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Climate-Smart Communities

The National Wildlife Federation works where people live—in cities and towns—to promote wildlife-friendly and climate-smart approaches to urban sustainability. With more than 80 percent of the U.S. population residing in urban areas, it is crucial to begin preparations for the effects of climate change.

Climate change is intensifying existing stresses on wildlife and their habitats and amplifying natural hazards that threaten people and property. The Climate-Smart Communities program helps cities and towns use nature-based approaches to prepare themselves for the impacts of climate change in ways that support people, wildlife, and habitat.

What make a community climate-smart? A climate-smart community:

The National Wildlife Federation is working with a set of communities to better understand their adaptation needs, challenges, and to generate early examples of successful nature-based adaptation approaches. We are helping communities develop and share resources that can be used by a broader audience.

Fact Sheet: Climate-Smart Communities program

Nature-Based Solutions for Climate Adaptation

Cities and towns across the United States are identifying, preparing for, and responding to the impacts of climate change, a process known as climate change adaptation. They are using a variety of nature-based approaches to protect people and property that also benefit wildlife and habitat areas. The National Wildlife Federation’s Green Works for Climate Resilience: A Community Guide to Climate Planning highlights the ways in which cities and towns are working to prepare for a wide range of climate change impacts, such as flooding, wetland degradation, drought, rising sea levels, threats to water quality, loss of species and habitat, and many more.

Inland River Flooding: The increased frequency of storms caused by climate change will undoubtedly increase precipitation levels for many areas, seriously threatening inland communities along rivers and floodplains. Allowing for wider, natural floodplains instead of building higher levees that are frequently breached not only allows rivers to flow, but also reduces property damage and provides floodplain habitat for fish and wildlife. The city of Philadelphia has committed to protecting and restoring riparian areas in the city to improve their capacity to protect against rising waters and to provide healthy wildlife habitat.

Stormwater Flooding: In communities across the country, failing and outdated infrastructure is unable to handle the large volumes of stormwater produced by growing populations in urbanized areas. Extreme weather events, like flash floods, can pose serious runoff problems for community stormwater systems, particularly in urban areas. The resulting overflows produce sewage backups in streets and in the basements of buildings, and can easily contaminate and aquatic ecosystems. King County, WA is particularly concerned with the health of highly sensitive salmon habitat, and is promoting the increase of permeable surfaces in the area. This will allow stormwater to filter into the ground, relieving some minimizing runoff and relieving pressure from civic infrastructure. These permeable surfaces include open spaces like parks and rain gardens that can also provide wildlife habitat.

Coastal Flooding: Between rising sea levels and increasingly powerful storms, coastal cities are particularly threatened by the effects of climate change. Preserving and protecting coastal wetlands can help communities be better prepared for climate impacts by retaining flood waters, providing a buffer from storm surge, and limiting erosion, while providing much needed habitat for wildlife. The city of Chula Vista is managing for inland migration of its coastal wetlands to both provide habitat for threatened species and improve their capacity to mitigate flooding and sea-level rise.

Urban Heat Islands: Cities and urban areas tend to experience higher temperatures than rural areas due to a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect (UHIE). Cities have a high percentage of impervious and artificial surfaces (i.e. buildings, roads, railways) that retain more of the sun's energy, raising temperatures. The high energy usage in cities also produces waste heat. The UHIE will only exacerbate climate change's higher temperatures in urban areas, which are likely to experience dangerous, record-setting temperatures with increased frequency in years to come. Many cities, like Washington D.C., are planning to use natural shade to combat the coming heat: the District has committed to increasing its urban tree canopy to 40 percent of total city area by the year 2035, providing valuable habitat for wildlife and cooling shade for all.

Drought: Population centers consume large amounts of fresh water, but long-term drought and decreased snowpack caused by climate change will threaten both the quality and quantity of water supplies for many communities. These shortages will impact both human drinking water supplies as well as the in-stream flows necessary to maintain healthy aquatic ecosystems. Local water storage and conservation activities will help communities like Chula Vista prepare for drought and will lower GHG emissions by reducing the amount of energy expended in transporting water.

What Cities Are Doing

Many cities and towns across the US have already begun to prepare for the impacts of climate change like flooding, increased temperatures, and habitat loss. The cities featured here are using nature to protect people and property from the impacts of climate change while also benefiting wildlife.

Chicago: Located on the windy shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago is preparing to deal with flooding, extreme heat, severe weather events, and ecosystem degradation. To cope with extreme summer heat, Chicago has planned or installed over 4 million square feet of green roofs across the city. The trees, plants, and soil used in green roofs provide shade and absorb far less heat than manufactured roofing materials while providing habitat for wildlife. (Download the fact sheet)

Chula Vista, CA: Just seven miles north of the California-Mexico border, the coastal city of Chula Vista is preparing for water shortages, habitat connectivity issues, coastal flooding, erosion, energy shortages, and wetland degradation. In order to cope with coastal and inland flooding, Chula Vista is restoring wetlands and increasing natural, open spaces like parks and urban forests. These landscapes will help absorb stormwater and serve as natural flood barriers while providing valuable wildlife habitat. (Download the fact sheet)

Grand Rapids, MI: On the shores of Lake Michigan, Grand Rapids is preparing for increased flooding, threats to water quality, ecosystem degradation, and invasive species. In order to protect ecosystems and the habitats they provide, the City is increasing public tree plantings and green spaces to increase biodiversity while providing valuable habitat corridors for species forced to migrate due to changing climate conditions. (Download the fact sheet)

Houston, TX: Houston, located on Texas's Gulf Coast, is preparing to deal with dangerously high temperatures, drought, flooding, and increasingly powerful hurricanes among many other climate impacts. In order to prepare for the yearly threat of hurricanes, a regional planning council has suggested that Houston restore and protect wetlands and other coastal habitats. Natural features like sand dunes and wetlands are able to act as buffers to storm surge, flood waters, and rising sea levels, and maintaining them in their optimal states would have numerous benefits for people and wildlife. (Download the fact sheet)

Keene, NH: In southwestern New Hampshire, the town of Keene is expecting flooding, wetland degradation, tree loss, decreased snowpack, and drought. In order to manage the flooding caused by increased, non-snow precipitation, Keene is redefining their 200-year floodplain and adjusting zoning regulations to prevent any future development within these high-risk areas. This change will directly prevent loss of property and maintain the capacity of rivers and wetlands to function as natural habitat and flood suppressors. (Download the fact sheet)

Philadelphia, PA: Among other expected climate impacts, Philadelphia is bracing itself against stormwater flooding, extreme heat, wetland degradation, and habitat loss. The City has begun to combat extreme temperatures resulting from the urban heat island effect through an ambitious tree planting campaign on both public and private lands. The trees will provide cooling shade and valuable wildlife habitat, and Philadelphia hopes to reach 30% coverage within all neighborhoods. (Download the fact sheet)

Providence, RI: Located in the heart of the New England coastline, Providence has already begun preparations for a number of climate impacts, including sea-level rise, extreme weather events, increased pollution, drought, and loss of biodiversity. Coastal wetlands protect people and property from flooding and storm surge while providing habitat for wildlife. Providence is establishing protected buffer zones so that as sea-level rises, wetlands have space to migrate inland. Local non-profits are also funding eelgrass restoration and dam removal in coastal wetland areas to promote healthier, more resilient ecosystems. (Download the fact sheet)

San Luis Obispo, CA: San Luis Obispo County stretches from California’s central coast to its rural central valley. The county, in conjunction with the Geos Institute, has been engaged in planning efforts to cope with water shortages, habitat connectivity issues, coastal flooding, erosion, and wetland degradation. Of particular note is SLO’s wetland work: while many counties have been managing for migration and restoring existing wetlands, SLO is actually constructing new wetlands in areas deemed to be less vulnerable in the future in order to provide habitat for species and protect the valuable ecosystem services they provide. (Download the fact sheet)

Community-Based Work

Climate change is intensifying existing stresses on wildlife and their habitats and amplifying natural hazards that threaten people and property. The Climate-Smart Communities program helps cities and towns use nature-based approaches to prepare themselves for the impacts of climate change in ways that support people, wildlife, and habitats.

With funding from the Long Island Sound Futures Fund, administered by NFWF, the National Wildlife Federation and Citizens Campaign for the Environment are working together through a collaborative planning process to help LIS communities identify and overcome barriers to the adoption of green infrastructure to reduce stormwater pollution. The outcome of this project will be a Green Infrastructure Action Agenda that establishes a plan for overcoming barriers, such as policy or technical challenges, to the broad integration of GI in the complex. The Action Agenda may include suggested modifications to codes, ordinances, and land use policies to encourage GI techniques that reduce impacts of current and future growth on water quality, and will also recommend a set of municipally-owned sites that are best-suited to serve as GI demonstration projects.

King County, WA

In King County, Washington, the National Wildlife Federation helped prepare a tool to help landowners understand the benefits healthy trees can have for climate change mitigation and adaptation. The Forestry Climate Preparedness and Response (CPR) tool quantifies and explains complex forest characteristics (i.e. total carbon load at a particular site) using an embedded Geographic Information System (GIS). It demonstrates how trees help landowners both reduce carbon pollution and prepare for the effects of climate change by reducing stormwater runoff and erosion and providing shade during hot summer months. The tool is being used by land managers across King County to make climate smart decisions when dealing with their forests. The National Wildlife Federation recently partnered with the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition to present a webinar on "climate-induced stormwater flooding, reducing thermal pollution in local waterways, and minimizing heat island effects," through use of the Forestry CPR tool.

Washington, D.C.

The National Wildlife Federation has been working in our nation’s capital to promote wildlife-friendly approaches to urban sustainability. We have been an active participant in Sustainable DC, an ongoing process to develop a sustainability plan for the District of Columbia, and have provided technical expertise to both the Climate Change and Nature working groups. In particular, the National Wildlife Federation has been leading the effort to ensure that climate change adaptation is addressed in the plan, in addition to mitigation, and that nature-based solutions are included. We also co-author a section on climate change adaptation to be included in the forthcoming Sustainable DC Plan and the District’s Climate Action Plan.

The National Wildlife Federation has partnered with the DC Environmental Network (DCEN) to host a community dialogue on wildlife, natural systems, and a sustainable D.C. Twenty local leaders, climate and sustainability experts, and students from the D.C. metropolitan area came together at the National Wildlife Federation office to consider strategies to be included in the Sustainable DC plan.

Great Lakes Region

Through the Climate-Smart Restoration Partnership Project for the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay (a partnership of the National Wildlife Federation, NOAA and the Kresge Foundation), the National Wildlife Federation made significant progress helping the coastal restoration community better understand and incorporate climate change adaptation into their work around the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay. To catalyze climate adaptation activities in the communities where these projects are located, the National Wildlife Federation reached out to local governments, non-profits, and residents in Ohio and Michigan, and then developed a set of resources to help communities understand how restoring and protecting natural systems is not only beneficial for fish and wildlife, but can also help them be better prepared for the impacts of climate change.

Urban forestry is just one example of a nature-based approach used to alleviate the impacts of climate change in the Great Lakes region like rising air temperature, increased precipitation, and increased nutrient run-off associated with increasing spring storm events. The National Wildlife Federation’s primer, Using Urban Forests to Help Communities Prepare for Climate Change in Northeast Ohio, provides information for maintaining healthy urban forests in the region and outlines the benefits they bring to communities.

Other Climate-Smart Resources for Cities and Towns

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