Preparing for Climate Change: Building Community Resilience


The first step to make Cambridge more prepared for climate change is to understand how we are vulnerable (or resilient) in terms of impacts on people, buildings, infrastructure, public health, and the economy. The City’s Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment, which continues through 2014, will provide the foundation for a climate change preparedness plan that will follow. On a parallel track, the Getting to Net Zero Task Force has embarked on a process to examine strategies and develop recommendations that would reduce Cambridge’s building energy needs through efficiency gains and increased use of renewable energy. These two key planning projects are the latest in a range of initiatives to advance the City’s Climate Protection Goals, and their ultimate success is linked to community engagement and commitment to stepping up environmental action.

Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment: Getting Ready for the Future

Flooding of residential areaThe Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment, which continues through 2014, is coordinated by an inter-departmental steering committee (Community Development, Public Works and Public Health departments) in conjunction with a consultant team. A Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) of community stakeholders is helping to guide the assessment and an Expert Advisory Panel (EAP) is provides feedback on its technical approach and assumptions, thereby engaging the universities, major property owners, utilities, and others.

The assessment includes modeling of coastal storm surges to understand the potential for surges to bypass dams; modeling of inland storms to assess the capacity of the stormwater system to cope with intense rainfall; and mapping of heat vulnerability. Information on vulnerable populations, buildings, and infrastructure is being collected to create a baseline for analysis. With this information, the City will rate the sensitivity of critical assets and populations as well as their capacity to adapt and recover from impacts. This will help to establish priorities for Cambridge’s climate change preparedness plan.

Flooding by Draper Lab buildingAn important goal of the assessment is to bring the community and key stakeholders along as the City develops a broad understanding of Cambridge’s vulnerabilities to climate change. Public workshops and presentations, an online survey and other outreach activities have been part of the process to solicit input from the public and ensure that there are multiple ways to engage in the work.

The City also has been working alongside other municipalities, regional and national agencies to complete the assessment. As an inaugural signatory of the Resilient Communities for America campaign, Cambridge stands with other local governments on the front lines of responding to the impacts of climate change. Research has shown that every dollar spent on disaster risk reduction can save $4 in recovery and emergency response costs, making resilience efforts a sound investment for our community.

Getting to Net Zero Task Force: The Future of our Built Environment

In December 2013, the City created the “Getting to Net Zero Task Force” charged with advancing the goal of putting Cambridge on the trajectory towards becoming a “net zero community”, with focus on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from building operations. This includes reducing energy use of buildings and taking advantage of opportunities to harvest energy from renewable sources.

Charles river bank on a sunny dayThe committee, comprised of residents, community advocates, business and property owners, and representatives of local universities, is working with City staff and a team of technical consultants to examine strategies and develop recommendations that address the following topics:

  • Reduce GHG emissions from buildings
  • Improve energy efficiency and conservation in existing and new buildings
  • Support renewable energy generation both on- and off- site
  • Best practices to engage and educate building users and influence occupant behavior

The Task Force is assigned to study the technical aspects of GHG emissions from buildings and develop comprehensive, actionable, long and short term recommendations, which may include changes to City ordinances, zoning policies, and other directives.

360⁰ View: Sustainability = Livability

The City of Cambridge has already committed to a range of initiatives to support sustainable lifestyles and move the community toward greater resilience to climate change: 

  • The Climate Protection Action Committee (CPAC) proposed new greenhouse gas emission reduction goals to the City Manager in spring 2014. These involve both community and municipal government actions toward greater sustainability.
  • Early next year, the City will begin to turn the information gathered through the Vulnerability Assessment into a Climate Change Preparedness Plan, relying heavily on community input to design an actionable plan. 
  • The City secured major grant funding to support the development of a Kendall Square EcoDistrict and initiate a study of district energy opportunities.
  • In 2013, the City signed the Compact for a Sustainable Future, in partnership with Harvard University, MIT and key business stakeholders. This Compact, which has since expanded, creates a framework for collaboration on climate change mitigation and resiliency planning. 
  • Through the CitySmart and Cambridge Energy Alliance programs, Cambridge is engaging closely with residents and businesses to educate and push for action towards sustainable modes of transportation, residential and business energy efficiency measures, and use of renewable energy in local buildings. 

View of Watermark II apartments under construction as seen from down the Broad Canal

For More Information

For more information on the full range of related programs and initiatives, see the Climate and Energy section of the Community Development web site.