‘It’s got to get off the back burner.’

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s chief of staff just got back from a crash course on climate change in the Netherlands. What did he learn?
John Bennett, chief of staff for Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, talks about lessons learned on climate change during a recent trip to the Netherlands.
John Bennett, chief of staff for Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, talks about lessons learned on climate change during a recent trip to the Netherlands. [ CHARLIE FRAGO | Times ]
Published Nov. 26, 2019

TAMPA — As Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s chief of staff, John Bennett is usually knee-deep in policy. Climate change is no different.

As Florida’s third-largest city searches nationwide for a chief resiliency officer, Bennett traveled in early November to the Netherlands for four days of immersion in climate change adaptive strategies in a country that has battled to control flooding for centuries.

His trip was paid for by the Dutch government and Visit Tampa Bay, the county’s tourism agency, Bennett said, and he paid for some meals, transportation and parking himself.

A recent conversation about what he learned has been edited for length and clarity.

How did the trip come about?

The Tampa Bay area had a visit from a resiliency and sustainability guru named Henk Ovink and he met with the mayor. Through that, the Netherlands (consulate) down in Miami put together a government-sponsored opportunity for communities to come over there and see what the Netherlands had done. The South Florida area was contacted, the Tampa Bay area, Houston and New Orleans.

Whom did you meet?

It’s interesting when you have hundreds of years of a head start as opposed to decades. The key for this whole thing was meeting that adaptive and mitigation leadership that will translate contextually to what we do in Tampa. And that’s really the most important aspect of it, making those contacts whether they’re in the academic side or the operations side or the planning side of the equation.

I met the chief resiliency officer for Houston. And she was the chief resiliency officer for Los Angeles. So she’s got two major urban environments that she’s built a plan for. So meeting someone who is ahead of the curve and bouncing ideas off for this thing we’re formulating — our road map. And what it looks like from a Tampa context.

What are some concrete ideas you came away with?

The difference with what they’re doing, which is what we really need to take away in Tampa Bay, is the hybrid approach to their design. So when they build a sand dune, it wasn’t just a sand dune, they had a trail on top. So you have a bike path and a walking path on top.

The big lesson they shared was that you need natural defense systems like sand and mangroves and you don’t want to build a ‘hardscape.’ It’s not going to survive. You just can’t build a wall around everything is what they said. You can use non-natural barriers in certain locations, dams and dikes, but what you can’t do is just ring with hard surfaces. They showed evidence of hundreds of years ago where they tried to do things like that and the unintended consequences — the salt water intrusion, those kinds of things.

Are there ways in which the Netherlands’ strategy doesn’t fit with Tampa?

One thing I noticed is all roads of (climate change) risk in the Netherlands lead to a national response because it’s a country. Where all roads for us lead to a local and state response. It’s a different model.

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What do you say to people who may feel overwhelmed by climate change?

We have evolved as a culture to where we like instant gratification. And we also tend to say, well, it’s not going to happen within my life span. And the truth is, we do have some risk within the time it takes to pay a mortgage. Our obligation to the public is to put this into context and make them realize this could affect you, your children, your grandchildren, if we don’t start now, becoming more adaptive and mitigated through sustainability and resiliency process.

So what’s next?

We need to assess our risk level and figure out how to prioritize that. Once we do that, then we need to take that message to the doorstep of each person and start working our way out in that concentric way. So we focus on the household, the neighborhood and then work our way out to the city. Each one of those pieces will be a microcosm of risk factors that we need to figure out if you live along the river, if you live along the coastline. It’s just a layered way of saying ‘act local, think global’ starting with our residents. The key is identifying and prioritizing risks and creating a sustainable level of service for this and future generations – in an equitable, efficient and effective manner. We have to get off the back burner stuff. It’s got to get on the front burner. But it needs to be done in a reasonable data-driven way through credible approaches.