Spotlight: Sustainable City Planning

by Kristina Byrne on June 1, 2012

Keene, NH, a modestly-sized municipality with modest resources,  has emerged as a leader in climate mitigation and adaptation, not only among New Hampshire municipalities, but nationally. A history of collaboration with local educational institutions was instrumental in Keene’s planAntioch University New England (AUNE) has been synergistic with Keene’s progress.

 “AUNE has played a key partner role in advancing the City of Keene’s climate change mitigation, adaptation and resilience leadership.”

-Mayor Kendall Lane

Photo by Jeffrey Newcomer

With a non-partisan leadership and a history of planning that extends from expanding the city center to accommodate development in 1736, to designing parks and open spaces in 1886, to being among the first to implement zoning codes in 1927; it is no surprise Keene was the first US city to formally plan for climate adaptation.

‘We know that proactive planning is significantly more cost effective than reactive planning. We also have to recognize that in the current economic situation there are limited resources that local communities have for planning and for action which is why climate change has to be integrated into existing community priorities and goals. Impacts from climate change are going to be local.  They are going to be felt differently at the local level.’

-Missy Stults, ICLEI USA  Adaptation in a Changing Climate and its Impacts on National Security

Building on the community’s concern about the effects of climate change and existing mitigation efforts, the City of Keene voted in April 2000 to become part of the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign® (CCP), administered by ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA. By 2004, Keene had completed a Climate Action Plan with a goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the community 10% by 2015.

AUNE faculty, staff, students and alumni have served on Keene’s Cities for Climate Protection Committee, since its inception.  This extended AUNE campus community has also led a host of initiatives, including the establishment of a new food co-op, converting a major rail trail to a pedestrian and bike pathway, and designing and implementing the 10% challenge, which offers energy audits and action plan development support for local businesses aiming to reduce GHG emissions by 10%.

Shortly after the Climate Action Plan’s release in 2004, Keene suffered millions of dollars in damages from massive flooding caused by severe storms.  Prior to this extreme weather event, researchers at Antioch had presented to City officials climate modeling data that projected increasing frequency and intensity of storms in the area and pointed to vulnerabilities in the City’s storm water conveyance infrastructure and related road networks. The October 2005 extreme storm, with rainfall amounts on the scale of projected extreme storm events due to climate change only brought home the idea of preparedness and resilience.  Following advisory input about climate literacy, conservation psychology, and collaboration, Keene embarked on a new planning agenda: climate adaptation.

Coinciding with the development of ICLEI’s Climate Resilient Cities program, Keene became the pilot for the new framework, a cyclical process with five milestones for climate adaptation. The first step, conducting a local climate resilience study, brought together City officials, planners, and local academic and public health experts to assess vulnerabilities in each sector of the City’s operations.  According to the second and third milestones, the City set preparedness goals and developed a climate preparedness plan by prioritizing actions according to their impacts on the environment, the community, and local businesses; returns on social and financial investments; and ease of funding and implementation.  The fourth step involved publishing and implementing the plan, with provisions to monitor and reevaluate resiliency to round the fifth milestone in the cycle.

One of the key findings of the adaptation planning process was that mitigation, the reduction of the city’s GHGs was a primary strategy in climate adaptation, many adopted actions served to simultaneously decrease emissions and increase resilience. The adaptation planning process solidified the city’s commitment to integrate a ‘climate lens’ into all departments’ operations, helping Keene to institutionalize climate protection and put sustainability at the center of the city’s Master Plan.  Building on the lessons learned from adaptation planning, the Master Planning process solicited the participation of about 2,000 citizens through surveys, public access TV time, ‘Keene Voices’ sessions, visioning conversations and practitioner workshops. The inclusive process created a culture of sustainability and climate protection, shared and owned by the community and the people making up its institutions.

“Keene’s scale and the high degree of social capital and effective collaboration that exist in terms of public/private partnerships and community action have been fundamental to the city’s success in climate change leadership.”

-Abigail Abrash Walton, director of AUNE’s Center for Academic Innovation and chair of the City of Keene’s Planning Board.

A recent MIT/ ICLEI survey of the worldwide trends in progress and challenges in urban climate adaptation planning shows 59% of US cities are currently pursuing adaptation planning, with 13% having completed vulnerability assessments.  Major challenges faced in adaptation planning include the allocation of funding and staff time for the planning process, generating and maintaining political and business interest, and communicating and mainstreaming the program.

“Any community looking for climate adaptation should realize it is a financial benefit to the community as well as a social benefit.”

-Mayor Kendall Lane

Keene’s role as an early adopter and national leader in climate adaptation has been a result of the city’s recognition of the importance of planning, and the inclusive process bringing together academic institutions, NGOs, citizens, and the local business community to work toward the collective goal of building a sustainable community.

“A sustainable community is one that is economically, environmentally, and socially healthy and resilient. It meets challenges through integrated solutions rather than through fragmented approaches that meet one of those goals at the expense of the others. And it takes a long-term perspective— one that’s focused on both the present and future, well beyond the next budget or election cycle.”

-Institute for Sustainable Communities

Learn More

Mayor Kendall Lane discusses the reasons that Keene, N.H has been an early adopter of sustainability planning and why it was a good economic decision.

Missy Stults, Climate Director ICLEI USA, discusses climate adaptation planning in the US

Patrick Hays, Mayor of North Little Rock in the US, discusses vulnerability in light of increasing intensity in tornado alley

Juan J. Daboub, explains how his organization, the Global Adaptation Institute, is working to facilitate adaptation efforts

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

GRETHEL CASTELLANOS July 16, 2012 at 5:17 pm

I just heard Mayor Kendall Lane [Keene,New Hampshire] and it was for me a good source of ideas for city sustaiable planning sample considering my procedence [Dominican Republic]…Thanks.


Urban Design and Planning June 1, 2013 at 5:33 am

The designing and planning process to develop this city is wonderful. It is simple but unique design.


Effective Home Staging January 9, 2014 at 4:55 am

I am much impressed with Keene’s plan. Great work! Carry on!


Hire the Best Property Conveyancer February 12, 2014 at 4:45 am

The idea of sustainable city planning is amazing. You have done a great job. Keep it up.


Rongming Wu November 8, 2014 at 1:32 am

It is highly appreiciated for your unique contribution to the global sustainable development at local levels.
We have strong disire to make closest possible partners of yours to localizing your excellent work into APEC initiatives.


Paul M Suckow March 27, 2017 at 3:39 pm

Sharing an FYI, the old 2012 blog entries have been retired from the ICLEI website. The “recent MIT/ ICLEI survey of the worldwide trends in progress and challenges in urban climate adaptation planning” mentioned above is still available at:


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