(Summer ’12) Melissa Higbee ’13

August 31, 2012: Summer Wrap-Up

AdaptLA: No one said planning was easy
The deadline for City Departments to submit comments and revisions to the vulnerability assessment came and went with only minor comments from one department. This led me to believe that finalizing the report would be easy.

Two weeks later, another department submitted mostly minor comments, but one comment was quite disconcerting. They said that their analysis was based on a scenario of 20 feet of sea level rise and they wanted that scenario clearly described in the report. It was a very reasonable request to have the scenario described in the report. However, the scenario they were supposed to use was 1.4 meters of sea level rise during a 10-year storm. So I had to figure out why this department was using the wrong scenario. Was it a political reason? Was it an honest mistake?

I discovered that it was an honest mistake. A previous employee in the Mayors office had provided incorrect the sea level rise guidelines before I arrived to work on this project. With only two days left on the job, I had to contact all of the City Department representatives to check that they were using the correct sea level rise scenario and maps. I discovered that some used the correct scenario and some used the incorrect scenario. Fortunately, this did not require that departments re-do their entire analysis, but it did require that they re-assess which facilities should be included in the analysis based on the correct scenario and maps.

This error was a little disappointing considering how much time City staffers had already put into their analysis. I also worry that this error could be detrimental to keeping staff motivated. Communicating potential climate change scenarios and impacts is very challenging and it needs to be done carefully and accurately.

As you may recall from previous blog posts, one of the departments insisted that their assets are not sensitive to sea level rise. Another department noticed this when they reviewed the report and brought it to the attention of the Mayor’s office. I had a discussion about this with staff from the Mayor’s office and they expressed concern with these findings and that they would have figure out how to bring this departments’ analysis into alignment with the others. I am incredibly interested to see how that process unfolds.

Three months in Los Angeles is not enough.
As I leave behind Los Angeles for the summer, the vulnerability assessment still needs some corrections regarding the scenario and the Mayor’s office needs to try to get one department to revise their analysis. Despite some of the frustrations, I really enjoyed working on this project. I met many kind and hardworking people at the City of Los Angeles and I enjoyed helping them think though the impacts of sea level rise. I also realized that no matter how hard I work for three months on a technical report, much of the groundwork for success and/or challenges was laid long before I got there. Some of the difficult political work will continue long after I have returned to MIT.

Regional Research Agenda: Navigating a path between details and the big picture
In addition to trying to wrap-up AdaptLA, I also spent the last couple weeks of my internship conducting follow-up interviews with technical experts for the San Diego Regional Research Agenda. I organized the notes from the workshop into subareas and noted topics that needed more detail. The three main questions I sought to answer for any given research need was 1) What is the existing research? 2) What are the gaps or needs in the existing research? 3) Why is this a priority?

I found that some of my conversations with researchers could quickly turn down the road of a literature review of technical research on bluff erosion or wave over-topping of structures. But in other areas that were less researched, such as the economic impacts of sea level rise, my conversations seemed to stay fairly broad and sweeping. So I had to strike a balance between diving deep enough to make the document helpful for researchers pursuing grants and also not so dense that planners could not understand the importance and broader implications of the research.

Takeaways from the Regional Research Agenda
I enjoyed the position of being a liaison of sorts between planners and researchers. It was interesting to ask researchers to explain why a particular research question is important to planners or other practitioners in the field. I found that some researchers create products that are very oriented towards use by planners/resource managers, whereas others’ research is more oriented towards the scientific research community.

This project fell short of one of my hope that it would help planners think about how to make decisions given uncertain science and research. Some of the research needs that planners put forth at the workshop were  political or decision-making issues where more research will probably not help make progress. I think in some cases, the planners were voicing concerns about sea level rise as a research needs in the hope that the issues will garner more attention.

Comparing San Diego and Los Angeles
I found it valuable to work in both San Diego and Los Angeles. Los Angeles is just starting on its climate adaptation work, whereas San Diego has already developed strategy documents and some cities in the region have become national leaders in planning for sea level rise (Chula Vista).  I think the San Diego Foundation deserves a lot of credit for putting San Diego well ahead of many other cities by funding planning processes and research. It’s amazing how just one community institution with relatively modest resources can make a major difference.

Los Angeles is a larger, more populous, and more politically unwieldy place than San Diego. As such, I think climate adaptation planning will unfold over a longer time frame. I think a seemingly simple, yet very important element to regional environmental planning is having different stakeholders sharing information with each other and building networks and working relationships. I think LARC (Los Angeles Regional Collaborative) is really helping to facilitate those interactions. I’m curious to see how adaptation planning proceeds in the years to come and which community organizations and institutions emerge as leaders.

More motivated than ever
I found this summer’s work to be incredibly interesting and fulfilling. I feel even more committed to continue a career helping cities adapt to climate change impacts than before. My job was part teacher (explaining vulnerability concepts), part coordinator (planning workshops), part facilitator (meetings, breakout groups)…and a lot of phones calls and writing!

That’s me helping facilitate a conversation about adaptation actions at the San Diego Regional Stakeholders Workshop.

I’m very grateful to ICLEI, my host organization. My supervisor, Brian Holland,  put a surprising amount of trust in me and provided the support and guidance I needed to be successful.

I am also thankful to the City of Los Angeles, particularly the folks at the Office of Community Beautification, who let me use one of their workspaces. I absorbed a surprising amount of knowledge about graffiti abatement just sitting in their office.

Door to the Office of Community Beautification, where I had my workspace at Los Angeles City Hall.

Last, but not least, thanks to the MIT Public Service Center and thanks for reading!

July 23, 2012: San Diego Sea Level Rise Stakeholder Workshop

On July 16th, ICLEI in partnership with the San Diego Foundation, held a workshop for coastal stakeholders involved in planning for sea level rise in the San Diego Region. Thirty-five people attended this workshop, which I helped organize and facilitate, including staff from the local cities, state agencies, the Navy, and some businesses.

Welcoming remarks from Nicola Hedge, SD Foundation

Updates from around the region
We dedicated the first half of the workshop to getting people up to speed on the planning process thus far and then going around the room and hearing updates from various stakeholders on current projects. The original sea level rise strategy document, created by ICLEI and funded by the San Diego foundation, focused on the San Diego Bay, but we have now expanded to include the entire San Diego County coastline. So there were several people from some of the North County cities who were new to the project. We heard presentations from the Navy, The Port of San Diego, and City of Chula Vista. In addition, NOAA Coastal Services Center announced a new sea level rise mapping tool that people were very excited about.

Update from the Cody Hooven, Port of San Diego

Breakout Groups
The second half of the workshop was devoted to the Regional Research Agenda. I gave a presentation to the group on the background of the project, the process we are using to develop the agenda, and then the results of my interviews with researchers. We then used two rounds of breakout groups according to research topics to provide an opportunity for stakeholders to document and discuss their research needs. Each group had a facilitator which helped the group stay on track and helped document input on poster paper. Then, after about 15 minutes, the breakout groups reported out to the entire group on their discussion.

Brenden Reed facilitating group discussion on scenarios and impacts

Rick Gersberg reporting out from the social vulnerability group

Positive Feedback from Attendees
We asked attendees to fill out surveys to evaluate the workshop and we got positive reviews. People found the workshop to be a good use of their time and they will use information from the workshop in their future work. People especially valued hearing updates from the various stakeholders. It helps people stay up to date on what is going on in the region, especially when the various cities and agencies can get silohed. Surprisingly, just providing an opportunity for all these people to sit together in the same room and talk about what they are doing provides a lot of value to folks.

Next Steps
The input we got on research needs was helpful and I think people learned a lot through the process, but I’m still missing a lot of the detail that I need to write the agenda. So now I need to go back and talk to practitioners and researchers to get more clarification on the actual research gaps and why they are a priority for stakeholders in the region.


July 2, 2012: Scientists and Planners Unite!…to help Southern California adapt to a changing climate.

In addition to the physical vulnerability assessment for Adapt LA, I have also been working on the San Diego Regional Research Agenda.

San Diego Bay already developed a sea level rise vulnerability assessment (what the City of Los Angeles is currently doing) and used that assessment to create strategies to help the region adapt. The Regional Research Agenda was one of the strategies that came from that process. The objective of the Regional Research Agenda is to connect scientists, planners, and resource managers to collaboratively develop a document that prioritizes research needs for decision-making around sea level rise in the San Diego region. Through this process, we hope that researchers will gain a better understand of the research that will be most useful to practitioners, and in turn, practitioners will better understand the extent of existing research as well as the opportunities and constraints around future research. The goal is that this process and the “Agenda” will help attract more funding and activity to this field.

The San Diego Foundation is funding the Regional Research Agenda work. We held the Steering Commitee Meeting at their office and will also hold the Regional Stakeholder workshop there.

It has been an interesting experience helping design the process that we will use to create the Agenda. My supervisor, Brian Holland, suggested that we convene a Regional Stakeholder Workshop to generate ideas and then two technical advisory committee meetings to refine those ideas. After speaking with a scientist at Scripps who has been involved in the planning process in San Diego, Dan Cayan, I suggested that we start by interviewing scientists and researchers about existing research and opportunities for future research and write a summary of these interviews for the Regional Stakeholder Workshop. I think the results of these interviews will help represent the voice of the research community in the workshop. We are inviting researchers to attend the workshop, but I doubt that many will come, so this step should help ensure that we include their input.

I presented this process (researcher interviews + stakeholder workshop + 2 technical advisory committee meetings) to the Steering Committee and they recommended circling back around to the researcher group with a draft of our “Agenda” to get their feedback at the end.  I thought it was a good idea to get their input again after creating lot of new material from these workshops. So, now I’m in the midst of interviewing researchers and planning and organizing the Regional Stakeholder Workshop.

San Diego Sea Level Rise Steering Committee Meeting, where I presented the proposed Regional Research Agenda process

Science, uncertainty, and decision-making
Decision-makers are always going to want more data and research to help them make decisions, or at the very least, substantiate their decisions. Nevertheless, with a lot of science and especially the science around climate change, there is a great deal of uncertainty. So no matter how many studies scientists publish, decision-makers will always have to come to a decision within the context of some window of uncertainty.

At MIT Science Impact Collaborative, I was working with small towns in Massachusetts that don’t have connections with large research universities the way that Los Angeles and San Diego do. We were trying to teach them the tool of scenario planning, which can help people reach decisions that will perform well in a number of different future scenarios. In this way, cities can move forward with planning for the impacts of climate change even if they don’t have a down-scaled climate model on hand.

I also keep thinking about the findings from my classmate, Melissa Saupan’s, research on the sea level rise plans for New York City and Rotterdam. She found that even though these cities spent time and resources obtaining sea level rise projections for their planning efforts, the uncertainties in the science limited the usefulness of the specific projections in their assessments. In fact, many of the adaptation strategies that cities can adopt require only a broad understanding of the potential local impacts of sea level rise and information about current conditions.

These experiences lead me to hope that our Regional Research Agenda doesn’t only lead to the production of more research, but also leads practitioners to think about policy approaches that work well with uncertainty, that build in flexibility and room for adjustment.

Science as a communications tool
Climate change projections have also been an important part of the AdaptLA process. We are using sea level rise projections from the USGS for the vulnerability assessment. In addition, UCLA has created a downscaled (down to 15 km) model of various climate change impacts in the L.A. area. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa held a press conference last week to release the findings from the temperature projections. According to the study, Downtown Los Angeles will see triple the number of extremely hot days and some neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley will see one month’s worth of days exceeding 95 degrees per year. This research not only helps planners identify populations that could be vulnerable to heat-related illnesses and deaths, but it also makes the impact of climate change more real and tangible for people. It’s not just something that is going to affect Sub-Saharan Africa or islands in the South Pacific, but it is something that will affect the quality of life for Angelinos as well. The publication of this research will hopefully get more cities and their citizens interested in planning for the impacts of climate change.


Press release of LA regional climate study. Photo: Zach Behrens/LCET

Update from the AdaptLA Vulnerability Assessment
I spent the last couple weeks conducting follow-up interviews with City of Los Angeles staff and writing the AdaptLA Physical Vulnerability Assessment. As I mentioned in my last post, we had some unexpected responses to the survey so I had to speak with respondents to understand their reasoning. The biggest contributor to unexpected responses was that some people did not fully understanding the concepts of exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity. I had to go through question by question on the survey and explain these concepts as applied to each facility.

That’s me at my desk having a follow-up phone call for AdaptLA.

Before I started my internship, one of my colleagues provided a training workshop on these concepts, but some of the people that filled out the survey did not attend the training. In addition, after speaking with some of the survey respondents, I realized that not all of the necessary people had been invited to be a part of the City Adaptation Leadership (CAL) group and the trainings. The staff people who work on policy and planning were invited, but we should have also invited the engineers who work with these facilities. The policy people ended up stuck between inquisitive ole me asking tons of questions and the engineers who were annoyed that I didn’t understand how a water regulatory valve station works. I think this demonstrates that it’s critical to identify the right people to include in an assessment process and in my mind and I think it’s better to err on the side of over-inclusion.

Another department, that shall remain nameless, claims that none of their coastal assets are vulnerable to sea level rise. Apparently their facilities will keep working just fine even if inundated by water. This assessment is essentially a hypothetical thought exercise and people can make arguments that fit their needs if they don’t really want to fully participate. As the draft report is circulated among City staff for comments, I will be interested to see if this department gets any pressure to change their response.


June 12, 2012: Kicking-Off the AdaptLA Vulnerability Assessment

I spent my first week diving into survey responses from different departments at the City of Los Angeles regarding their assets that could be vulnerable to the impacts of sea level rise (SLR). The survey has three main parts: 1) Sensitivity: the degree to which an asset will be impaired by a SLR impact, 2) Adaptive Capacity: the ability of an asset to cope with or adjust to a SLR impact, and 3) the potential consequences of a SLR impact on the economy, communities, and environment.

Yesterday I gave a presentation at the City Adaptation Leadership (CAL) meeting on the preliminary findings from the survey responses. The meeting included representatives from the various city departments participating in the study, USC Sea Grant (coordinating the study), LA Regional Collaborative for Cliamte Action and Sustainability, (LARC) and NOAA coastal services. The purpose of the presentation was to make sure we have included all of the necessary assets and to try to understand why we received some unexpected survey responses. Some departments reported that their assets in the coastal flood zone are not sensitive to sea level rise. I guessed that some people were not fully understanding the concepts of exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity when they filled out the survey. This meeting confirmed my hunch.

That’s me giving a presentation on preliminary findings from the vulnerability assessment survey to City of LA staff.

My next step is to have follow up conversations with every single respondent. Some of the conversations will just be to get more details. Some common questions will be “How is this asset (park/water treatment plant/utility poles, etc.) sensitive to inundation? What would happen to the functionality of the asset if it were exposed to daily tidal inundation?” I’m going to follow up about the reasoning behind reports of high magnitude of consequences. This will help provide a better pictures of the vulnerability and help the City prioritize future adaptation measures. However, some of these conversations will entail going through the survey question by question to help people understand exactly what we’re asking for. This survey contains lots of new concepts for folks who focus on park maintenance or electricity services, etc.

At the CAL meeting, Julia Ekstrom, a post-doc at UC Berkeley presented the concepts of the social vulnerability analysis that she will be conducted at the same time that I will be doing the physical vulnerability analysis. It was interesting to see that compared to other places, such as the SF Bay Area, the people who are impacted by sea level rise tend to be wealthier and whiter than the population as a whole. This is because of the development pattern of wealthy people living near the coast. Nevertheless, there are some pockets of more vulnerable communities (poorer, less educated, no cars, renters) in San Pedro and Venice Beach. The mapping that Julie did also demonstrated large areas of vulnerable populations in Long Beach. This highlights the importance that this process eventually become regional in scale, not just limited to the City of Los Angeles.

The other really interesting finding from Julie’s work so far is the potential for large populations of people who will be vulnerable to heat impacts in central and inland LA County. Sea level rise is only one of many impacts that Southern California will need to contend with in the coming decades.

Julie Ekstrom giving a presentation on her social vulnerability assessment


PSC Intern. Melissa will spend the summer interning at ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability. She will work on two projects that help communities in Southern California plan for the impacts of sea-level rise. She will work with partners at the City of Los Angeles on a vulnerability assessment that uses a workshop and survey method to better understand the vulnerability of community assets to sea-level rise. She will also work with city planners and researchers in the San Diego area to develop a Regional Research Agenda that prioritizes the research that local planners need to plan for sea-level rise. Be sure to keep up with her updates!


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