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12 communities join 2024 IU Resilience Cohort to accelerate climate action, expand tree canopies

Mar 7, 2024

A woman holds a laptop in one arm and reaches up into green tree leaves with her other arm. IU student and McKinney Climate Fellow Ava Hartman conducts a tree canopy assessment for Terre Haute in 2022. Photo by Jessica Corry, Indiana University

Twelve local governments are partnering with Indiana University this year to accelerate progress toward their climate goals and invest in urban trees canopies.

The program, which connects Hoosier cities and towns to new training and resources as well as to IU students, is led by IU’s Environmental Resilience Institute as part of its McKinney Midwest Climate Project.

The institute’s 2024 Resilience Cohort offers two tracks: a climate action accelerator track and urban green infrastructure track. Climate action accelerator participants will be trained in “Strategic Doing,” a framework for tackling complex problems, like sustainability, where solutions require extensive collaboration. Green infrastructure participants will conduct community-wide tree canopy assessments and plant and maintain trees in areas that will benefit the most from investment.

Participants in the accelerator cohort include Columbus, Fort Wayne, South Bend, Gary, West Lafayette and East Chicago. Participants in the green infrastructure cohort include Warsaw, Elkhart, Richmond, Culver and Plymouth. Evansville is participating in both tracks.

“In recent years, many Indiana communities have conducted assessments and created plans to reduce local emissions and prepare residents for the effects of climate change,” said Therese Dorau, Environmental Resilience Institute assistant director for policy and implementation. “With this community input and local data as a guide, the opportunity is ripe now for action. Through the Resilience Cohort program, local governments will be taking tangible steps toward sustainability and developing the skills they need to make long-term progress on their stated goals.”

Aerial shot of South Bend, Indiana. South Bend is a participant in the climate action accelerator track of the 2024 Resilience Cohort. Photo courtesy of the Environmental Resilience Institute

As the federal government works toward the Biden administration’s goal of cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by half in the next six years and ensuring that 40% of benefits reach marginalized communities, Indiana local governments see an opportunity to lead — not just on climate action but on creating healthier, more equitable communities.

“I’m excited to see Evansville stepping up to lead our region in climate action,” Evansville Mayor Stephanie Terry said. “Make no mistake: This is a direct reflection of our goal to jump-start climate initiatives and make our city more climate resilient — goals that these cohorts help us achieve by both accelerating the implementation of our climate action plan and increasing green infrastructure in our underserved and overly energy-burdened neighborhoods.”

During the summer, each local government will be working with a McKinney Climate Fellow — an IU student pursuing career experiences in climate and sustainability. Fellows will be embedded in each community, providing additional staff capacity, leading community engagement efforts and gathering data to guide local government decision-making.

“Fellows will be more than just a consultant for the community; they’ll be a neighbor,” Dorau said.

Making climate action manageable

Over the past five years, the Environmental Resilience Institute has worked with about 50 Indiana communities on climate action planning and preparedness. Actually implementing those plans has proved challenging, however, given the limited time and resources of local government staff.

Strategic Doing — a strategy for harnessing community capacity across local organizations — is one method for making measurable, sustained progress in the face of complex challenges. The process lends itself well to implementing climate action plans that offer defined goals but little guidance on how to achieve them.

“Strategic Doing takes that broad plan and breaks it into manageable chunks that can be distributed across the community,” Dorau said. “Now instead of years, progress can be measured in months.”

Through the climate action accelerator, local government staff will be trained in the Strategic Doing process and will pilot the model on one high-priority action from their climate action plan. Once familiar with the process, staff can apply Strategic Doing to other parts of their plan, which typically spans energy, transportation, infrastructure, waste and more.

Tree canopy as climate solution

Twelve local governments are partnering with Indiana University this year to accelerate progress toward their climate goals and invest in... Twelve local governments are partnering with Indiana University this year to accelerate progress toward their climate goals and invest in urban trees canopies. Graphic courtesy of the Environmental Resilience Institute

Decades of development, pests and climate change have reduced the number of trees in Indiana’s cities and towns. On the heels of the hottest year on record, local governments participating in the urban green infrastructure cohort will be developing a plan to replenish air-cooling tree canopy.

Participating communities will gather public input, identify high-priority tree planting areas, and receive training in tree planting and maintenance. Local governments will also receive 100 trees to jumpstart the implementation of their plans.

This year’s urban green infrastructure cohort is the first to be funded by a $5 million grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in September 2023 to help disadvantaged communities in Indiana enhance their resilience to climate change through tree planting.

Research shows that healthy tree canopies can be one of the most effective ways to reduce surface temperatures and protect people from the health risks of extreme heat, which is becoming more common in Indiana due to climate change. Other studies have highlighted the important role trees play in stormwater management and supporting wildlife.

“It’s increasingly clear that urban forests have an essential role to play in a warming world and that communities should be prioritizing equitable access to trees for all residents,” said Environmental Resilience Institute managing director Sarah Mincey, principal investigator of the project. “Combined, our participating local governments represent 122 square miles of land that will be evaluated for tree planting based on the beneficial services trees provide to cities and towns. We’re excited to begin work with these communities, including some northern Indiana communities that are new partners for ERI.”

Author

Environmental Resilience Institute

Jonathan Hines

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