#75 Belmont: Adapting California's Coastal Cities for Climate Resilience

Episode 81 May 08, 2024 00:25:51
#75 Belmont: Adapting California's Coastal Cities for Climate Resilience
Smart in the City – The BABLE Podcast
#75 Belmont: Adapting California's Coastal Cities for Climate Resilience

May 08 2024 | 00:25:51


Hosted By

Tamlyn Shimizu

Show Notes

In this episode, we welcome Peter Brown, the Director of Public Works for Belmont, California, to discuss the evolving challenges and innovative solutions in urban infrastructure amidst climate change.

Our guest shared insights from his experience in urban planning within various Californian coastal cities, focusing on major infrastructure projects designed to adapt to climate realities like sea level rise and extreme weather events. The conversation also touched on community engagement strategies and the financial hurdles cities face in prioritising and funding essential infrastructure developments.


Overview of the episode:

[00:00:45] Teaser Question: "If you could add one magical feature to Belmont overnight, what would it be?"

[00:03:06] Guest Background

[00:04:51] What unique challenges do California's coastal cities face?

[00:06:37] What key projects are shaping Belmont's response to climate change?

[00:10:30] What are the latest trends in transport infrastructure in coastal cities?

[00:12:27] How are project priorities set in constrained environments?

[00:14:39] How is community feedback shaping urban infrastructure?

[00:17:55] Hot Take of the Day: Our guests ask each other the questions!

[00:23:45] Ending Question: "To you, what is a Smart City?"


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View Full Transcript

Episode Transcript

[00:00:06] Tamlyn Shimizu: Welcome to Smart in the city, the BABLE podcast, where we bring together top actors in the smart city arena, sparking dialogues and interactions around the stakeholders and themes most prevalent for today's citizens and tomorrow's generations. [00:00:21] Tamlyn Shimizu: I am your host, Tamlyn Shimizu, and I hope you will enjoy this episode and gain knowledge and connections to accelerate the change for a better urban life. [00:00:31] Tamlyn Shimizu: Smart in the city is brought to you by BABLE Smart Cities we enable processes from research and strategy development to co creation and implementation. To learn more about us, please visit the BABLE platform at BABLE Smartcities EU. [00:00:45] Tamlyn Shimizu: So today I get the pleasure of welcoming a guest all the way from the US to Stuttgart. We're recording here live at our Stuttgart office in Germany, and we're going to be talking about differences in infrastructure, climate, anything like that in the US. Maybe we can take some comparisons to what's going on in Europe. So I'm really excited to dig into the content of this and get the chance to talk to our wonderful guest, who is none other than Peter Brown. He's the director of public works at the city of Belmont in California. Welcome, Peter. [00:01:16] Peter Brown: Thanks, Tamlyn. It's great to be here. [00:01:18] Tamlyn Shimizu: It's wonderful to have you, and I'm really glad that we got to do this in person. It's always fun and we just had a lovely lunch in Chicago, so I'm sorry that the weather's not cooperating so much though. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Sorry about that. Coming from California, that's a bit of a tough one, but yeah. And you've also worked in many other coastal cities, I understand, in California. So I'm looking forward to getting all of your experiences and insights from that before we get started, I like to. Well, really, we've already started, but before we get started with the main interview part, I like to do a little teaser question to get warmed up. So my teaser question is, if you could add one magical feature to Belmont overnight so tomorrow it would just come, what would it be? [00:02:13] Peter Brown: I think the magic that Belmont needs is a way for kids to get to school and to be picked up without their parents driving them, that would be fascinating. So a lot of people are familiar with peak hours and peak hour congestion. The real travel congestion in Belmont is during school drop off and pickup hours. So that would be the magic. I'm not quite sure how it would work, but since it's a magical question, it would be teleportation, teleportation, biking and walking. It's a hilly, spread out city, but somehow it could work. [00:02:49] Tamlyn Shimizu: I bet, yeah. Magical teleportation of the school kids. I like it. Yeah, very nice. So I like to give a little bit of background into who you are as a person, your professional career path. How did you end up in Belmont today? [00:03:06] Peter Brown: Yeah, it's been a very interesting career. I studied urban planning at UCLA and I finished my graduate studies there some 25 years ago. And since then I have been working in several California cities, mostly working on urban planning and public works, infrastructure design, construction and maintenance. And it's been a great career and it really has enabled me to make positive changes in cities and quality of life. And so that's pretty rewarding. [00:03:40] Tamlyn Shimizu: Yeah, absolutely. I imagine, and we alluded to this when we were talking at launch, too, that you can really see the change happening. Right. Because you started many years ago now, and now you can actually see things. Oh, wow. I started this project. Right. That must be a cool feeling. [00:03:56] Peter Brown: It's a little better than the feeling, Tamlin, that right now I think you're calling me old. No, you're right. So we talked about how long it takes for projects to go from implementation or idea to actual construction and use. And in the public sector, in infrastructure, that can be decades. And so it is great to have had a legacy working on what I think are sustainable transportation and urban design projects that are now built and functioning and being used. That's a lot of value. [00:04:29] Tamlyn Shimizu: I prefer experienced over old. Me too, with not alluding to that fact. Can you paint us a picture about Belmont to start us off and maybe also zooming out a little bit, what are the kind of the biggest challenges that California's coastal cities are facing? Paint us the picture. [00:04:51] Peter Brown: Yeah. So for those of you who have never heard of Belmont, that's just about everybody, I'm sure. But most of you have heard of Silicon Valley in San Jose and San Francisco. And those are cities that are about 30 miles north and south of Belmont. So Belmont is right in between San Francisco and San Jose. It's about 30,000 people, and it has. Goes right up to San Francisco Bay. So pressing issues for Belmont, really creating enough affordable housing is a big deal. Modernizing our California everywhere. So that's every California city. And then, of course, we deal with things like drought and deluge that are related to climate change. So California's climate change challenges, aside from sea level rise, really is this cycle of drought and deluge that we're facing. And we had, some people have heard of the storms we had last year. We had so much flooding in California, and this is after almost a decade, a decade and a half of drought, and so it's one or the other. And so really being able to cope with those type of things is a big challenge. [00:06:00] Tamlyn Shimizu: Yeah, absolutely. I'm wondering if you can also tell you work a lot with infrastructure projects, and maybe you can talk a little bit about what you think about as cities evolve, this infrastructure must adapt or to climate change. All these things that you're alluding to. Can you describe or give us some examples of major infrastructure projects you've worked on or are, are currently working on and how you design these cities to be adaptable to climate change? [00:06:37] Peter Brown: Yeah, there's some really cool projects going on in Belmont right now that relate to exactly this topic. We're designing a nine acre foot stormwater detention basin, which is going to capture stormwater during peak rainfalls that comes off of Belmont Creek. Typically, as the water flows out to San Francisco Bay, it enters the floodplain, which is very flat, and there's a lot of historical flooding. And so we're designing two projects. One is this detention basin, which will enable peak stormwater flows to be captured. The water can get cleaned, we can pull out trash, we can desilt the water, and after the heavy rainfall period, which could be six to 24 hours, typically the creek starts to go back down, and then the carrying capacity for the excess floodwater can be reintroduced into the creek and carried out to the bay, and thus avoiding the flooding in the floodplain near the bay. So that's an innovative project. What we found out is that it doesn't work really well in and of itself, because if you think about a raging river, there's only so much water you can pull off of it. And so what we're also doing is designing what we call the Belmont Creek bypass, which is basically an underground five foot by twelve foot storm drain culvert, which runs parallel to Belmont Creek towards the floodplain, towards San Francisco Bay. And what that does is it provides a place for the water to go again to alleviate the flooding. And so these are two, I think the detention basin projects is about $15 million project, and the bypass is more like 50 million. So these are very expensive projects that we're financing and designing and, and hopefully building soon. [00:08:21] Tamlyn Shimizu: Yeah. What's the timeline for those? Like, how can, from your perspective, how can we get them implemented faster? [00:08:31] Peter Brown: It's really the funding question. So where I live and work, that is the biggest bottleneck for almost all of our projects. So we can design them, we can construct them. Those are all pretty short timeframes. But coming up with money to build these projects, I mean, the city's operating budget is, you know, 30 to 40 million a year, and that's for everything we do, all of the city services. So if you're looking at a $50 million project, I mean, that you'd have to forego a year and a half of all city services in order to pay for it with city only funds. So we need to get grant funds, we need private development. We need all kinds of contributors, state and federal government funds. And pulling those together through grants and other endeavors takes a lot of time. [00:09:18] Tamlyn Shimizu: Absolutely. Do you think that this geographic position that you are between in this very innovative area, do you think that gives you a bit of a head start in tackling some of these climate issues, because these innovations can very quickly be, I guess, quicker be implemented? [00:09:41] Peter Brown: I wish my answer was yes. I haven't found that out to be in practicality. I think when it comes to tech and AI and those type of changes that happen relatively quickly, being in San Francisco or Silicon Valley or San Jose is important because there's a lot of mines and a lot of action, a lot of change happening when it comes to good old fashioned infrastructure and construction. Those things maybe aren't as beneficial to be located in the heart of Silicon Valley. [00:10:13] Tamlyn Shimizu: Yeah, yeah. Interesting. You worked for a while also in the transport sector, and I'm wondering if you can also share any unique story or use case that would be really beneficial for the listeners to learn about. [00:10:30] Peter Brown: There's a big push in a lot of California coastal cities for safe bicycle infrastructure. And here in Stuttgart and my last few days in Munchen, there's a lot of people riding bikes, and they're doing it in the heart of city, and they're doing it during cold, wet, rainy weather. And so it's interesting to me to see folks willing to be able to ride their bikes and for there to be sufficient bike infrastructure for them to do so. California lacks a lot of that, and we have a lot more vehicles on the road and a lot faster drivers, I would say. And so there's definitely a sense of fear for a lot of riders that I'd like to ride, but it's tough to get out there. And so there's a big push for protected bicycle infrastructure separated from the travelways and the automobiles. [00:11:19] Tamlyn Shimizu: And how is there's a big push for it? Is it also a matter of funding that's kind of slowing that down, or what's the hindering factor there? [00:11:31] Peter Brown: Yeah, great question. So there's two main things, one is funding, investing in the bicycle infrastructure we need. The other part is we have the roadway system is built out, right. So in public works we use the term right of way. So that's. The public owns a section of road, maybe it's 60ft wide or 90ft wide, or even sometimes 20 or 22ft wide. So the main issue there is the constraint. So the right of way is already allocated to two or four vehicle lanes and a lane of parking. And so now you're dealing with trade offs. Are we removing the parking lane? Are we removing a vehicle lane? Those constraints are real. And there's impacts to removing travel lane for automobile congestion, for example. So one of the challenging parts of my job is finding the locations where we can make these changes and prioritizing those and getting them funded and built. [00:12:27] Tamlyn Shimizu: Yeah, absolutely. And given kind of these constraints, you've mentioned funding a couple of times, these constraints of local taxation and the high level of resources that are really need for these infrastructure projects. How do decision makers and cities really prioritize what they decide to do? What is that kind of decision making process? [00:12:53] Peter Brown: It can be quite varied, and I don't want to speak generally about what every city does, but certainly in the cities I've worked in, in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara and San Francisco and Belmont, a lot of times it's really about where can we actually get this done? Where do we have a potential to create a bike boulevard or excess right of way where we actually can put in bike lanes where they didn't formerly exist? So a lot of times the decision relates around where the users need it, where we can actually implement it, and where we can kind of direct people into those new and improved infrastructure. The problem that we have is on corridors where there's really a lot of traffic and there's a need for a bike lane. And we have advocates asking for it, but they're also the areas where, gosh, if we were to remove a travel lane and put in a bike lane, we would have cars backed up for five to 8 hours a day. [00:13:51] Tamlyn Shimizu: So, yeah, it's a tough choice. And you can also never make everybody happy, right? That's for sure. That's the rule in public government, right? You can never make everyone happy. So it's very difficult to prioritize speaking on that. It comes down a lot to community engagement, and we talk a lot about it in Europe. I know on how european cities are engaging with the community to gain support for these kind of infrastructure changes, especially when related to car dependency. And climate change. Can you maybe elaborate on how your city or other cities you've worked for are also engaging with the community? [00:14:39] Peter Brown: Well, there's no doubt that when the community is behind something, it certainly makes things happen a lot easier. You know, certainly in our system of government, where we have elected city councils, if their constituents are telling them in high volume or high numbers that they don't want something to happen, that's an uphill battle for us. And so a lot of the challenges we have with community engagement is really convincing folks that we kind of know what we're doing. This is actually going to be good for everyone. It might be a change, it might be something you're not used to, whether it's putting in a roundabout or a new bike lane. So a lot of the community engagement revolves around having the meetings, putting out the mailers, having people subscribe to our newsletters to really understand our projects, building project websites, explaining the projects there, directing folks to those. And a lot of times it's like we still don't convince folks, right? And so we still have uphill battles and we have people coming to our meetings telling the council that our project is going to ruin the city and ruin their quality of life. And so that makes it very challenging. [00:15:42] Tamlyn Shimizu: Yeah, I'm wondering about how the knowledge has change kind of happens in cities. Are there any lessons in infrastructure and climate adaptation that you have learned from other cities or innovative practice you pioneered in Belmont and or in other California coastal cities? [00:16:01] Peter Brown: Yeah, I think adaptation is one of those things that we talk a lot about, but it's very difficult to. Like how do you implement it, right. How do you adapt a city? How do you be prepared for climate change realities, which in California coastal cities at sea level rise, it's dealing with heat and drought and deluge, and working those into infrastructure systems like storm drain capacity and other things. I think there's a lot of information sharing, and I think one of the things that most cities don't have is an adaptation plan, a plan that lays out how they're going to deal with inevitable changes that come with climate. I actually worked on San Francisco's first climate adaptation plan. I think you can find it on the website, a 2011 city of San Francisco climate adaptation plan for the transport sector. And I did a lot of research and looked at european cities, as a matter of fact, and what some of them were doing and put that together in San Francisco's climate adaptation document. But again, it's, you know, putting in a document is different than getting infrastructure built and getting prepared for the changes that are coming our way. I wish it were taken more seriously than it is in terms of what I've seen. But the reality is we've all seen in the news how many cities are dealing with flood and heat. If the two things come right at the top of your head and those things are going to continue and intensify. [00:17:33] Tamlyn Shimizu: Absolutely. What do you think is, you mentioned funding before, but what do you think is the main thing slowing down progress? What tools? If again, maybe you have the magic wand and you get a few tools in your toolbox, what tools would you need to accelerate everything? [00:17:55] Peter Brown: I think acceleration would come with really just a deeper understanding of the seriousness of the problem. And so I think for as progressive as european cities are and the european culture when it comes to understanding climate change and alternative energy and how we have to move away from the use of carbon globally, if you look at carbon consumption and burning of fossil fuels, the trend line is still going up. I think the magic thing for me would just really be a broad, deep understanding of the problem we're facing that we've created for ourselves through our capitalist system. And really to have every person and every person who's concerned about economy and sustainability, really to understand the climate change impacts we're all facing. If we had that broad understanding, and it wasn't Greta Thornberg who people make fun of in the US as being this crazy kid who takes a sailboat to a conference, it seems fringe from where I stand, and I'm a climate scientist, and it's something that I'm passionate about. But I don't think if you ask the average person in California what's a big problem facing our state or our society, most people wouldn't say climate change, and I think they should. [00:19:18] Tamlyn Shimizu: They would say maybe more like housing or something like that. [00:19:21] Peter Brown: Hopelessness, crime, economy, inflation. They would say all of those things. Fuel prices, gas prices, they would say a lot of things. [00:19:29] Tamlyn Shimizu: And it's wild. Yeah, no, that's not the real issue. [00:19:32] Peter Brown: We'Re facing right now from a high level future of our society type of standpoint. [00:19:38] Tamlyn Shimizu: Yeah, absolutely. So, but how would we, how do we now, I'm just, you know, how do we get to a wider global understanding? Like, what are the tools that we need to be able to do that? [00:19:49] Peter Brown: What do you think it really comes with education? I think it has to be a fundamental component of our education from elementary school through university. It has to be in the curriculum. We have required things in the curriculum, like in California for elementary school students where they study the California missions that the Spanish built. That's required curriculum for third or fourth grade. I don't know that that's great. [00:20:17] Tamlyn Shimizu: You don't have that memorized and use it every day in your everyday work. [00:20:22] Peter Brown: So it's a great question. Timlin I'm not sure I have the answer to how we get it to be a ubiquitous understanding of most human beings on planet Earth, but we got to keep chipping away at it. [00:20:35] Tamlyn Shimizu: And in the US, it's so politicized, and of course, in all over it is to some extent. But I think in the US especially, it's quite, quite polarized. And so for me, I'm like, how do we stop making it a political issue and rather just make it a, this is a human issue. It's not political anymore. This is just, and when I think about it, I'm like, it just has to get so bad that it affects everyone and then people will understand, you know, but how do we get, how do we get to the point of understanding and just being open to talk about it, not making it political, you know? [00:21:11] Peter Brown: Well, there's one way we can for sure do it, and that's with time, I think we don't have a lot of time to spare or waste, but Mother Nature bats last and she will have the final answers. And I think at some point it's going to have to become as obvious to it as some of us now. It's going to become that obvious to others, hopefully in the near future, not the far future, because the realities are significant. [00:21:35] Tamlyn Shimizu: Absolutely. Yeah. And now we get to a fun segment of ours at the end. And I like to, this is one that we haven't done too much recently, I think. And so I'm really interested to hear your take. It's called hot take of the day. Hot take of the day. We want to hear an opinion of your yours that may be slightly controversial or debated. Do you have a hot take for us? [00:22:10] Peter Brown: I do, yes. [00:22:12] Tamlyn Shimizu: I'm excited. [00:22:13] Peter Brown: We talked earlier about wanting folks to really have a global understanding and kind of get everybody on the same page. One thing that I have concern about is capitalism in general as an economic system. It's touted so much in the US and in a lot of places around the world as this amazing thing that has brought us all these longevity and growth and healthcare systems and it's generated wealth and it's done all these amazing things, but it's also converted a whole lot of natural resources into human uses. And so I guess my hot take is that someday, probably not in my lifetime, but someday soon, I would love for us to move away from capitalism into a sustainable economy. An economy that doesn't look at profits and wealth creation and the gap between haves and the half nots, but really instead prioritizes a sustainable system where we really are able to regenerate and keep the earth and keep our urban societies healthy and happy. And so I call that a sustainable economy. [00:23:30] Tamlyn Shimizu: We're not talking about socialism, we're talking about something else, right? [00:23:34] Peter Brown: Yeah, I mean, some components of that can be recalibrated, but. No, I'm not talking about that. I use the term sustainable economy. [00:23:45] Tamlyn Shimizu: Yeah. Now, I would love to ask you our recurring question, which is, is the question that we ask every single guest. And I'm really interested to hear your point of your perspective also from a kind of public works infrastructure. So the question that we ask every guest is to you, what is a smart city? [00:24:06] Peter Brown: It's so many things I've thought about this question, and the list is super long. But a smart city is a sustainable city. It's one that has a low carbon footprint. It's one that has equity among the society and the members of the city. It's one that has a high proportion of transit and bike trips, access to open space, access to healthcare and economic opportunities. It's such a great term, and I can go on probably for a long time about all the components of what I think a smart city is. Stuttgart is an amazing city. I'm very impressed with it. Its transportation system is phenomenal. But yeah, that could be a whole podcast in and of itself. [00:24:51] Tamlyn Shimizu: And that's why we have this podcast, of course, to talk about this all the time. So with that, I have to thank you so much for coming on. It was really a pleasure getting to understand more about your work, to dig in also to an area that we haven't talked really about on the podcast yet. So thank you so much. I really appreciate it. [00:25:11] Peter Brown: Well, I appreciate the time and great job. I appreciate the podcast as well. [00:25:15] Tamlyn Shimizu: Thank you very much. And to all of our listeners, don't forget you can always create a free account on BABLE smartcities EU. You can find out more about smart city projects, solutions and implementations. Thank you all very much. Thank you all for listening. I'll see you at the next stop on the journey to a better urban life.

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