has partnered with the city and community groups to plant trees and restore abandoned land. Last year, Colleen Murphy-Dunning, director of URI, initiated several meetings to determine the ways F&ES could best support city staff. In the end, they agreed that students could contribute to the development of the city’s new Hazard Mitigation Plan.
“Colleen, with her knowledge of the city, and acute attention, helped to ensure that this wasn’t just Yale people using the city as a place for experimentation, but rather a true partnership where both sides learn from each other in ways that are valuable to both sides,” Gentry said.
On Connecticut Shoreline, Yale Team Helps Communities Face New Realities
Work done by several F&ES students and faculty members is helping communities along the Connecticut coastline prepare for the threats of climate change. <a href="http://environment.yale.edu/news/article/yale-initiative-helps-coastal-communities-consider-next-steps-in-face-of-rising-seas">Read more</a>
FEMA requires cities to include climate change in their hazard mitigation plans, which must be updated every five years. Using a case study approach, F&ES students researched other cities such as Chicago and New Orleans, learning what had worked well — and what didn’t — in their efforts to prepare for future impacts of climate change.
Flooding and other singular extreme weather events demand changes in infrastructure, but this marks the first time that temperature has been included in New Haven’s hazard mitigation plan. And more hot days and heat waves create stress for vulnerable populations.
“I think it was a really interesting case study for the students to dig into the kind of complexity a city has to grapple with — how they have to report it to the federal government and produce something that has real utility, which I think is the point of a capstone,” Murphy-Dunning said.
Students worked on different teams researching various impacts of climate change. Some looked at the biophysical impacts, mapping areas at risk for flooding or heat waves. Other students identified those populations most vulnerable to these impacts. Their final report suggests ways that the city can improve infrastructure — such as building bioswales to reduce flooding — and also, critically, addresses social vulnerability.
Susmitha Attota, Assistant Director of Comprehensive Planning for the city of New Haven, says courses such as this are highly beneficial for municipalities.
“Programs like these benefit us immensely because we are typically under time constraints dealing with multiple tasks at the same time,” she said. “So there is not enough time to conduct in depth research on best practices in the field on one specific topic. The research conducted by the students of F&ES is therefore very useful and timely. Also, it helps us get an outside perspective on the plans we develop.”
Attota said that the city cited the report — and the students’ recommendations — in various chapters of its new hazard mitigation plan.
“We could not have done this on our own without their help,” she said.
Lee calls climate change research an “imperfect science,” and notes that it’s particularly difficult for scientists to apply future predictions at a local scale. “In the case of climate change, we can do a lot of good scenarios on a global scale. But when it comes to applying them to a local scale, it’s anybody’s guess. So that’s imperfect in that sense,” he said. “We are not very good at building scenarios to help city planners to make decisions.
“We don’t have enough precision and accuracy to make that kind of prediction, but those are the kinds of things that help local decision-makers. So that’s part of the learning experience for students, and for us as well — how do you come up with predictions and scenarios that local people can relate.”
A Case Study in Resilience
The lessons from the “Cities in Hot Water” course won't end with New Haven's new climate mitigation plan. The materials and recommendations will be used to develop an emerging case study on urban climate resilience that ultimately can be used for other F&ES courses and initiatives.
Even more challenging is quantifying the social impacts of climate change.
“You can’t understand the impacts without understanding different vulnerable populations,” said Murphy-Dunning. “And it’s not always income related.”
Despite the challenges, Gentry says there should be a goal of doing more courses focused on local concerns. Even students who hope to work abroad can develop skills here and then apply them in other contexts.
“I think what’s great about working in New Haven or Bridgeport is you can build relationships and continue that thread into the next phase of work,” he said.
“But for our students who want to work in this area, this hands-on learning helps the city but also helps the university if we acknowledge that we both benefit, but that we also both have constraints,” said Murphy-Dunning.
Lee added: “There’s a lot to learn from each other.”