Baltimore Braces for Climate Change

Multi-Faceted Approach Keys on Resiliency

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Beth Strommen is sustainability director for the city of Baltimore.

Kristin Baja is a climate and resilience planner in Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability.

Alice Kennedy is sustainability coordinator for the city of Baltimore.

Amy Gilder-Busatti is an environmental planner for the city of Baltimore.

Abby Cocke is an environmental planner who coordinates Baltimore's urban agriculture program.

Posted: Wednesday, October 8, 2014 3:00 pm

Two hundred years ago, the city of Baltimore survived a 25-hour assault emanating from Chesapeake Bay – a dramatic scene immortalized by Francis Scott Key as he penned a poem that would one day become America’s national anthem. But today, it isn’t the threat of British war ships keeping city leaders up at night.

It’s the bay itself.

When Hurricane Isabel hit in 2003, the city was not prepared for the 7-1/2 foot storm surge that flooded thousands of homes and buildings, including the city’s police department, which lost a substantial number of important files stored in the basement, said Kristin Baja, a climate and resilience planner in Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability. The flooding also destroyed the mechanical and electrical systems in numerous buildings, including the city’s World Trade Center, which was shut down for a month after the storm.

While Isabel was a wake-up call, Baja said authorities in Baltimore know things could have been much worse.

“We were very lucky that Hurricane Sandy didn’t turn inland sooner,” she said. “That would have been a much bigger impact for us. There was some modeling done by FEMA that showed the storm surge of Sandy in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., would have been over 20 feet high. So, we were all kind of shocked into this new reality that we need to start planning to make our coastal infrastructure a lot more resilient.”

Hurricanes aren’t the only threat. Baja said two recent thunderstorms made national news when flooding caused massive damage in the Jones Falls watershed in Baltimore County. “We’ve seen a lot more impacts just in this past year from heavy, heavy cloud bursts… and we’re anticipating, with global warming, that we’re going to see a lot more of these heavy precipitation events,” she said.

Like many cities, Baltimore’s water and sewer infrastructure is ill prepared to handle the impacts of rising seas and super storms, Baja said, and shoring up these vulnerabilities is a critical need.

Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability is an arm of the city’s planning department. It was created by ordinance in 2007 and works with a 21-member Commission on Sustainability, an appointed board that helped develop the city’s Sustainability Plan, adopted in 2009, according to Sustainability Director Beth Strommen.

In the beginning, the office had a staff of one – Strommen – supported by 45 colleagues in the planning department. But, gradually, the sustainability office has grown to a staff of 11, and Strommen said the organizational structure of her department has a number of unique advantages. First, because it’s part of the planning department, it has a voice in capital improvement decisions and is an integral part of the planning process. Secondly, members of the citizen commission were required to go through an application process, something the city had never done with appointed commissions before.

“We advertised the seats on the commission in the same way you would advertise a job,” she said. “We invited anyone who wanted to be on the commission to submit their résumé, and we got 75 résumés for the 21 slots. So, we were able to create a commission with an incredibly broad mix of skill sets within the realm of sustainability.”

Members of the commission represent environmental groups, community organizations, labor unions, public health and environmental justice interests, and private industry. Two of the members don’t even live in Baltimore, Strommen said. “Their skill sets were more important than worrying about whether they lived here or not,” she said.

Work on the sustainability plan took eight months and engaged more than 1,000 citizens in 62 town hall meetings. The result was a plan that established 29 goals within seven general themes: Cleanliness, Pollution Prevention, Resource Conservation, Greening, Transportation, Education & Awareness, and Green Economy. The plan includes 132 recommended strategies for accomplishing the goals, and establishes the short-term, mid-term and long-term objectives of each strategy.

Work on the sustainability plan has spawned three more guiding documents:

Strommen said her department is currently focusing on several major initiatives:

Climate Mitigation

In 2012, the Office of Sustainability used American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding to pay for development of the Climate Action Plan. Using 2010 as a baseline, the plan calls for a 15 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Key mitigation strategies from the Climate Action Plan are:

Energy Savings & Supply

  • Disclose residential energy bills and energy efficiency improvements at the beginning of the sale or rental process;
  • Benchmark and disclose energy performance and improvements of city-owned and privately-owned commercial, industrial and institutional buildings;
  • Retrofit Baltimore’s street lights for more efficient energy usage;
  • Conduct outreach for solar installations, to achieve 30 MW of PV installed in total, across all sectors (government, commercial, institutional, multifamily, and residential) by 2020 ;
  • Promote cool roof installations and other roofing technologies.

Land Use & Transportation

  • Create high-quality pedestrian- and transit-oriented neighborhoods;
  • Promote establishment of qualified bike commute reimbursement programs;
  • Provide alternatives to monthly parking passes;
  • Develop a pedestrian master plan.

Growing a Green City

  • Develop a comprehensive recycling plan;
  • Reduce construction and demolition waste;
  • Repair water supply infrastructure;
  • Increase the number of trees planted.

Sustainability Coordinator Alice Kennedy was the lead project manager for the development of the city’s Climate Action Plan.  She also leads the Baltimore Energy Challenge, initiated in 2009, which she described as “a peer-to-peer community-based social marketing program that utilizes energy captains across the city, and junior energy captains in our schools, to engage the general public in education and motivate behavior change around energy conservation.”

Kennedy said 79 percent of Baltimore’s greenhouse gas emissions come from energy use in buildings. So the Baltimore Energy Challenge has gone a long way toward reaching the city’s GHG reduction goals. Energy captains go door to door handing out kits and asking their neighbors to sign an energy conservation pledge.

“We’ve been able to motivate energy savings, on average about five percent just from asking them to do the low-hanging fruit in their homes,” she said.

Recently, the Maryland State Public Service Commission awarded Baltimore a $58.2 million grant, which has allowed the city to increase the Energy Challenge budget from about $150,000 a year to $3.5 million annually for the next three years, Kennedy said. The money will help the city provide residents with LED light bulbs, programmable thermostats, smart power strips “and lots of fun energy saving goodies,” she said.

In announcing the Challenge, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said, "The Baltimore Energy Initiative will help grow a more sustainable Baltimore, helping to spur future growth while supporting our hard working residents. This innovative, three-year program will help city agencies better meet critical needs and achieve broader city and state goals and provide long-term energy cost savings for our residents."

The grant will also help Baltimore advance its “cool roof” program in its urban heat islands, and beef up its weatherization program, which will now require low-income participants to receive in-home energy efficiency education provided by Energy Challenge staff and AmeriCorps members after homes have been weatherized.

“We’re now doing oil to natural gas furnace conversions,” Kennedy said. “We’re offering low-interest loans and grants to non-profits and small businesses, and we’re expanding a loan program for residents as well.”

Climate Adaptation and Resilience

Baja said Baltimore is expanding its disaster preparedness plans to protect the city from natural disasters that are expected to intensify in the future, as opposed to preparing only for the storms of the past.

According to the plan, the following hazards are considered to pose a significant threat to the people of Baltimore:

  • Flooding
  • Coastal Hazards- Tropical Storms and Hurricanes, Nor’Easter, Sea Level Rise, and Storm Surge & Coastal Inundation
  • Precipitation Variability- Precipitation, Winter Storms, Drought, Dam Failure
  • Extreme Wind- Associated with Storms, Derechos, Tornados
  • Extreme Heat
  • Air Quality
  • Additional Hazards- Earthquakes, Lightning and Hail, Tsunamis

“What we did with the Disaster Preparedness Plan is we took the methodology that FEMA uses for developing an all hazards plan and we took the methodology that ICLEI uses for creating climate adaptation plans and then we combined that with things that have worked already, like the development of our climate action plan, and we put all of these processes together to create the (Disaster Preparedness Plan),” Baja said.

Instead of organizing the plan by hazard, Baltimore structured its plan by four sectors: Infrastructure, Buildings, Natural Systems and Public Services.

Key examples of strategies and actions from the Disaster Preparedness Plan are:

  • Integrate resiliency, redundancy, and structural stability into the city’s drinking water system to ensure safe and reliable water storage and distribution;
  • Protect and enhance the resiliency and redundancy of electricity system;
  • Strengthen city zoning, floodplain and construction codes to integrate anticipated changes in climate;
  • Develop and implement hazard protections for critical facilities including hospitals, fire stations, police stations, hazardous material storage sites, etc.;
  • Create an interconnected network of green spaces to support biodiversity and watershed based water quality management;
  • Increase and enhance the resilience and health of Baltimore's urban forest;
  • Designate community leaders and organizations that can assist and provide support during hazard events;
  • Integrate climate change and natural hazards planning into all city and community plans.

Environmental Services

“Something we do in our office of sustainability that I think is very unique is that we actually do environmental enforcement,” Strommen said. “When you really want to make sustainability happen, you should be able to approve permits and influence development projects. We do that here. We enforce the city’s forest conservation program, the critical area management program and the floodplain program.”

The city’s Critical Area Management program is a set of special regulations intended to protect habitat and water quality within the first 1,000 feet of the shoreline, according to environmental planner Amy Gilder-Busatti. The program establishes special rules to protect trees and encourage the use of green infrastructure to manage stormwater. In some cases, developers who can’t meet the requirements pay an offset fee, which the city uses to install green infrastructure elsewhere in the city.

 “The waterfront area in Baltimore is pretty much all the most valuable land in the city from a development perspective,” said Gilder-Busatti. “But there’s also an interest in protecting the habitat and environmental quality there. So, that’s part of what makes the critical area regulations so important.”

Another program, called the Growing Green Initiative, was launched by Mayor Rawlings-Blake in May and is coordinated by Jenny Guillaume.  To celebrate the launch, the city of Baltimore, the EPA and the Chesapeake Bay Trust partnered and announced a design competition for community groups, design firms, and non-profit and private partners to showcase innovative ideas for transforming vacant lots in Baltimore.

Guillaume said one of the resources created by the initiative was the Green Pattern Book, a tool used to guide the greening of vacant land by city agencies, NGOs, community-based organizations, and individual residents.  It features eight green project types or patterns.  The patterns include:

  • Clean and Green –temporary greened spaces meant as a short-term holding strategy for future redevelopment, whether as new development or one of the other green patterns. “This is going to be about 70 percent of the vacant land,” Guillaume said. “The other 30 percent will be more permanent green space.” she said.
  • Urban Agriculture – land leased to urban farmers to grow food commercially.
  • Community-Managed Open Space – Vacant lots maintained by a community, non-profit, or more than one household used for vegetable gardens, orchards, pocket parks and small recreational spaces.
  • Stormwater Management –Land used to reduce runoff, filter stormwater, and decrease impervious surfaces in order to meet Baltimore’s requirements for improving water quality of our streams and harbors.
  • Green Parking – Land that can accommodate neighborhood parking needs while keeping greening and stormwater considerations in mind.
  • Urban Forest and Buffer – Trees planted on vacant lots, buffers along railroads and highways, and existing forest patches.
  • Neighborhood Park – Permanent public spaces that can be developed for passive and/or active recreation.
  • Mixed Greens – Land that can combine a combination of the patterns described above to achieve a greater number of goals.

Local Foods

Abby Cocke is an environmental planner who coordinates Baltimore’s urban agriculture program, designed to help achieve the goals of Homegrown Baltimore. She said one of the first things the city did was pass an ordinance that allowed hoop houses inside city limits without a special permit. Then the city did an inventory of vacate lots that were at least an acre in size, flat and open to the sun, with no short- to mid-term development plans. Finding sites that met the criteria wasn’t easy, Cocke said, but they found several that could be leased to urban farmers who signed five-year agreements to raise food crops on the lots.

“We’ve signed leases for three acres of land so far at two different sites and we have another lease that’s being finalized for an acre and a half, so we’ll have close to five acres under lease by the end of this year,” Cocke said. “The first two sites have been really successful.”

One of the farms is operated by a non-profit group that employs people who are returning from incarceration, she said, so besides providing restaurants with fresh local food; it provides green jobs that fulfill other social services.

The urban agriculture plan adopted in the fall of 2013 resulted in policies on soil safety, exotic animals, and other rules that accommodate community gardens and commercial farms within the city. Strommen said farming is now either a conditional or permitted use in all zones, except heavy industrial.

The Baltimore Food Policy Initiative was launched in 2009 as an intergovernmental collaboration between the Office of Sustainability, the city’s health department and the Baltimore Development Corp., said Food Access Planner Sarah Buzogany. Directed by Holly Freishtat, the initiative aims to increase access to healthy affordable food in Baltimore’s food deserts.

Buzogany said the collaboration will soon release its updated food environment map with data gathered by visiting more than 800 corner markets and convenience stores to inventory the healthy foods available in each one.

“We’re using that map to tailor our food desert retail strategy to increase the quantity and quality of healthy foods in our food deserts and the city in general,” she said.

Buzogany said the city’s largest farmers’ market is now providing participating farmers with free smart phones to facilitate the processing of credit cards and food-assistance cards. An app on the phone automatically applies matching funds up to $5 when low-income buyers use a food-assistance card.

Green Schools

The city of Baltimore has a goal to turn every school in the city into a green school, using a state-wide certification standard called the Maryland Green School Awards program. In order to certify, schools must incorporate sustainability into their curricula, school design, teacher training, and student-led best management practices on and around the school grounds. Schools must recertify every four years in order to maintain the designation. The Office of Sustainability provides technical assistance to help schools meet this rigorous standard, and there are currently 22 Baltimore City public schools that have achieved it, up from just 8 in 2009.

“We also offer cold, hard cash,” Cocke said, referring to the city’s Green, Healthy, Smart Challenge grant program launched in 2010. The grant funds any and all hands-on projects that build student environmental leadership, from schoolyard gardens to school-wide energy audits to green-themed mural and mosaic projects, she said. Individual grants can total up to $2,500 per school per year. Cocke said 103 different schools – out of the 188 public schools in the city – have received at least one grant from the program, meaning that thousands of students have been engaged in the last five years.

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