Urban Land Institute report helps St. Pete get proactive in fight against climate change

In the face of climate change, St. Petersburg is trying to make the city more resilient.
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ST. PETERSBURG — The summers are getting hotter. The sea is rising. And as the fallout from climate change becomes more drastic, St. Petersburg is among the most vulnerable cities in the country.

But the city is trying to defend itself, exploring strategies to protect its most endangered neighborhoods. After receiving a $30,000 grant from the Urban Land Institute, a team of sustainability and resiliency experts met with city leaders in December to explore strategies to help St. Petersburg adapt. Earlier this month, the institute released the report that came out of the workshop. Now the city is using it as a blueprint for its first-ever climate action plan.

"It's important to think about how people bounce back and to learn from what other cities are doing," said Sharon Wright, St. Petersburg's sustainability manager. "St. Pete has been lucky in some ways because we haven't endured a hurricane in a long time. But this is more about the extreme events we're seeing now. It's a long-term view."

St. Petersburg's past climate efforts have focused more on sustainability, which emphasizes waste reduction and cleaner, smarter use of natural resources. The new plan calls for a greater focus on resiliency, or how to prepare for and bounce back from the damage that could be caused in a climate-related disaster.

For example, the city wants to help local businesses create disaster preparedness plans, make upcoming projects like the St. Pete Pier and Tropicana Field more sustainable and educate residents in its most vulnerable neighborhoods.

To pull this off, the city has to be willing to consider climate change in everything it does, Wright said.

"I think one top-tier priority is shifting culturally how the city does things," Wright said. "Like putting the city's priorities, budgets and capital projects through the filter of resiliency. It's a 'put your money where your mouth is' kind of thing."

Tampa Bay is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to wind damage, coastal flooding from storm surges and rising sea levels, according to the Urban Land Institute's "Realizing Resiliency" report. In 2013, a World Bank report named Tampa-St. Petersburg the seventh most at-risk city globally because of rising sea levels.

Other vulnerable areas have already started taking similar steps. In 2016, Miami-Dade County adopted a budget that prioritizes money for resiliency.

"A local government budget is one of the most important tools available," said James Murley, Miami-Dade's chief resilience officer.

St. Petersburg's plan also calls for the hiring of a resiliency guru, who will work to ensure climate issues are at the center of the city's operations and oversee resiliency projects spawned by the Integrated Sustainability Action Plan, the city's master plan.

Tampa, by contrast, has wrapped resiliency responsibilities into its public works department, said Thomas Snelling, Tampa's director for Planning and Development Services.

"That would be a challenging position to fill," he said. "It would be very difficult for one person to have the level of expertise we are able to have by wastewater engineers controlling wastewater issues and so on. I'm not sure it would be that big of a gain to have one person preside over all of that from a scientific perspective."

St. Petersburg has 60 miles of coastal front. By 2050, water levels along the coast could rise between 6 inches and 2.5 feet, according to the Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel.

Storm and flooding damage has already taxed the city's infrastructure. Some of the city's most vulnerable people live in the areas that are most susceptible to flooding and storm damage, Wright said. The city has to help low-income neighborhoods be ready for what's coming and have a concrete plan for how to recover.

"Small business and people in low-income areas can be wiped out pretty quickly by one event," Wright said. "Those are the populations we want to fortify, making sure that they have transportation, making sure homes are protected."

Part of protecting these areas is making sure the city and people who live in vulnerable areas are taking advantage of all available resources, Wright said, like Federal Emergency Management Agency programs that reimburse homeowners for making their properties more resilient and making infrastructure and design changes to help protect flood-prone regions.

Education is essential to preparation. While many parts of Florida are facing the same climate-related issues, communication has been sparse in the past and some have been reluctant to acknowledge the threat climate change presents, said Jim Cloar, the former chair of ULI's Tampa Bay District Council who helped manage the December workshop.

"Some of it is apathy, some of it is skepticism," Cloar said. "It's really important to speak with a single, clear articulate voice about both the risks and the opportunity to combat them."

Correcting those who see climate change as a distant threat, not an immediate one, is a top priority, he added. That's especially important for those in the financial community, like mortgage lenders and investors, who tend to think further down the line.

"The public sector is usually looking at a 40- to 50-year or lifetime investment in things like roads, sewage plants, water treatment plants," Cloar said. "So for someone who may say, 'Sea level is not rising that much, it'll be 20, 30, 40 years, we don't have to worry about it,' obviously that's not the case."

Despite the city's vulnerability, Mayor Rick Kriseman said St. Petersburg is seen as a national leader in climate change preparedness. But there's more work to be done, which he intends to continue in his second term.

While the sewage crisis — in which St. Petersburg leaked 200 million gallons of sewage in an 18-month period in 2015-16 — is a major blemish on Kriseman's environmental record and has been a central issue in the mayoral race, he said he is still proud of his administration's progress.

"This type of work has never been done before in St. Pete. In fact, we've never even had a master plan for our sewer system (which, as we've seen, is critical infrastructure during heavy rains) and that is now in the works," Kriseman said. "We are in the middle of the largest and most expensive public works project in our city's history, and it will be worth every penny. And, even after that's complete, we'll have to keep doing more."

Former mayor and mayoral candidate Rick Baker, who has said he believes in climate change but is unsure how much humans contribute to it, said he plans to make environmental issues a top priority, but didn't specify whether he'd continue work on the Integrated Sustainability Action Plan if he wins.

Now that the report is out, the city plans to start working on the findings immediately, Wright said. If it moves quickly, St. Petersburg has the chance to be on the bleeding edge of the fight against climate change.

"We hope there will be a direct benefit not just to St. Pete, but also that the rest of Tampa Bay can learn from," Cloar said.

Clarification: St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Rick Baker said he believes in climate change but is unsure how much humans contribute to it. A previous version of this article was unclear on this.

Contact Taylor Telford at [email protected] or (513)-376-3196. Follow @taylormtelford.

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