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Local Solutions for Climate Resiliency in Newburyport, MA

Climate change impact in newburyport
Photo credit: Megan Chiango - One of several images that depicts climate change impacts in Newburyport that residents responded to during a gallery walk.

In today’s world, most people have a basic understanding of climate change: raging floods in one region, record-breaking heat waves in another. However, fewer are familiar with its particular local effects and the municipal initiatives to address them. Addressing these local impacts is crucial, as our own communities are the easiest place to make a difference.

While Creative Action Institute typically supports community-led climate change initiatives around the world, we recently applied our methodology closer to home. For the first time, we conducted a consulting project in the US, focusing on Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Newburyport is a town of approximately 18,000 on Boston’s North Shore. Its main city center sits astride the Merrimack River, and its borders encompass a portion of Plum Island, a thin strip of land with a vibrant coastal community. Its proximity to the river and the ocean has made it an especially vulnerable target for the effects of climate change. In light of this, the Newburyport Resiliency Committee created a Climate Resiliency Plan to address issues like flooding and heavy precipitation events.

The Resiliency Committee sought the help of Creative Action Institute (CAI) in putting together a Public Forum on Climate Change. They hoped to more effectively educate the public about the city’s green initiatives, get feedback on their work, and find out what residents are most concerned about by utilizing CAI’s creative facilitation methodologies.

The four Newburyport Public Forums on Climate Change took place in May and June, made possible by a grant from the State of Massachusetts’ Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Program. Hosted by Creative Action Institute, in partnership with the City Resiliency Council and UMass Boston’s Urban Harbors Institute, the organization invited Newburyport residents to take part in a series of creative activities designed to inspire reflection, solution creation, and action with regard to the localized impacts of climate change.  

As residents entered, they were asked to view a gallery walk with graphics and text outlining the most critical threats facing their home city and the current municipal plans to address them. Each module had a response page which allowed participants to share their reactions to the information presented. In this initial phase of the forum, many people who chose to share their thoughts expressed fear, concern, and a sense of being overwhelmed by the challenges ahead.

CAI then invited participants to gather as a group and share why they chose to attend the forum. Reasons were diverse and varied, but generally centered around the personal impacts of climate change in their daily lives: some had suffered from coastal flooding or lack of access to their houses; others had difficulty coping with extreme heat; still others worried about the financial impacts of climate change.

After a brief presentation put on by the committee and participating organizations, participants engaged in small-scale conversations by way of a “World Cafe” activity. Through a series of prompts, this activity gave residents the opportunity to have more involved discussions about their relationship to climate change. The Café consisted of three rounds of questions to stimulate idea generation around climate solutions, concluding in a collaborative list of policy recommendations to make Newburyport a greener city.

After the World Café, Creative Action Institute led a visioning activity. Participants were asked to close their eyes and listen to a prepared text that described an optimistic projection of their town’s future. The intention of the visioning was to cut against the hopeless messaging that often purveys climate change discussion in mass media. CAI believes that seeing the possibility of a solution is the first step towards achieving it.

The final activity for residents was an opportunity to make one commitment to greener action in their daily lives. Participants gathered in a circle, and after they had shared, each person tied a length of yarn around their wrist. When the circle was complete, all attendees were connected by the same strand of yarn, symbolizing the fact that our individual actions exist in a system of actions and affect our fellow citizens.

Reactions to the forum were largely positive. As evidenced by the feedback forms below, residents emerged more knowledgeable about the primary impacts of climate change in Newburyport, the initiatives the city had created to build resilience, and the ways individuals can take action. The forum also gave residents the opportunity to learn ways to get connected and involved with local government on issues like climate change. Through its creative, multifaceted approach, the forum closened the relationship between Newburyport’s municipal government and the community it serves.

Due to the positive response from participants, the hope is to replicate this style of community forum in other communities in Massachusetts. When citizens are allowed to get creative and visualize solutions, they are able to push beyond the paralyzing anxiety often invoked by climate change and focus on more hopeful, solution-based actions.

Creative Action Institute is proud and honored to have had the opportunity to consult with local government to demonstrate the changemaking capacity of creative and participatory methods.

Learn more about our consulting services here.


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