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From Cool Roofs to Community Relocation: New Solutions for Climate Adaptation and Resilience

March 29, 2023

Challenges in areas ranging from education to the environment, gender to governance, health to housing don’t exist in a vacuum. Each month, Abt experts from two disciplines explore ideas for tackling these challenges in our monthly podcast, The Intersect. Sign up for monthly e-mail notifications here. Catch up with previous episodes here.

Climate change will affect everyone, so what measures can U.S. communities take now to adapt and thrive? From water-saving landscapes to strategic retreats from hazard-prone areas, experts Colleen Moore and Alexis St. Juliana explore a range of promising responses they’ve identified and explain why historically vulnerable communities must be part of the solutions.

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Read the Transcript

Eric Tischler: Hi, and welcome to The Intersect; I'm Eric Tischler. Abt Associates tackles complex challenges around the world, ranging from improving health and education to assessing the impact of environmental changes. For any given problem, we bring multiple perspectives to the table. We thought it would be enlightening and maybe even fun to pair colleagues from different disciplines so they can share their ideas and perhaps spark new thinking about how we solve these challenges. Today, I'm joined by two of those colleagues, Colleen Moore and Alexis St. Juliana.

Colleen manages a wide range of housing and community development projects on topics including disaster recovery, resilience and effective HUD program planning and implementation. Alexis is a member of Abt's Climate Environment team, where she explores the nexus of climate change, environment, public health, and communication. Welcome!

Colleen Moore: Thank you.

Alexis St. Juliana: Thank you.

Eric: As of this recording, it's been almost exactly four years since we've released our first podcast, which featured Colleen talking to us about housing and the need for resilience in response to climate change. But even as I was writing the intro to this podcast, I was starting by talking about blizzards in Texas and crazy hail in California, and then it became crazy snow in California, and then it became atmospheric rivers above California, the point being: this is an escalating problem. The good news is, we're doing more work with HUD and climate change. Colleen, from your perspective, what's changed?

Colleen: Well, Eric, the last time we talked was in 2019, right? And we had just completed the Community Resilience Toolkit, and that was kind of a primer for communities on how they can evaluate their natural hazard risks and vulnerabilities and how they could think about resilience actions. So that work was originally prompted by a HUD rule that required communities to consider that in their planning. That toolkit focused on specific hazards, such as sea level rise, wildfire, drought, inland flooding, and then how communities might address them, and we included examples of how some communities had already done that and what resources they used. But it was pretty high-level information, so that's why I say it was kind of a primer.

And then a couple of years ago, in 2021, HUD asked us to kind of build on that work by developing some more step-by-step implementation guides. And these, instead of focusing on the hazards, they focus on specific kinds of resilience activities that communities can take. And these are very specific, how they can create cool roofs, what kinds of nature-based solutions they can put in place and retrofit single-family housing. The idea was to give those HUD grantees some more specific information that they could easily adapt or kind of plug into their actual situation. We've also developed some videos that accompany most of those guides and, again, they include examples from real-life communities that have implemented these things. But these examples are quite a bit more detailed. So we've really kind of started to drill down from the initial work and getting down to some really tangible, usable tools for communities.

Eric: Great, thanks. Alexis, I know you've been talking to community leaders for this second round of work. What have you learned? What have you been hearing?

Alexis: More and more communities are engaging in resilience activities, and so when we approached these implementation guides, as Colleen was saying, we really wanted to find these real-world experiences that were tangible and relatable that other communities could kind of emulate. And so we did our research and we found some really terrific examples of communities that are doing resilience right now. These aren't necessarily planning activities, these are communities that are actually making these things happen. And so in each of the guides—which are nature-based solutions, cool roofs, single-family retrofits, resilient public facilities, education and outreach, and community-driven relocation, which folks might know a little bit better as a concept called managed retreat—we really got the opportunity to talk to these communities and learn the ins and outs of what they're dealing with as they try to implement resilience actions in their communities.

Eric: Great. And you want to talk a little bit more about what you have learned talking to those communities? That's great that we're getting to the practical aspect of it.

Alexis: Yeah. And I think a good way to talk about this is to actually talk about a couple specific examples that we explored as part of developing these implementation guides. And I'll add, I'm going to highlight two examples here, but we are just incredibly thankful to all the communities that participated in the case studies for the guides and the recorded presentations. They're just really wonderful insights. But we tried to pick a really wide swath of geography and implementers, whether that be states or local governments or community-based organizations, and also the actions and hazards that they're dealing with.

So one of them that's featured in the Nature-Based Solutions Guide is by a community-based organization called Our City Forest, and they implement a program called Lawn Busters in Santa Clara County, California. And as you can imagine, California is very hot and dry, so they're dealing with drought conditions. And what Lawn Busters does, they partner with the local water district to convert turf grass lawns, which are very heavy water users, to sustainable landscaping. What that really involves is putting down kind of climate-appropriate vegetation. And this program is available to veterans, older adults, low-income community members, and those with disabilities, and they've just had incredible demand. I think their waiting list is something like two years long to be part of this program. And because of that demand, Our City Forest is now offering a do-it-yourself model so that other community members can reap the benefits of this program. And so that's what we want to see, right? We want to see resilience just kind of proliferate throughout the community and other people to uptake and implement these actions.

Eric: Alexis, if I could ask real quick, when you say “it's available to,” you want to talk a little bit more about that? Like what are the guidelines and what is being made available for that matter?

Alexis: Yeah. So they have some criteria that they use to identify eligible community members. Like I said, it's people that have served in the armed forces, older adults, folks that are low income, and those with disabilities. So they're kind of the core focus of this Lawn Busters program.

But the other really great thing about this program I wanted to mention is their use of AmeriCorps service members. So this is thinking creatively using multiple funding sources to implement this program. So in addition to the support from the water district, they've accessed AmeriCorps service members. I was an AmeriCorps service member for two years, so I always want to play up that angle and to really get this done and make the program successful. You know, I don't think that Lawn Busters is actually using any HUD funding, and the examples that we've featured in the guides don't all necessarily use HUD funding to complete the work, but the idea was that these examples could be eligible because of what the actions are and how they relate to making the activities eligible.

Eric: And so we're talking about funding to help these communities you just mentioned, help them implement these programs. And these are, at least to an extent, environmental justice communities, right? Colleen, it looks like you want to set me straight there or clarify?

Colleen: No, that's right. One of the things we focused on in the original toolkit was kind of encouraging communities, especially more vulnerable communities, to use some of their resources in new ways and to look beyond their traditional resources to undertake these resilience actions and address those risks. So I think what Alexis just described is an example of that, right? Where AmeriCorps, actually, is another federal resource. In fact, it's funded by the federal government and it funds people to come in and help with those kinds of activities. The HUD resources, and we did look at that quite a bit, the HUD resources, they must primarily benefit low and moderate-income communities. But you know, those are some of the same communities that are usually disproportionately impacted by these kinds of risks and climate change in general. We tried to make the connection between some of these activities and the HUD resources that would be available, but also look a bit more broadly about what other resources are out there.

Eric: Right. Okay, great. Thanks, and thanks for clarifying that. Alexis, I know you had at least another example you wanted to share.

Alexis: Yeah, absolutely. And so I think the Lawn Busters program that I just talked about, that is something that feels really accessible that other communities can definitely relate to and hopefully feel like they could implement something similar in their communities. Another really great example of that is a program out of San Antonio, Texas called Under One Roof. And just like California is hot and dry, San Antonio is also a very hot environment, and so the Under One Roof program is operated by the city and they work with eligible homeowners to replace conventional roofs with cool roofs. And so by replacing these roofing materials, they help to reduce the temperatures inside the home, they lower energy use, and they reduce the local heat island effect. And that program has been immensely successful, it's been operating for several years, and they've replaced several hundred roofs for low-income homeowners in the community. So again, that's just another example of a program that feels really accessible that we think other communities could look to as models and use as inspiration on their resilience journey, whatever that might look like.

Eric: When you say immensely successful, obviously, the quantity is great. Do we have a sense of what the actual impact is? Do we have any numbers on that?

Alexis: So when they first started the program, they worked with, I believe, the University of Texas in San Antonio, and there, some researchers did an academic study, and they actually looked at several of the households and measured the temperature in the roofs and the difference between before and after they implemented these, and there was a measurable difference, tens of degrees, after they implemented that. So that would directly reduce the temperature in the home, kind of making it just more comfortable generally, and then ideally, they would not have to be running the air conditioner quite as much and it would be also contributing less greenhouse gas emissions. So it would really have multiple benefits. It would both be adaptation to climate change and mitigation to climate change.

Eric: Right. Great. Thank you for clarifying that. Yeah, Colleen?

Colleen: Yeah, there were several other examples. I mean, I think those are both great examples. But on that topic of reducing extreme temperatures or reducing like an urban heat island effect, there were several examples in different parts of the country that we looked at. I mean, New York City has a very large Cool Roofs program, and then there's another program in Louisville, Kentucky that aims to reduce the urban heat island effect there. They found a tremendous difference in temperature between neighborhoods. So I think that's a very adaptable strategy for communities to use.

These examples, they kind of vary in complexity. Something like Cool Roofs or the Under One Roof program in San Antonio, it's a straightforward solution, right? You've changed the nature of the roofing materials and that has an impact on lowering the temperature. But the examples that we looked at, they vary in complexity, and I would say probably the most complex topic that we dealt with, and Alexis really knows much more about this, is, she referred to earlier, community-driven relocation and sometimes called, I think, managed retreat, right, Alexis?

Alexis: Yep, that's correct.

Eric: So Alexis, why don't you tell us what that entails?

Alexis: Yeah, absolutely. So the final guide that we put together was on community-driven relocation, and this really applies to communities that are dealing with the most severe and immediate impacts of climate change. And as I mentioned earlier, most folks might be familiar with this concept as managed retreat, and even more recently, sometimes it's referred to as climate migration. And HUD really wanted to be crystal clear that community is kind of at the center of the process, so that's why we ended up calling this guide Community-Driven Relocation, but what we're really talking about are kind of gut-wrenching instances where communities collectively decide that the land that they're on is really no longer habitable. They're experiencing repetitive losses or increasingly hazardous conditions and they determined that they need to relocate.

And community-driven relocation really focuses on moving the community as a whole, so not just one house or a couple houses, but really the community banding together and deciding that this is something that they want to do and they want to find a whole new site. And so, by necessity, this guide is a little bit more detailed than the other guides. We talk a little bit more about other federal funding sources. The case studies in these are a little bit longer than what you'll see in the other guides, and there's also a little bit more discussion on the mechanisms, processes, and the enabling conditions that would get you to the point of relocation.

And so we talked to contacts familiar with three experiences with this relocation. One is in Newtok, Alaska, another was in Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, and then the other was New Jersey State. And these all actually used HUD funding in some shape or form, and actually, I think HUD was a really pivotal player in all three of them. And without getting into too much detail, I'll just say that these communities should really be commended for their problem-solving and kind of wherewithal. As you can imagine, it's a very long process. There's some really steep challenges, there's a lot of learning along the way, and after all of that, Newtok and Isle de Jean Charles are both at the juncture of community members actually moving to the new community sites. So I think that's a really positive and hopeful development, not just for these communities, but for all the other communities that can learn from them and their experience. So it's certainly not an easy process, but hopefully their experiences can inform others.

Eric: I do want to get into a little bit more detail because I'm going, "What does that entail? Are they building elsewhere? Are they just finding homes that are vacant?" How does this work? How do you characterize what this entails, broadly?

Alexis: Yeah. And so there's a couple different models that they use for relocation, and I think the New Jersey model is a little bit more of, I think, what you're maybe thinking of, Eric. In New Jersey, that's more of a buyout program. So New Jersey, they agree to acquire the property, and then the homeowners are kind of on their own to relocate wherever they choose with however they've been compensated for their property. In the Newtok and Isle de Jean Charles examples, they relocated as a community. So they actually both found completely new undeveloped sites to build a new town site. And so both of them, actually, when we spoke with them, mentioned the importance of land trusts and how long it actually took them to acquire the land and property rights for the new site. And so they both emphasized that that was just the longest and hardest part of their process, that that took a lot longer than they both thought it would.

Eric: Thank you. So I get this is a happy ending to what's kind of a catastrophic scenario, right? You have to pick up and leave your home. This is not going to be the last time someone has to do this, so it's great that we have this guide to help people. But looking forward, obviously, the goal is resilience and adaptation, right? So what do the two of you hope to see as we continue working in this space? What's next?

Colleen: Well, I think there's a few things, right? I mean, first of all, certainly there are many more examples than we've already identified and many other ways that communities have found to address some of the challenges that we've already looked at. So there's certainly more out there, and I think every day, as resilience becomes such a clear necessity for many communities, that they're getting more creative about this. So finding some of those, I think, is something else.

The other thing, one other thing which I think has become increasingly important over the time that we've been working on this is equitable community engagement and environmental justice, right? The administration issued an executive order on environmental justice, I think soon after this administration started, and so that's something that all of the departments are concerned about. And then Alexis, when she was talking about community-driven relocation, mentioned at the beginning that HUD really wanted to be clear that the community was at the center of this process, and I think that's something that is being emphasized more and more across the board. I mean, this is probably the most extreme example, but in other examples, where communities are just looking at maybe less comprehensive resilience actions, they still are looking for that not only community input but really community engagement. And in the case of HUD programs, that really needs to involve the communities that they're mandated to serve, which are, as they said, often vulnerable low and moderate-income communities.

So those are a couple of things. The other thing, we're in the process right now of expanding this work to cover some other areas that we really haven't looked as much at yet, and those are primarily around resilient infrastructure and transportation options, which may include green forms of transportation. Recently, HUD entered into a memorandum of understanding on decarbonization. That was with the Department of Transportation and with the EPA. And so between that, and then there's a lot of focus right now across the country on infrastructure because of the recent federal infrastructure bill and because of the fact that we should focus on that as well. So we're going to be working a bit more with HUD on some of those issues, and then we'll have some other work that relates specifically to the infrastructure grantees, and we hope to connect this so that their work, as they move forward with these infrastructure grants that may be coming out of a different department, will be thinking about resilience and making sure that as they build or replace that infrastructure, they're doing that in a way that promotes as much resilience as possible.

Eric: Yeah, that's great. And I think you're referring to Thriving Communities is at least one of those programs that we're working, and we're available to help communities figure out how to ensure housing and transportation co-exist successfully for low and middle-income communities and successfully includes in terms of the environmental impact, right?

Colleen: Yeah, that's right. Yeah. And we're hoping that even before that, we're going to move forward with some of this continued implementation work, and we're hoping that that's going to be logically connected to that thriving community's work, because we'll be identifying some communities that are already doing some of this work and hopefully providing some good examples and models for communities that haven't really looked at this yet but will be getting funding under the infrastructure bill.

Alexis: So Eric, the other thing I wanted to circle back to you that you mentioned earlier, and you asked about this for the San Antonio example, is where are they now, do we have any assessment on their progress and where they stand today and maybe what that means in more quantifiable terms, and I did just want to note that each of the guides, one of the steps, the final step, is measuring success and promoting where they are in their resilience continuum.

And so that's something that we thought about in the guide, and then I think as more and more communities start to engage in resilience actions, we might be able to get more of that data that we're looking for as folks move into implementation of resilience. And I think the one of the things, one of many things we learned in doing these implementation guides is that, well, we want quantifiable measures. We also need to be thinking about social and human metrics that we need to track in terms of people's acceptance with resilience processes and any other kind of community goals that might be part of that that aren't quite as driven by numbers, but more about community sentiment and acceptance.

Eric: Right. Well, here at Abt, we love quantitative and qualitative data.

Colleen: Right.

Eric: You're speaking our language, right? So we'll look forward to both sets as the two of you pursue your work. Obviously, I start with doom and gloom because it's hard not to when you're talking about the impacts of climate change, but it's great that we're able to say we're starting to connect these dots with housing, infrastructure, the environment, transportation, so thank you for letting us end on an up note.

Alexis: Thanks.

Colleen: Thanks, Eric.

Eric: And thank you for joining us at The Intersect.

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