Municipal Climate Action Planning
A Conversation with Sara Mills-Knapp
Q- How has the Greater Portland Council of Governments worked with its member communities to prepare for increased flooding and other coastal impacts from climate change?
A- GPCOG has a municipal climate action planning program that supports our member communities in planning for climate action, finding funding to support projects, and implementing climate solutions. We convene our members to share knowledge and tools, provide data collection and planning support, and connect them with funding opportunities. The recently announced Climate Ready Casco Bay project is an expansion of this work, bringing tools and resources to communities to identify the most at risk areas in the region and plan for nature-based solutions to flooding.
Q- What is the timeline for your municipal climate action planning process, generally, and what are the goals of that process?
A- A municipal climate action planning process that meaningfully engages the public and builds consensus for shared priorities takes from 8 months to a year for most communities. The goal of the process is to identify understand a town’s greenhouse gas emissions sources, to identify key areas of risk that are most vulnerable to climate change, and to create a plan that identifies short and long term actions that can meaningfully reduce emissions and build resilience to climate change impacts. These actions should also support economic growth and improve the lives of residents.
Q- Was there a particular event or point in time that galvanized GPCOG to prioritize climate planning more actively?
A- The agency has long recognized the ways in which climate change impacts all areas of our region’s economic, transportation, environmental, and social systems. We have hosted Maine Clean Communities, a coalition of stakeholders that works to reduce emissions from transportation, for 25 years. In the last few years as the State published their updated climate action plan, Maine Won’t Wait, and Portland and South Portland published their joint climate action plan, we recognized the opportunity and the need for support for broader regional climate action planning. These plans set the stage for other smaller communities to follow and we think it is important to capture the momentum of the moment to act as quickly as possible.
Q- If you’ve conducted the vulnerability assessment under your climate action planning process already, what did it find? If not, what do you hope to learn from it? How will it be used?
A- We have not yet undertaken this work. However, there has been significant work done at the state level and the regional level in the past to identify climate hazards and impacts we can expect in our region. We will be building on this work with our Climate Ready Casco Bay project to hone in are particular infrastructure or communities that are at risk.
Q-How do you hope to help towns ensure their coastal adaptation efforts are equitable and environmentally just?
A- Building an inclusive engagement process that considers input from all stakeholders, but especially chronically underrepresented communities will be key. Partnerships that leverage the environmental expertise we have in our region will be key, along with engagement with community led organizations that can accurately represent the lived experience of community members.
Q- Are you finding some towns in your group are more or less focused on this issue? Are you encouraging more of them to prioritize climate adaptation, and/or to work with each other the way Portland and South Portland have, for example?
A- I think in the past much of the climate action focus has been on coastal towns in Maine, but we are now starting to see a lot of interest and understanding from our inland communities that they too are already facing impacts from climate hazards and need to start planning for the future. Inland towns are seeing increased flooding from increased intensity of storms, negative impacts to inland water quality, and damage to infrastructure. I am glad to see more inland communities engaged and interested in climate action planning.
Q- You thought of the Brunswick/Yarmouth living shoreline pilot project first when I reached out about this. What makes that a particularly good example of a desirable approach to adaptation, in your view? What should people know about it?
A- It is a great regional nature-based approach. Our Climate Ready Casco Bay project, is specifically looking at nature-based solutions. Which means solutions that are not man made like barriers, but use the natural landscape and existing natural resources to protect against flooding.
Q- Are there other interesting approaches to this issue underway in your member towns – e.g. changes to stormwater management, discussions of managed retreat or relocation, sea level rise-conscious zoning or other ordinances, new protective infrastructure or nature-based solutions, etc?
A- Portland is looking at a zoning recode that may include changes to make its communities more resilient to sea level rise, this could be a good example to look at. Also please see the Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission project Climate Ready Coast, a predecessor to our project working on nature based solutions in southern Maine region.