By Kirsten Howard
The future of our NH Seacoast city might depend on us, and we have one hour to reach an agreement. I look to the “city engineer” and the “conservation commission chair” with hope. If they can see past their differences about changing stormwater regulations, and realize that they both want the same thing–a resilient community–we might get the others to agree too.
Welcome to my evening at the Dover Climate Change Adaptation Role-play Simulation Workshop. Almost as soon as we entered the room, the thirty or so community participants split into six small groups and assumed new identities. My friend Lindsey was no longer her UNH researcher self; she was a homeowner concerned with the tax burden in our make-believe city called Northam. Over pizza and Greek salad, we studied our roles and promptly got into character and down to business.
The simulation exercise was developed by the New England Climate Adaptation Project (NECAP), a collaborative research effort involving the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Science Impact Collaborative, the Consensus Building Institute, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS), and four New England cities, including Dover. The simulation project is funded by the NERRS Science Collaborative, and the goal is to use role-play games to educate community members about planning for climate-related risks. The Northam simulation was created specifically for Dover—it is based on interviews with real Dover municipal employees, residents, and other stakeholders, as well as actual climate change projections for Dover. So the make-believe game is actually very realistic.
“We hope the simulation introduces participants in Dover to relevant climate change risks, climate adaptation strategies, and possible ways to reach an agreement about how to move forward, especially in the face of scientific uncertainty and different views about climate-related risks,” said Casey Stein, an MIT graduate student and a NECAP researcher.
Christopher G. Parker AICP, Dover’s director of Planning and Community Development, hosted the simulation I attended. He and other city staff are working closely with NECAP to make sure the project is useful for Dover residents.
“I hope that we generate dialogue about adaptation and educate the public about the importance of community interaction and participation in local planning issues. We encourage people who have learned about climate adaptation to share that information with others,” Parker said. “For me, the best outcome of the exercise is further discussion and increased awareness.”
Playing for Dover’s future
Our committee was charged with identifying ways that infrastructure and policies could help the city deal with more intense rain events. A scientific analysis conducted for Northam predicted that residents would see a significant increase in precipitation in the coming decades, driven by climate change. More intense rain events would cause floods and damage city resources unless our committee could agree on ways to increase stormwater capacity–the ability of the city’s land to absorb more rainwater into the ground before it runs off, flooding streets and nearby water bodies and degrading local water quality.
It took a little creativity and compromising but at the last minute my group arrived at an agreement that was acceptable to everyone at the table that would help Dover accommodate the increased stormwater expected as precipitation increases with climate change in the region. As we debriefed with the other groups that had been negotiating the same issues, it became clear that people were walking away with a better understanding of the different interests Dover will have to balance to better manage stormwater in the future.
For example, after the activity, one participant mentioned that she had a renewed appreciation for the balancing act municipal employees undertake when dealing with these issues. Another said that Dover needs to start with its own scientific analysis of the likely impacts climate change will have for the city and identify vulnerable areas to protect.
NECAP and city staff will release a real-life summary risk assessment of Dover’s infrastructure and other resources soon. City Planner Steve Bird hopes Dover can build on the simulation outreach efforts and the risk assessment to create a climate adaptation plan.
“We have started to investigate potential funding sources for such a plan. Climate change has the potential to impact many city services and present some challenges to maintaining city infrastructure,” Bird remarked.
Learn more about the simulation by participating on December 9 from 11am-1:30pm at the Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. The event is open to all Seacoast residents. Register here!