Loal and Green Darcy Dumont: COVID-19 — The silver lining of lessons learned

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Last month in this column, I looked at some silver linings of lessons learned so far from the COVID-19 pandemic. One of those lessons is that our basic infrastructure — water, sewer, police, fire, transportation, education, public health, waste, electric grid, Wi-Fi and town services in general — is extremely valuable and still intact.

The pandemic, however, has prepared us to imagine future crises that may affect that infrastructure. In this column, I will look at the town’s climate-related and infrastructure vulnerability. What can we do to make sure we are prepared to deal with other public health, societal and environmental or climate related impacts that could be coming our way?

In early 2019, Amherst conducted a series of outreach workshops as part of a grant from the state to assess the town’s vulnerability preparedness. Facilitated by Sustainability Coordinator Stephanie Ciccarello and assisted by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and Linnean Solutions, a consultant group, the workshops’ objectives were to identify community strengths and vulnerabilities, including natural and climate-related vulnerabilities, and to develop prioritized actions for the community.

For the purpose of the workshops, “vulnerabilities” were considered to be aspects of the town that may lose function due to climate change hazards or that may feel the effects of climate change more acutely. “Strengths” were aspects of Amherst that would help the town adapt and thrive even in the face of climate change.

Climate concerns happening now that were noted by participants include increased heat, increased precipitation, drought and extreme weather.

Long-term infrastructure challenges identified at the workshops included a strained water supply, underperformance of the wastewater system, an aging housing stock, limited public transportation, vulnerability to energy grid blackouts, flooding and inconsistent quality and distribution of municipal programs and services.

Societal vulnerabilities — many of which are greater in climate justice communities that are low income, targeted by racism, or lower in English proficiency — include exclusion from the planning process, uneven access to resources, a transient population, language barriers, and public health concerns around food distribution, air pollution and accessibility to healthy food. Ownership of much of our land by either our academic institutions or by absentee landlords was also seen as a vulnerability.

Environmental vulnerabilities included higher rates of Eastern equine encephalitis and tick-borne disease.

Interestingly, a vulnerability not envisioned in the workshops was a global pandemic that could affect both the numbers of workers available to do essential work and the local economy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has allowed us to look with new eyes at how important it is to be locally resilient. We are fortunate that we can use local brainpower, skills, resources, and businesses to make needed changes, and to limit the effect of our general dependence on the global supply chain.

So, what are the ways in which we can prepare for climate-related or other types of impacts by making Amherst more resilient? Let’s think about some options.

We could create cooling and warming stations for use by residents during extreme weather events.

We could reduce electric grid vulnerability by continuing to support programs like Community Choice Energy 3.0 and investing in new technologies like renewable energy storage and microgrids and community-level energy generation, the latter of which would also provide local jobs and keep the money local.

We could invest in climate-friendly transportation by increase the routes and frequency of Pioneer Valley Transportation Authority buses, increase the number of electric vehicle charging stations, create a bike culture through bike maintenance and incentive programs, provide incentives for ride-sharing, create a network for carpooling and increase the connectivity of trails and bike paths.

We could research and incentivize alternative methods for growing, harvesting and distributing food sustainably, promote policy that reduces the use of pesticides and protects pollinator populations, invest in more storage and distribution centers and ensure that amenities like grocery stores are accessible by foot or bus.

We could adopt a zero-waste policy focused on consumption reduction, reuse, repair, recycling and composting, including collection of food scraps from local businesses and schools.

We could invest in flooding resilience by creating incentives for developers such as green infrastructure, stormwater management and energy efficiency.

We could invest in protecting our water and upgrading water infrastructure to be more secure. Conservation education could be enhanced for residents and institutions.

While we’re doing so, we could empower vulnerable populations to participate in political and planning processes.

Town staff and the Amherst Energy and Climate Action Committee are working with consultants to create a Climate Action and Resilience Plan which will include community outreach and an implementation plan.

The COVID-19 pandemic has enabled us to envision both our vulnerabilities and our opportunities for creating local resilience, and has provided more urgency to get it right. Let’s make sure we take advantage of this unique moment in time to do so.

Darcy DuMont is on the Steering of Climate Action Now, Western MA, a founding member of Western MA Community Choice Energy, and an Amherst Town Councilor representing District 5. Views expressed are hers and not those of the Town Council.