Implementing Climate Policies

Governance Challenges

Incorporating climate policies in local planning processes is a critical step to building a resilient Bay Area. However, policies are only the first step. Local jurisdictions must address their capacity and governance issues in order to effectively implement critical climate policies. Additionally, policies need to have clear measurable goals and milestones to track progress. Jurisdictions need to align plans internally and with their neighbors at a city, county, and regional scale. Climate adaptation cannot be solved once and for all. Instead, adaptation will be an “iterative process involving partial or temporary good solutions, deliberate risk-management, monitoring and reassessment, [and] continual learning, in an ongoing planning circle”(Valente, 2019). Even “long-term” solutions, such as levees, will not last through 2100, and thus will require ongoing monitoring and iterative planning processes that will take place in future, unknown contexts.

Climate adaptation calls for embracing uncertainty in our policies as well as our implementation mechanisms. This is especially important for sea level rise—an issue that experts agree is happening but that has high degrees of uncertainty when considering how much and how soon. Uncertainty has been cited as a prominent barrier to action, but perhaps the barrier is not uncertainty but, instead, the lack of proper tools and governance structures for incorporating it and taking action in the face of knowledge gaps.

In the climate adaptation field, governance is an ambiguous, yet far-reaching term that refers to the structures of multiple public and private players involved in planning, implementing, and sustaining climate change adaptation action.

Climate change has the power to shape all aspects of society, and adaptation actions must do the same. Currently in the Bay Area, we do not have the planning tools and governance structures necessary to a) incorporate local and expert knowledge, b) prioritize action, and c) implement, maintain, and monitor solutions. This is partly a result of technocratic structures and top-down approaches that have institutionalized inequities and is also partly due to the nature of climate change itself. It demands collaboration among levels of government, multiple coordinated scales of action, and broad stakeholder engagement.

Addressing climate change is an opportunity to rethink our governance structures from the bottom-up as a way to embed equity into the process that prioritizes climate adaptation.

If adaptation projects are undertaken without coordination, neighboring cities and regions could be put at greater risk and likely result in worsening geographic inequality. In research published by Michelle Hummel and Mark Stacey, it was found that shoreline hardening (seawalls, levees) in one part of the San Francisco Bay can result in cascading effects across the Bay—including increased flood risk and wave inundation, and even more severe traffic impacts due to those flood impacts (Hummel & Stacey, 2020).

How do we rethink our systems? These Bay Area case studies and innovative ideas are ways to close the governance gap and establish new forms of governance necessary to adapt. New tools, policies, collaborations, and mechanisms will be necessary for funding, implementing, and monitoring the policies and actions recommended in this Playbook.

Landscape-scale Governance

The Bay Area has numerous capable institutions that have conducted vulnerability studies and disseminated planning and policy guidance around sea level rise, but so far, little action has been taken at the regional level. Since climate impacts do not stop at geographic borders, the San Francisco Estuary Institute has proposed the use of operational landscape units as a method for multi-jurisdictional collaboration and SPUR has recommended the use of a as a way to formalize those areas and take action (learn more in the Adaptation Atlas). As of now, regional collaboration is on a voluntary, ad-hoc basis. Formalized structures, in the form of a special district or Joint Partnership Agreement (JPA), may be able to facilitate more action since roles can be clearly delineated and the problem of “free-riders” in regional projects can be addressed and negotiated.

Community-scale Governance

Community-scale governance is vital for communities and areas poised to experience vast changes as a result of climate change’s direct and indirect impacts. To equitably practice adaptation, these communities must be given a seat at the table in shaping a vision of a climate-impacted future. Special Districts may be a tool for implementing adaptation projects and programs that require governance structures that don’t match with existing city and county boundaries. Most special districts can allow boundaries to be drawn across jurisdictions, and many even allow for non-contiguous areas to be included. The Bay Area has multiple case studies of counties, cities, and even communities creating special districts as a governance mechanism for climate change-related projects including flood control, urban greening, and landslide protection.

San Mateo County has more people and property value at risk from rising seas than any other county in California (2018 Proposal). Local politicians and county staff have been hugely influential in taking action to adapt and protect communities from sea level rise. The County

With support from congresswoman Jackie Speier, a formation committee explored various options for creating a new agency or governance entity to address countywide resilience risks. The committee recommended that an existing Flood Control District (created in 1959) be altered through Special Act, which requires legislation at the state level. In September 2019, Assembly Bill 825 was signed into law, and on January 1, 2020, the San Mateo County Flood and Sea Level Rise Resilience District was born.

This new agency is able to streamline shoreline adaptation projects and facilitate collaboration across cities, regulatory agencies, and other public and private stakeholders (see graphic). While district operations are currently being funded by contributions of individual cities and the County, the agency may soon be pursuing a countywide measure that would provide funding for comprehensive resilience projects. This district is currently one-of-a-kind and demonstrates how new tools can be used to facilitate collaboration, streamline projects, and generate stable funding resources for long-term resilience.

While special districts, Joint Powers Authorities (JPA), and working groups are vital tools to consider for facilitating equitable climate adaptation, it is also important that existing governance structures are reformed to better accommodate ongoing learning, adaptive governance, and adaptation pathways. This may include dedicated funding for monitoring and reporting, greater collaboration between government agencies, departments, non-profits, and the public.

Zoning and policy tools can be powerful climate governance mechanisms that can be implemented through a city ordinance, General Plan, or through other standard routes, providing near-term solutions in the face of a changing climate.

Overcoming existing governance challenges is essential for taking equitable, efficient, and responsive climate adaptation actions. These recommendations center frontline communities in the planning and implementation process while also providing tools for collaboration among multiple stakeholders at different levels and at different spatial scales.

Critical Actions to Take Now

  • Facilitate coordination among cities and counties through cross-jurisdictional planning programs, working groups, and special districts. Creating a space for ongoing dialogue, sharing of best practices, and coordination is a positive first step towards pursuing more formalized relationships among and between cities, counties, and other stakeholders.
  • Expand capacity in local government by creating a “Chief Resilience Officer” position and supporting that position with greater staff capacity. Funding opportunities for climate resilience and adaptation are available but they require staff capacity to apply for grants and ongoing capacity to carry out projects successfully. Having a designated Resilience Officer position can also help break down silos by incorporating resilience into projects and programs across all departments.
  • Overcome government silos through cross-department and multi-agency Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and collaborative efforts on grants and public projects. There are often opportunities to incorporate resilience and sustainability efforts into transportation, housing, and public works projects but this requires collaboration and planning. Having a formal agreement among departments and agencies can make funding applications more competitive while also producing multi-benefit projects.
  • Use resilience overlay zones to restrict development in high-risk locations. Overlay zones can be enacted by local ordinances and can be a relatively straightforward way to incorporate resilience into local planning. They can be used to require specialized building requirements in high hazard zones, limit development and density, and provide information to developers and the public about local hazards and how to prepare.
Region known as "Area 4" wetlands, in Newark. Derell Licht/Save Newark Wetlands
Case Study

Stronger Regional Governance to Protect Last Remaining Undeveloped Wetlands

Along the South San Francisco Bay shoreline, there is a remarkable open space area known as Newark Area 4. The 500-acre Area 4 is a mosaic of SF Bay wetlands and upland wildlife habitat directly bordering the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. San Francisco Bay advocates and Newark residents have fought vigorously for decades to protect and restore these historic baylands and have them included in the adjacent SF Bay National Wildlife Refuge. In November 2019, the City of Newark approved the “Sanctuary West” project for Area 4, a plan to construct 469 single-family homes and 2,739 parking spaces on top of this rare San Francisco Bay upland Habitat and is a critical piece of land to protect for flood mitigation purposes.

As climate risks like wildfire and flooding become more frequent, it’s never been more important to restore and protect natural buffers—such as greenbelts and wetlands—and drive development into existing communities. However, without a stronger regional governance system to enforce the protection of marshland and undeveloped shoreline outside of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission’s jurisdiction, it is challenging to implement protections necessary if local governments fail to protect their communities from future climate risks. Development decisions cities make along the shoreline will have a regional impact. With the right approach, this land could absorb floodwater and sequester carbon. However, if developed in a manner that disregards future planet-warming scenarios, it could increase the chances of flooding and vulnerability to existing communities in Newark and other Bay Area cities. The need for a stronger regional governance system and a set of principles is outlined in BCDCs Bay Adapt Joint Platform. Bay Adapt is an initiative to establish regional agreement on the actions necessary to protect people and the natural and built environment from rising sea levels.

Restoring wetlands and driving development into existing communities near transit are among the best solutions for climate adaptation. Developing housing in this FEMA flood zone not only results in a missed opportunity to restore these wetlands but will actually put future residents at risk as sea levels rise over time.

Monitoring, Reporting, and Metrics

Changing climate conditions require an adaptive management approach. This approach is informed by tracking changing climate conditions and the performance of a plan or project. Building checkpoints into a project or plan timeline can help to create a system for regular review and, if needed, adjustments. Under changing climate conditions, this approach is often referred to as adaptation pathways.

In addition to identifying the right climate policies, it is critical for cities and counties to implement a transparent tracking and reporting system in their General Plan and Climate Action Plan to evaluate the efficacy of mitigation and adaptation actions. This will help build community trust and ensure the equitable distribution of climate-related projects across the jurisdiction.

Good metrics provide:

  • A baseline to show what the starting point is
  • A goal for where the community is going (and by when)

Metrics can help tell a story about the critical need to build resilience in a community and help build political support that could lead to funding.

However, identifying the right metrics can be challenging. Qualitative metrics can be hard to measure and the data is not always available for quantitative metrics. Collecting the data required takes funding, equipment, and the right personnel. It’s important that capturing the data does not take more capacity than the action that will be taken with the final metrics.

Measuring actions towards a goal can help provide the structure to track progress, identify priority actions, and later allocate additional resources. Using specific metrics can help provide a more direct path towards achieving climate goals.

Well-designed policies should do the following (EPA Regional Resilience Toolkit, 2019):

  • Include both qualitative and quantitative metrics.
  • Connect to goals, community values, and desired outcomes.
  • Feasibly track information required to measure the metric. If the data is too difficult or too expensive to track and gather, it’s not as useful. Don’t spend too many resources or too much time on data collection and summaries which can create a barrier to taking real resilience-building action.
  • Offer fewer, more meaningful metrics rather than a long list that will not be tracked.
  • Make sure a metric means something and is not simply a count. For example, a metric that indicates the number of people who received training does not necessarily correlate to knowledge.
  • Provide data for accountability, guiding action, telling a story, and measuring success.
  • Be adaptable and scale with the effort and do not become unwieldy.

Recommendations for how to add accountability to General Plan policies:

  • Add a section to all staff reports that reviews impact on sustainability, resilience, and equity, as well as fiscal impact.
  • Mandate annual reporting on General Plan progress be posted on the front page of the city website with a clear dashboard that indicates progress on implementation plans. And clear visuals of how the city is meeting its greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals.
  • Provide for systematic reviews of General Plan progress and associated metrics that are transparent, engage the community, and demonstrate measurable equitable outcomes consistent with the Plan’s intent.
  • Set clear, measurable goals with dates. Example: By X year, require the planting of street trees throughout the City to define and enhance the character of the street and the adjacent development. OR Plant X number of street trees (~25% increase) in the sidewalk tree wells to complete the street tree network by 2040.

Plan Alignment and The Role of the State in Resilience Planning For the Region

California has passed many bills in the last few years to ensure that climate adaptation is incorporated into local planning efforts including:

  • SB379 (2015) requires the Safety Element of a community’s General Plan to address the hazards created or exacerbated by climate change. The Safety Element must include a vulnerability assessment that identifies how climate change is expected to affect hazard conditions in the community. It must also include a set of goals, policies, and measures to adapt and improve resilience to these anticipated changes. More information about SB379 can be found on the ARCCA website here.
  • SB1035 (2018) requires jurisdictions to review and, if necessary, update the Safety Element upon each revision of the Housing Element or LHMP. This should be done at least once every eight years to identify new information not available during the previous revision relating to flood and fire hazards and climate adaptation and resilience strategies.
  • SB1241 (2012) addresses wildfire hazards in the wildland-urban interface and adds mandatory wildfire requirements for jurisdictions in state responsibility areas and very high -Fire Hazard Severity Zone ones in local responsibility areas upon the next Housing Element update.
  • AB747 (2019) requires jurisdictions to, after January 1, 2022, review and update the Safety Element of their General Plan as necessary to identify evacuation routes and evaluate their capacity, safety, and viability under a range of emergency scenarios.
  • SB 99 (2019) requires cities, upon the next revision of the Housing Element on or after January 1, 2020, to review and update the Safety Element to include information identifying residential developments in hazard areas that do not have at least two emergency evacuation routes.
  • SB1000 (2016) mandates that cities and counties adopt an Environmental Justice Element or integrate environmental justice goals, objectives, and policies into other elements of their General Plans. 

Together, these state laws create an opportunity to connect environmental justice and disaster resilience into long-term plans for how communities will grow and invest in future infrastructure.

With the passing of the above legislation, many municipalities might need help managing the array of new guidelines and requirements for local plans. Anticipating these challenges, The Office of Planning and Research Adaptation Clearinghouse has provided resources that help planners align multiple planning processes in order to achieve climate mitigation and adaptation goals, reduce duplication of efforts, and avoid policy conflicts. One of these resources is the Plan Alignment Compass, which provides an overview of the required elements and best practices for each required municipal plan, discusses concrete strategies to leverage vulnerability assessments to help make them usable and applicable to all plans, and identifies common challenges that might arise. It also illustrates tools and state guidance documents that support the incorporation of hazards into planning.