DC climate plan

Confronted by the game-changing outcomes of Superstorm Sandy and the devastating derecho storm of 2012 that wreaked havoc throughout the city, the Washington, D.C., Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE) decided to rethink ways to approach the effects of extreme weather on both the physical assets of the city and their residents. In 2013, the DOEE requested applications from groups and organizations to develop and write a comprehensive plan to evaluate vulnerabilities and make recommendations to mitigate the hazards caused by climate change, most specifically the increased risk of storm surge caused by rising sea levels and the occurrence of extreme heat and extreme precipitation.

After reviewing a competitive number of applications (the DOEE would not confirm specifics), officials chose the local office of Perkins+Will to orchestrate the city’s new climate change–related strategy. Perkins+Will co-authored the report with AREA Research, the firm’s nonprofit platform for discovery and exploration. Kleinfelder, with Atmos Research and Consulting, performed the analysis on the effects of rising temperatures and frequency of extreme weather that would ultimately inform the recommendations.

“We felt that their [Perkins+Will’s] main strength was that they can look towards the future, not the past, when it comes to the way we design buildings and our infrastructure,” says Tommy Wells, director of the DOEE. “The impact that the built environment has is tremendous when it comes to climate change, and having the perspective of architects and planners—along with their ability to work in both the public and private sectors—made them a truly ideal choice to spearhead this critical effort.”

As for the need for a plan in the first place, Wells notes that climate change has become an economic as well as social and political issue. “If you don’t reduce the risk to your capital assets,” he says, “it may impact your municipal bond rating, which can cost you more with insurance companies.”

After examining and highlighting threats to the most vulnerable neighborhoods in the city, the Perkins+Will team—comprised of Amy Thompson, project manager and member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP); Jon Penndorf, AIA, sustainability leader; Doug Pierce, AIA, project architect; and Janice Barnes, global resilience director—set out to provide a road map for the District to proactively address the dangers from the possibility of catastrophic climate change impact.

The Plan Takes Shape

“Our team used a number of sources to create a framework for a plan that encompasses sustainability, hazard preparedness, equity, and other design criteria,” Penndorf says. “From there, we listed out actions and workshopped them with DOEE to prioritize areas for implementation.”

At the press conference announcing the release of the report, deputy mayor for greater economic opportunity Courtney R. Snowden passionately explained that the lessons of Hurricane Katrina reinforced how important it is that cities prepare their most vulnerable residents for the shocks associated with extreme weather and natural disasters. “Cities must have a plan,” she emphasized, “and equity is infused in every part of this plan.”

Wells adds that vulnerable areas face a disproportionate impact from the effects of extreme heat, snowfall, and flooding—not just because of lack of income but because of a lack of mobility. “The plan acknowledges that reality,” he says, “and we will be striving to improve not just the resiliency of the most vulnerable areas in the city—like the Watts Branch neighborhood prone to severe flooding—but to also working to offer community resources and services that residents can turn to in times of crisis.”

Four Critical Areas

The Perkins+Will plan provides specific recommendations across four critical areas:

Transportation and Utility Infrastructure: Develop site-level adaptation plans for all transportation, energy, water/wastewater, telecommunications/data facilities, functions, and service areas that are identified as at-risk from rising sea levels and flooding.

Buildings and Development: Upgrade existing buildings, addressing resilience with new construction and development, incentivizing private owners and developers to implement resilience measures, and developing agency protocols to ensure compliance with these measures.

Neighborhoods and Communities: Improve public awareness of threats and ways to counter them, improving the readiness of emergency responders and community members and increasing opportunities for community engagement and citizen response.

Governance and Implementation: Develop an organizational strategy that links all adaptation efforts in D.C.

The Climate Ready DC plan, which contains 77 action items, was written to be phased in through short-, medium-, and long-term implementation. But for the plan to be successful, residents need to be aware of its existence and what it might mean for them personally. To that end, the DOEE held three public meetings, with breakout sessions for attendees to discuss elements of the four main topic areas. Residents could share what they valued most in the plan, and what they felt was missing.

There are still gaps that will need to be addressed, as well as questions about zoning ordinances and building codes, but the plan is intended to also work as a catalyst for activation for the city. Perkins+Will has urged the DOEE to collaborate with multiple agencies and partners so that its structure, protocols, and cohesive communication allow for the successful realization of the plan. Taking that a step further, they suggested establishing a public–private task force, including infrastructure owners and operators, to oversee and coordinate the implementation of the plan.

Lessons, Takeaways, and Next Steps

When it came to drafting the plan itself, Amy Thompson says, “You really need to know your audience. In the end, it is both a document that you want the public to be able to read and understand, but you also want it to serve as a set of recommendations that D.C. could use to get funding to execute elements of the plan.”

She also notes that the vulnerability assessment showed that, regardless of flooding or a severe snowstorm, “there are language barriers and other entrenched obstacles for residents to be able to react to problems.” As the plan evolves to address these and other realities, D.C. will be updating its overall comprehensive land use plan in 2017.

“We are hoping to infuse our building codes, based on the International Green Construction Code, with more resilient building codes,” says Kate Johnson, program analyst for the D.C. Urban Sustainability Administration. “We will be using the Climate Ready DC plan as a guide for future development and taking the opportunity to leverage existing ongoing projects, like stream restoration to minimize flooding.”

Design-Oriented Approaches with Community Reach

When it comes to the significance of being involved in an undertaking of this magnitude, Penndorf says, “We believe that the systems thinking that architects and planners do every day adds great value to tackling big issues like climate change, and offers tangible ways to improve the design and development process.”

“Perkins+Will considered this project a form of civic engagement,” he adds. “We hope our efforts will make a positive difference at a different scale, to make communities and neighborhoods across the city safer, healthier, and sustainable to survive and recover from extreme weather and environmental shocks.”

Architects often stress the importance of “being at the table” when it comes to crucial big-picture decision-making at the local, state, and federal levels. How better to substantiate the value of an architectural vantage point than to apply to conduct research and write similar wide-reaching plans for government agencies?

This carefully fine-tuned effort can serve as an example of a time when the leaders of government agencies and elected officials welcomed input on matters that influence and shape the built environment from those who plan and design, and, to a larger degree, determine the way their communities function and prosper.