Since Northampton, MA became the nation’s first Certified 5-STAR Community in May 2014, the city has been busy using their STAR results in a number of strategic ways, including strengthening local planning efforts. “Our comprehensive plan is eight years old and we are planning to revise it in two years. We did an informal internal staff assessment and board consultation on the strengths and weaknesses of the plan and used our STAR assessment to provide an outside perspective,” says Wayne Feiden, Northampton’s Director of Planning and Sustainability. “Both approaches led us to realize that while we were strong on climate mitigation and strong on adaptation practices, we didn’t have a good climate adaptation framework.”
After analyzing their current plans and efforts, Northampton decided to become more strategic about their approach to climate change by creating a climate adaptation plan. Feiden says, “We kicked off the process having the American Institute of Architects Sustainable Design Assessment Team come give us an outside perspective, and the Mayor committed us to the Compact of Mayors. We felt that we could not do a climate adaptation plan without a specific focus on public health risks.”
To incorporate public health into climate change planning, the Office of Planning and Sustainability reached out to the Northampton Health Department. These two institutions have a history of working closely together; they participate in multiple partnerships such as Healthy Hampshire, which works to promote healthy and active living. They decided to work with Human Impact Partners to develop strategies to mitigate the health impacts of climate change.
Human Impact Partners developed a report for the City of Northampton that highlights locally specific health risks associated with climate change and proposes strategies for reducing vulnerabilities. A major theme of the report is that climate change disproportionately impacts the health of vulnerable populations and disadvantaged communities, including elderly, young, and low-income communities, as well as communities of color,thus amplifying existing social and health inequities.
Potential climate change impacts and health risks vary by physical location and local demographics. In the Northeast United States, impacts include an increase in extreme heat and severe weather events that will result in heavy rain and snow, affect air and water quality, and more. Some of the specific public health risks that may arise in Northampton include increased rates of heat-related illnesses, asthma, seasonal allergies, and vector-borne diseases such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus.
The report outlined 7 strategies to address these vulnerabilities in Northampton:
- Promote community resilience to climate change to reduce vulnerability.
- Educate, empower, and engage Northampton residents, organizations and businesses to reduce vulnerability through mitigation and adaptation.
- Improve public health preparedness and emergency response.
- Work in multi-sectoral partnerships (local, regional, state, and federal), identifying and prioritizing mitigation and adaptation planning and strategies with public health co-benefits
- Conduct applied research to enable enhanced promotion and protection of human health.
- Implement policy, systems, and environmental changes at local, regional and national levels, integrating climate, health, and equity considerations into all policies and processes.
- Strengthen public health and health care system capacity to prepare and respond to climate change events (e.g. power outages and hospitals closures) and provide continuity of medical care following extreme events (e.g. access to medication and medical records).
These strategies will be incorporated into the various climate adaptation efforts the city has underway. “We already have a number of activities in effect, planned, or under discussion, such as a formal cooling shelter, a micro-grid planned for our hospital/public works/vocational school/cooling shelter complex, and increased monitoring of mosquito populations potentially carrying diseases. We also have a focus on the effects of more frequent and larger storms that can physically and socially isolate our most vulnerable populations, and a general focus on healthy living for all populations but especially vulnerable populations,” says Feiden.
These local actions will no doubt help Northampton to be better prepared for climate change impacts and reduce vulnerabilities and health risks in the future. Continued partnership with the Northampton Health Department will also be essential to implementing the strategies the report put forward. These actions and partnerships will help Northampton to demonstrate a commitment to continuous improvement and measurable sustainability progress when working towards recertification under the STAR Community Rating System.