If a human being were forced into a physical contest with a lion, a tiger, or a bear (oh my), the result would be unlikely to favor the human. Nevertheless, in a world of lions and tigers and bears, human beings sit atop the food chain. Why? Because humans adapt. The human species owes its longevity to its ability to learn to cope with any environment, to out-think any predator.
Humanity’s next great challenge may be learning how to adapt to climate change.
On July 16, Asheville’s chief sustainability officer Maggie Ullman shared a few ideas on the challenge with close to 30 attendees at the weekly Green Drinks meeting, held at the Green Sage Café.
She based her presentation on a model that’s prominent in sustainability initiatives and that was reviewed at a June conference in Copenhagen, Denmark: the Triple Bottom Line, which integrates economic, societal and environmental goals. Ullman attended the conference as one of many representatives from 35 cities from around the globe who discussed what climate change meant in terms of development, progress and adaptation.
“We want any goal to start with these three,” Ullman said.
She noted a number of projects that have integrated the triple bottom line, such as a public space in Copenhagen that wrapped parking garage, residential and sustainable development into one whole. The success of the project stemmed from considering multiple goals from the beginning, she said.
Ullman also discussed the importance of merging adaptation with mitigation. Adaptation deals with the process of change as a species becomes better suited to its environment. Mitigation, on the other hand, focuses on reducing the severity or seriousness of something, she explained.
For example, Ullman suggested transitioning from curbside garbage pickup – with trucks that cost $350,000 a piece to maintain – to a system in which residents deposit their trash into an underground chute from which the waste is collected once a week. The underground system would satisfy environmental, economical and societal demands.
Moving on to the next topic, Ullman urged adaptation, saying, “A majority of Fortune 500 companies are changing to accommodate climate change.”
She referenced a graph that showed how severe precipitation events over the last century have been spiking. Ullman suggested that we plan for climate change, given the effects of related events on the region. The steep slopes of Western North Carolina are prone to landslides during heavy-rain events, for example; in recent years, several have killed residents in Haywood and Macon counties.
“Let’s adapt as a species and adapt as a culture,” Ullman said.
Next on her list: how Asheville and other cities could reclaim public space with green infrastructure solutions, such as open storm-water drains and other ways to merge “gray infrastructure” projects into integrative goals.
In Copenhagen, for example, planners and designers keep the triple bottom line in mind for various projects such as parking, bike lanes, sidewalks and business spaces that accommodate both goals and practical needs. About 54 percent of that city’s residents use bicycles as their primary form of transportation, and 81 percent rely on bicycles because they’re the most expedient form of transportation. Copenhagen’s infrastructure was planned to encourage people to ride bicycles.
“Let’s think about turning public space back into public use for multiple people,” Ullman said. “We can become America’s Copenhagen. We can become the globe’s next Copenhagen.”
She acknowledged that Copenhagen’s infrastructure had been inspired by the oil shortages of the 1970s, but said that the city’s approach fits today’s needs. Ullman encouraged “adaptive corridors” for Asheville’s future planning, and she promoted a model in which the parks, public works, and transportation directors design Asheville’s future infrastructure together.
Ullman concluded by urging Asheville residents to contact city council members and press for community meetings to discuss the triple bottom line.