On March 28, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that will dismantle many of his predecessor's policies on climate change. Under the banner of promoting economic growth, the six-page order calls for a sweeping review of how federal agencies plan for extreme weather in a changing climate.
Two policies on the chopping block had asked federal agencies and the military, respectively, to develop comprehensive plans for dealing with climate change. Trump’s executive order also revokes Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which called on the government to make “climate-resilient investments” through agency grants and technical assistance to local authorities. That threatens the future of programs like the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge, which aims to make public, commercial, residential, and industrial buildings 20 percent more efficient by 2020.
Some architects, developers, and planners worry Trump’s directives could slow their efforts to help cities adapt to the mounting impacts of climate change. Gina Ford, a Boston-based principal and landscape architect at Sasaki Associates, tells ARCHITECT that Trump’s executive order is based on a flawed premise—that Obama’s environmental regulations “constrain economic growth and prevent job creation.”
“This misses the extraordinary opportunity on many fronts to see our climate challenge as a catalyst for new economies,” she says. Her firm helped the city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for instance, recover from devastating flooding in 2008, installing flood barriers and an absorbent riverfront park that now serve as a buffer against future flooding of the Cedar River. The city suffered an estimated $6 billion in damages, leading to one of the largest disaster declarations ever issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), at $848 million.
Ford adds that the Trump administration’s actions could hamper the growing movement to promote resilient design and planning, and put FEMA on the hook for costlier clean-ups in the future. However, Trump’s budget plan, submitted to Congress on March 16, also proposes cutting $667 million from FEMA’s state and local grant funding, which goes toward initiatives such as the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program.
Sasaki’s work was funded in part by another potential casualty of Trump’s proposed budget: the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program.
“The real issue will be [vulnerable communities’] ability to implement strategy in the absence of federal funding and partnership,” Ford says. “Much of the work we have done in resiliency relies on partnerships between local, state, and federal entities.”
While the order may blunt government efforts to advance resilient design, Taryn Holowka, senior vice president of marketing, communications, and advocacy at the U.S. Green Building Council, says it won’t stop them entirely. Federal agencies have discretion to decide how they spend their limited funding, she says. “We trust that the objectives of reducing risk to life and property, which are the core of all resiliency activities, will remain priorities for every agency.”
Nonetheless, many designers fear the federal pullback on resilience planning will leave cities less prepared for future disasters.
Chicago-based building engineer Anil Ahuja, CCJM’s “smart cities guru,” says he was disappointed but not surprised by the extent of the administration’s early actions on climate change given Trump’s dismissal of the scientific consensus on manmade global warming. “If you do not believe in climate change and you’re not strengthening your infrastructure to meet the expected effects,” he says, “you’re making cities more prone to disaster.”
However, federal inaction may be an opportunity for small firms and individual architects to fill in the gap. HKS principal Shannon Kraus, FAIA, says the industry might have to adjust how they talk about resilience when their work involves the federal government by, for example, stressing “extreme weather” instead of climate change. “It’s a different vocabulary,” he says. “The good news is that this administration is big on innovation. That does open the door for much of what we’re about as architects.”
Kraus, who directs HKS’ Washington, D.C. office, recently met with Republican and Democratic lawmakers as part of the AIA Large Firm Round Table day on Capitol Hill. Designers, he says, should speak up about the economic benefits of resilient design while the administration is still in its early days. “We as architects cannot afford to be on the sidelines with this,” he says. “It's now more critical than ever for the building industry to drive further research and innovation in this area so that agencies, regardless of political leadership, can better know what the benefits of a regulation are versus the cost. ‘Feel-good’ stuff without research to support it is very vulnerable by this action.”
That campaign is already underway by local government officials across the nation. The day President Trump issued his executive order slashing environmental regulations, 75 mayors signed an open letter condemning it.
“We urge you to change course, and to join us,” the self-described “climate mayors” wrote. “In the meantime, America’s cities will continue to lead the way in moving forward in protecting our residents from the disastrous effects of climate change, and creating a thriving 21st century economy.”
In January, led by the Chicago firm Krueck + Sexton Architects, hundreds of architects addressed a similar letter to the president. Promising to work with local elected officials and campaign for action on climate change, they wrote, “We can turn our climate challenge into an unrivaled economic opportunity that creates desirable and healthy jobs in rural and urban communities alike.”