The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Before the Storm

Empowering communities to plan for climate change
  • River flooding roads due to hurricane.

The climate adaptation plan developed by Hamin and her students for the coastal town of Marshfield, Massachusetts was so well received by the community that the town incorporated it into their master plan—one of the first towns in the region to do so.

As the potential consequences of climate change continue to grow and impact populations around the globe—from increasingly frequent storms to rising sea levels and a rash of severe weather that has become the new norm—UMass Amherst regional planner Elisabeth Hamin is working with communities in the region and beyond to incorporate resiliency frameworks into their budgets and prepare for extreme weather events.

Hamin, who leads the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, has gone town-to-town with doctoral student Ana Mesquita to interview regional planners along the east coast. This field research made it clear to Hamin that many communities are ill-prepared for the kind of damaging weather that continues to persist. She finds that this general lack of preparedness is not because of a lack of political will, but rather due to planners not having enough information and resources at their disposal.

“The planners can’t be the ones to figure out what the risks are…it’s beyond the scope of what a non-expert can do. One of the things they need to move forward is some sort of officially sanctioned projections,” says Hamin.

In their efforts to normalize resilience in the face of climate change, Hamin and her colleagues work with communities to identify new priorities. As part of the Regional Planning Studio (which Hamin taught for several years), the class partners with a different municipality each year to help them fine-tune their master plan. They begin by collecting information about the town’s geography, population, societal trends, geology, and cultural divides. They then layer these data, along with climate trends and municipal zoning, into one aggregated map to identify emerging trends and future scenarios if these trends continue. Students also meet with key decision makers and hold public workshops to discuss community concerns. Environmental justice, Hamin explains, inevitably comes into play during the process. Major coastal cities like New York and Boston can often more easily harness the necessary resources to protect susceptible areas while communities with fewer resources remain vulnerable. Recently, Hamin and her students worked with the coastal town of Marshfield, Massachusetts on a climate adaptation plan. The plan was so well received by the community that the town incorporated it into their master plan, acknowledging the need for surge protection and hurricane preparations—one of the first towns in the region to do so.

“That’s sort of where we want to end up…climate change and resilience are not exotic,” says Hamin.

To share what she and her colleagues have learned, Hamin is collaborating with UNHabitat on web-based training modules to be shared with teachers around the globe. To develop the modules, Hamin worked with colleagues in South Africa and Australia to compile relevant climate adaptation information and organize it into an accessible online format. The aim is to provide pedagogic content that teachers can readily draw upon as they work towards adaptive solutions to the impacts of climate change. Hamin also serves as a co-principal investigator on the campus’s Offshore Wind Energy Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), where she is helping to train the next generation of wind energy leaders. Her specific focus is with one of the three major research thrusts of the program—understanding the intersection of public acceptance and technological effectiveness of proposed wind farms.

With new NSF funding, Hamin is expanding her field research beyond the east coast, working with co-principal investigator and civil engineer Don DeGroot (Civil and Environmental Engineering). For the project, they will develop a network of planners, researchers and policy experts from the northeast to the Caribbean. The goal is to devise a framework for climate change resiliency that improves coastal infrastructure planning and mitigates the impacts of fast-onset disasters (such as hurricanes and tsunamis) while incorporating plans for slow-onset issues (such as sea-level rise).

Hamin’s road to regional planning was not a direct one. Fresh from business school, she began her career in real estate development. She enjoyed the planning element of her work, but soon began to question the morality behind certain projects that encroached upon open space and special environmental areas. She decided she wanted to help communities make decisions for themselves, and changed her academic path.

“I thought I could use some of what I learned for the forces of good. I was interested in how to empower communities and work with them to achieve their own goals,” says Hamin.

Amanda Drane '12

Photo courtesy John Elder Robison