Adaptation Pathways: a planning approach addressing the uncertainty and challenges of climate change decision-making. It enables consideration of multiple possible futures and allows analysis/exploration of the robustness and flexibility of various options across those multiple futures. (OPR)
Adaptation: A change in structure, function, or behavior by which a species or individual improves its chance of survival in a specific environment.
Blue Carbon: The ability of tidal wetlands, seagrass, and mangrove habitats to sequester and store carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the effects of climate change. (ResilientCA.org)
Community Resilience: the ability of communities to withstand, recover, and learn from past disasters to strengthen future response and recovery efforts. This can include but is not limited to the physical and psychological health of the population, social and economic equity and well-being of the community, effective risk communication, integration of organizations (governmental and nongovernmental) in planning, response, and recovery, and social connectedness for resource exchange, cohesion, response, and recovery. (Office of Planning and ResearchPlanning and Investing For A Resilient California)
Community Land Trust: Nonprofit organizations governed by a board of CLT residents, community residents, and public representatives that provide lasting community assets and shared equity homeownership opportunities for families and communities. (Grounded Solutions Network)
Community-driven Planning: A process where frontline community members most impacted by climate change share decision-making power with the lead government agency and help produce strategies focused on their priorities and concerns. (USDN Guide to Equitable, Community-Drive Climate Preparedness Planning, and MSC Community-Driven Climate Resilience Planning)
Co-benefits: Beneficial outcomes from climate action that seek to mitigate climate change risks but also deliver on other priorities, such as addressing structural inequalities.
Coastal Erosion: the process by which local sea level rise, strong wave action, and coastal flooding wear down or carry away rocks, soils, and/or sands along the coast. (Climate.gov Toolkit)
Climate SMART Development: The acronym SMART stands for Sustainable, Mixed, Affordable, Resilient, Transit-oriented. Climate SMART Development is an approach to create resilient communities in balance with nature for current and future residents.
Climate Justice: A rights-based framework that seeks to address the social inequities created by our unjust political and economic systems which will be further exacerbated by climate change. (“Organizing Cools the Planet: Tools and Reflections to Navigate the Climate Crisis,”)
Climate Change Adaptation Planning: The process of analyzing, selecting, and prioritizing actions in response to climate change impacts. It is focused on addressing both short-term and long-term climate change impacts on human life, property, economic continuity, ecological integrity, and community function. (Adapt New South Wales and IPCC 2014 Report)
Climate Vulnerability: Describes the ways in which a person, community, or social system (a receptor) is susceptible to sustaining harm or damage (impact) as a result of climate change. Climate vulnerability is a function of (i) climate-related changes in conditions that are experienced by a receptor, and (ii) the receptor’s sensitivity to experiencing impacts as a result of those changing conditions. Climate vulnerability is related to physical factors (e.g., whether a community is likely to experience increases in the frequency of dangerously high heat events, or to be flooded during more frequent or intense storms) as well as social and economic factors (Climate Justice Working Group, Advancing Climate Justice in California: Guiding Principles and Recommendations for Policy and Funding Decisions 2017)
Drought: Period of excessive dryness long enough to affect agriculture, habitats, or people, which often develop slowly over months or years.
Equity: all people are justly and fairly included in society and that everyone is able to participate, prosper, and achieve their full potential. It recognizes that everyone enjoys different advantages and faces different challenges and that everyone should be treated justly and fairly according to their circumstances. Equity should be treated as a critical component of all planning, including climate adaptation planning. Equitable climate adaptation planning involves identifying persons who may be most vulnerable to climate change and ensuring that planning processes, distribution of resources, and efforts to address systemic wrongs are all conducted in an equitable manner (Office of Planning and Research Adaptation Planning Guide 2.0)
Environmental Justice: The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of people of all races, cultures, incomes, and national origins with respect to the development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. (Office of Planning and Research General Plan Guidelines)
Ecosystem Services: Benefits to humans provided by the natural environment and from healthy ecosystems.
Frontline communities: communities—including people of color, immigrants, low-income individuals, people with disabilities, those in rural areas, LGBTQIA+ people, indigenous people, and elderly populations—experience continued injustice. They face a legacy of systemic, largely racialized, inequity that can influence factors such as where they live and work, the quality of their air and water, their economic opportunities, and their access to transportation, basic necessities, and public services. All of these factors face compounded negative impacts in the face of climate change. (The Greenlining Institute: Making Equity Real in Climate Adaptation)
There’s no better way to get involved in making your city or county truly climate-friendly than by influencing its General Plan.
What is a General Plan?
The General Plan is a vision of how a community will grow and reflects community priorities for shaping the future. The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) recently released an update to its General Plan Guidelines. Since California law requires every city and county to periodically update its General Plan, the General Plan is considered by many to be the Constitution for land-use decisions at the local level. General Plans must be equitable, inclusive, and community-driven. In order for a jurisdiction to adapt and thrive in the face of the climate crisis, its General Plan needs to set goals that are not just incremental, but ambitious and transformative.
Unlike other plans (strategic plans, climate plans, etc.), the General Plan and its elements have legal standing, so a jurisdiction must abide by the policies and associated zoning code or be subject to legal challenges. Amendments to General Plans are allowed by law
only four times per year.
According to OPR’s 2019 Annual Planning Survey, over the past five years, policies, programs, and ordinances to promote climate mitigation–reducing greenhouse gas emissions–have increased
dramatically. With the passage of Senate Bill (SB) 379, the State
also expects to see more jurisdictions address climate adaptation in the near future (adaptation to climate change refers to adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climate impact, which can be extreme events such as flooding or wildfire, or slow-moving or gradual impacts like changes in
annual average temperature or sea level rise).
What are the required elements of a General Plan?
Like a blueprint, just as any building must have an entrance, roof, walls, etc. so too a General Plan must contain certain “elements” that group together the many factors that guide a city’s growth.
The mandatory elements for all jurisdictions are land use, circulation, housing, conservation, open space, noise, and safety. Jurisdictions that have identified disadvantaged communities must also address environmental justice in their community, including air quality. Communities across California are adopting policies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change, but not all cities are taking the steps necessary to reduce our climate impact.
Incorporate Environmental Justice: Throughout California, low-income communities and communities of color have experienced a combination of historic discrimination, negligence, and politica and economic disempowerment. These decisions have resulted in low-income communities and communities of color experiencing a disproportionate burden of pollution and health impacts, as well as disproportionate social and economic disadvantages such as poverty or housing instability. It is critical that General Plans prioritize the needs of disadvantaged communities through developing a full Environmental Justice Element (SB1000) or by including environmental justice principles throughout. General Plans must center equity in the development of environmental strategies by prioritizing the needs of climate-vulnerable communities, responding meaningfully to their leadership in designing solutions, and leveraging resources to ensure equity-focused outcomes are tied to each strategy.
Prioritize Nature-Based Solutions to Climate Adaptation: Nature-based solutions for climate harness the power of nature to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and also help us adapt to the impacts of climate change. They are win-win solutions that involve protecting, restoring, and sustainably managing ecosystems to address society’s challenges and promote human well-being. Natural infrastructure projects provide more durable solutions, reduce the risk of wildland fires and flooding from rising seas and stronger storms, provide clean drinking water and fresh food, and improve air quality while promoting climate change resilience and supporting the ecological systems upon which we all depend.
Prioritize Efficient Land Use: In order to meet new Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) housing allocations, reduce GHG emissions, and keep existing and future residents safe from climate impacts, General Plans should pursue infill development opportunities and encourage the construction of higher-density, mixed-use projects around existing public transit infrastructure, schools, parks, neighborhood-serving retail, and other critical services.
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Geomorphology: The study of Earth’s landforms created by mostly physical processes, including physical or chemical changes and those changes influenced by biological processes, including land use. (Geography Realm)
Geological Hazard Abatement District (GHAD): A GHAD is an independent, state-level public agency that oversees geologic hazard prevention, mitigation, abatement, and control. GHADs operate with a focus on the prevention of geologic hazards, with mitigation and abatement also being primary functions. A “geologic hazard” is broadly defined as an actual or threatened landslide, land subsidence, soil erosion, earthquake, fault movement, or any other natural or unnatural movement of land or earth. (California Association of GHADs)
Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGs): Greenhouse gases released into the air that are produced by numerous activities, including burning fossil fuels, industrial agriculture, and melting permafrost, to name a few. These gases cause heat to be trapped in the atmosphere, slowly increasing the Earth’s temperature over time. (Greenbelt Alliance Climate & Land-Use Dictionary)
Groundwater inundation: Flooding that occurs as groundwater is lifted above the ground surface due to sea level rise.
Groundwater: the water found underground in the cracks and spaces in soil, sand and rock. It is stored in and moves slowly through geologic formations of soil, sand and rocks called aquifers. (Groundwater Foundation)
Greenhouse gases (GHG): Any gaseous compound in the atmosphere that is capable of absorbing infrared radiation, thereby trapping and holding heat in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, and other compounds.
What is a Housing Element?
Housing elements are critical parts of the General Plan. They dictate where and what kind of housing can be built in your community.
In California, the Housing Element is state mandated, it assesses the existing and projected housing needs of all economic segments of the community; identifies potential sites; and contains adopted goals, policies, and implementation programs for the preservation, improvement, and development of housing.
Every city in California must update its housing element in 2022. Use this website to track upcoming housing element updates across the state: fairhousingelements.org.
How is the Housing Element connected to climate & why is it so important?
California is facing an extreme affordability crisis that is driven by the interrelated housing shortage, economic inequity, and climate crises. We are not building enough housing at any income level. When we don’t create enough homes, prices go up and working-class and low-income families are forced to live far away from where they work or grew up. This continued upward pressure on the cost of housing means that Bay Area residents are having a harder time finding safe housing and purchasing even a modest home.
California is short over 3.5 million homes, according to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, which forces more workers to become super commuters—people who have to drive more than 90 minutes to get to work. The lack of affordable housing close to jobs also increases pressure for sprawl development on our natural and working lands—where urban infrastructure intermingles with wildland vegetation, also known as the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). That is exactly where wildlife risk is more pronounced, yet this land is being rapidly developed in the Bay Area.
In California, about 40% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) come from transportation—the bulk of that from gasoline and diesel-burning vehicles. The carbon footprint of our auto-centric urban planning is even greater when we count oil refining and upstream emissions outside of the state. Denser forms of development—building up instead of out—reduce the dependence on personal vehicles, which in turn reduces travel time and costs, the consumption of oil and gasoline, and the planet-warming GHG emissions responsible for elevating the risks of climate change.
Even as California has made great progress in cleaning up its electricity grid, transportation emissions were on an upward trend prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In some counties, as much as two-thirds of emissions are up from automobiles. Building more climate SMART (Sustainable, Mixed, Affordable, Resilient, Transit-Oriented) housing in the right places can mitigate these climate impacts and reduce housing costs and inequities. But in order to do this, we need to change the way we build and eliminate the stigma around multi-family homes.
As we encourage and engage in equitable, fire and flood-safe infill development (development of vacant land—usually individual lots or leftover properties—within areas that are already largely developed), it is imperative that we think about how we can maximize the benefits we get from our land. We need to build more infill housing in existing urban areas and ensure that all housing includes a healthy amount of green infrastructure like bioswales, carbon sequestering trees that provide shade and help regulate microclimates while mitigating the urban heat island effect, native plants that can provide habitat, and other nature-based solutions to climate risks.
Horizontal Levee: This concept (also called ecotone levees or living levees) aims to integrate flood control with habitat restoration in a way that can provide wastewater treatment while simultaneously providing ecosystem benefits — all with a much lower price tag as compared to gray water infrastructure alternatives.
Heat island: An area characterized by temperatures higher than those of the surrounding area, usually due to exposed pavement and lack of tree canopy.
Infill Development: Development of vacant land (usually individual lots or leftover properties) within areas that are already largely developed (Greenbelt Climate & Land Use Dictionary)
Inclusionary Zoning: Regulatory program that requires development projects to designate and maintain a specific percentage of housing units as affordable for households with moderate, low, and very-low-incomes (Greenbelt Climate & Land Use Dictionary)
Joint Powers Authorities: legally created entities that allow two or more public agencies to jointly exercise common powers. Forming such entities may not only provide a creative approach to the provision of public services but also permit public agencies with the means to provide services more efficiently and in a cost-effective manner. The Joint Exercise of Powers Act, as codified in California Government Code section 6500, governs JPAs. Under the Act, JPAs are restricted to use by public agencies only. However, the term public agency is defined very broadly. A public agency can include, but is not limited to, the federal government, the state or state departments, mutual water companies, public districts and recognized Indian tribes. (BB&K Law)
Just Transition: Movement to a regenerative economy that not only mitigates climate change, but provides people with good jobs, economic mobility, and does not exhaust our planet’s finite resources.
Locally Unwanted Land Uses (LULUs): A LULU is a land use that creates costs–like potential health hazards, poor aesthetics, or reduction in home values– on those living within close proximity to unwanted land uses such as toxic waste dumps, incinerators, smelters, airports, freeways, and other sources of environmental, economic, or social degradation. LULUs often gravitate to disadvantaged areas such as industrial neighborhoods and poor, minority, unincorporated, or politically under-represented places that cannot fight them off.
Linguistic isolation: defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as living in a household in which all members aged 14 years and older speak a non-English language and also speak English less than “very well” (i.e., have difficulty with English).
Memorandum of Understanding (MOU): an agreement between two or more parties. Unlike a contract, however, an MOU need not contain legally enforceable promises (although in this case many do). (Change Lab Solutions)
Mitigation: The process of implementing measures to address, avoid, minimize, or compensate for the impacts to the environment caused by human action.
Managed Retreat: The coordinated process of voluntarily and equitably relocating people, structures, and infrastructure away from at-risk areas in response to episodic or chronic threats in order to facilitate the transition of individual people, communities, and ecosystems (both species and habitats) inland. (Georgetown Climate Center).
Natured-Based Solutions: refers to a suite of actions or policies that harness the power of nature to address some of our most pressing societal challenges, such as threats to water security, rising risk of natural disasters, or climate change. (World Wildlife Fund)
Natural lands: An area of relatively undeveloped land which has substantially retained its characteristics as provided by nature or has been substantially restored, or which can be feasibly restored to a near-natural condition and which derives outstanding value from its wildlife, scenic, open space, parkland or recreational characteristics, or any combination thereof. (Law Insider)
Natural hazard: Source of harm or difficulty created by a meteorological, environmental, or geological event.
Overlay Zones: An overlay zone is a zoning district that is applied over one or more previously established zoning districts, establishing additional or stricter standards and criteria for covered properties in addition to those of the underlying zoning district. Communities often use overlay zones to protect special features such as historic buildings, wetlands, steep slopes, and waterfronts. Overlay zones can also be used to promote specific development projects, such as mixed-use developments, waterfront developments, housing along transit corridors, or affordable housing. (APA)
Operational Landscape Units (OLUs): geographic areas that share common physical characteristics and, subsequently, common adaptation strategies. OLUs operate like “nature’s jurisdictions”—they cross traditional city and county boundaries but adhere to the boundaries of natural processes like tides, waves, and sediment movement. See SF Bay Area Adaptation Atlas.
Here is a sample public comment template that you can use to speak during city council meetings, general plan updates, or housing element updates. Simply make a copy of this document and add your own information. Remember: speak from your heart and use examples from your life.
You usually will have 2 or 3 minutes to provide your comment (they will let you know in advance the exact amount of time you are allotted). Every city has different ways of calling in, make sure you look up how to call in (via zoom, phone line, or otherwise) to provide your comment, this information should be provided on the agenda.
Here is more advice to help you further develop your message: Crafting Your Comment
Thank you for allowing me to speak. My name is [name]. I am from [city/neighborhood].
I would like to draw your attention to the issue of:
[This is where you share the main issue you would like to talk about. Perhaps it’s including or prioritizing environmental justice policies or incorporating more green infrastructure policies.]
In my community,
[This is where you can tell your story. How does this issue affect you.]
This effectively means that:
The consequences of not fixing this problem include:
[This is where you can go into more detail about what is at stake if this issue is not included in the General Plan.]
I am here today to ask you to do the right thing and [insert ask here].
Thank you for your time and consideration of my request.
Permit Streamlining: To expedite the processing of permits for development projects and avoid unnecessary delays.
Riverine flooding: When the volume of water in a waterway (creeks, rivers, or constructed channels) exceeds the waterway’s capacity, it will overflow the waterway’s banks. (WA Coastal Network)
Risk assessment: A product or process that collects information and assigns values to risks for the purpose of informing priorities, developing or comparing courses of action, and informing decision-making. (FEMA Local Mitigation Plan Review Guide, October 2011, Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment Guide, and Department of Homeland Security Risk Lexicon)
Risk: the potential for damage, loss, or other impacts created by the interaction of natural hazards with community assets.
Redlining: the discriminatory practice of denying services (typically financial) to residents of certain areas based on their race or ethnicity. (Investopedia)
Here is a sample letter template that you can use to send to your local elected officials or city staff. Simply make a copy of this document and add your own information.
Pro tip: write from your heart and use examples from your life.
Dear [city council members, or name specific people],
My name is [name]. I am from [city/neighborhood]. The General Plan is the long-term blueprint for our communities vision of future growth. I am writing to you today to request that:
[This is where you share the main issue you would like to talk about. Perhaps it’s including or prioritizing environmental justice policies or incorporating more green infrastructure policies]
Possible request: I am writing to you today to request that the climate crisis and how our community plans to address it is front and center in our General Plan update.
We ask that you ensure the Updated General Plan incorporates goals and specific policies to reduce the causes of human-induced climate change as well as prepares our community to adapt to future climate impacts in all of its elements. To do this, means that all growth, development, or redevelopment plans account for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as climate impacts Priority is needed to ensure plans protect those currently most affected by greenhouse gas emissions and those who are currently at risk or face future risk of disproportionate harm from climate change related impacts in our communities.
Please ensure that our General Plan update addresses climate action, strengthens the urban limit line, protects our shorelines, and includes clear implementing policies to shift towards clean energy, affordable housing, and overall healthy places.
Specifically, please ensure that the General Plan updates include: [Feel free to use all or part of this list or create your own. This is where you should list out clear, bullet-point requests that are easy to digest]:
We cannot afford to ignore our climate crisis any longer. I look forward to following along in the General Plan process and providing my feedback. The consequences of not addressing our climate crisis are extreme and we are already experiencing many of the impacts. We do not have more time to waste.
Thank you for your service to our community, and all that you do to ensure it is a place that future generations will come to enjoy as we have!
Name, address, email, phone number
Special districts: local governments created by the people of a community to deliver specialized services essential to their health, safety, economy, and well-being. A community forms a special district, which are political subdivisions authorized through a state’s statutes, to provide specialized services the local city or county do not provide. (CSDA)
Subsidence: A gradual settling or sudden sinking of the Earth’s surface due to removal or displacement of subsurface earth materials. (United States Geological Survey)
Transportation Demand Management (TDM): a program of information, encouragement, and incentives provided by local or regional organizations to help people know about and use all their transportation options to optimize all modes in the system—and to counterbalance the incentives to drive that are so prevalent in subsidies of parking and roads. These are both traditional and innovative technology-based services to help people use transit, ridesharing, walking, biking, and telework. (Mobility Lab)
Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK): refers to the evolving knowledge acquired by indigenous and local peoples over hundreds or thousands of years through direct contact with the environment. This knowledge is specific to a location and includes the relationships between plants, animals, natural phenomena, landscapes, and timing of events that are used for lifeways, including but not limited to hunting, fishing, trapping, agriculture, and forestry. (United States Fish and Wildlife Service)
Topography: Refers to the arrangement of the natural and artificial physical features of an area such as the steepness and surface shapes of the land.
Urban Growth Boundary: defines where development should and should not happen. The line circumscribes an entire urbanized area and is used by local governments to guide land-use decisions. (Greenbelt Climate & Land Use Dictionary)
Vulnerability: Characteristics of community assets that make them susceptible to damage from a given hazard Impact – the consequences or effects of a hazard on the community and its assets.
Working lands: lands used for farming, grazing, or the production of forests. (Law Insider)
Watershed: The specific land area that drains to a lake, river, or stream