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Natick - Local Town Pages

Connecting Communities on Climate

By Sean Sullivan
Good fences make good neighbors, goes the saying. 
In his poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost relates the ritual of repairing, maintaining, the stone boundary between his property and a neighbor’s. Frost’s abutter is adamant about the wall’s utility. The poet is skeptical. 
But do bridges make better neighbors? That’s the question an ongoing Natick outreach program is betting on and seeking to answer. 
The town has been partnering with its own neighbors - Framingham and Ashland - to better understand how municipalities might better address the climate-related needs of their residents. 
Dubbed the Metrowest Climate Equity Project, its survey is aimed at better understanding how residents are vulnerable to a changing climate and associated extreme-weather events. The finer focus of the effort is outreach to neighborhoods and residents who might have a more tentative connection to the town.
People for whom English is a second language were a focus of the survey, and thus it was made available to them in Spanish and Portuguese. Renters, too, tend to be less connected to the communities in which they live. Tenants may interact primarily with the property owners to whom they pay rent, a relationship that can add a degree of separation between renters and local government. They may feel more isolated, less invested in, less connected to the town.
The survey ended May 30, and was conducted via in-person interviews, the internet, and postcards. It queried residents about their needs and vulnerabilities against the backdrop of increasingly-extreme weather. In recent years, the survey asked, have residents left home to seek respite from the cold or heat? If so, where did they go?
One of the goals of the survey was to identify locations where residents would likely seek shelter, with the intent to bolster those places with more resources to help them meet heightened demand. Natick’s Morse Institute Library, for example, is designated as one of the town’s “cooling centers” during extended periods of extreme heat.  
“It was interesting to know where they look for that refuge,” said Jillian Wilson-Martin. She is Natick’s Director of Sustainability, and is involved in the implementation of the Metrowest Climate Equity Project in the town. “When there’s a heat event or a storm, it’s important to have someone to come and check on them.”
And just as all politics is local, all climate conversation is community-centric. 
“We heard a lot about algae blooms,” in the climate survey, said Wilson-Martin. The presence of cyanobacteria, a hazardous blue-green algae, shut down beaches in Natick and Wayland last summer. The affected sites were on Lake Cochituate, a popular swimming and boating attraction for residents near and far.
Several other Massachusetts beaches were closed due to the algae blooms last year, which are attributed to increased runoff entering lakes and ponds. Warmer and wetter summers carry more phosphorous and nitrogen from fertilizers (and other contaminants) into ponds and lakes, fueling the blooms that can keep swimmers and pets at bay for the season.         
Hurricane Katrina in 2005, of course, was a high-water mark in the annals of ecological catastrophe. For many who didn’t live through it or weren’t touched by it, the flooding in New Orleans was a distant dystopia, a freak phenomenon. Scenes of people stranded on rooftops, overlooking a flooded landscape, were far removed from scenic and sleepy suburban neighborhoods.
The years since Katrina have torn those blinders from a country’s collective eyes. Like the elemental Greek gods of old, seeking to discipline societies complacent and conceited, Mother Nature is responding with all the slings and arrows in her arsenal.
West coast wildfires consume the mansion and middle-class home with equal appetite. Mudslides sweep away the multi-million-dollar residence and hut in the holler, each with indiscriminate ease and increasing frequency. Countries and people who contributed least to the climate crisis can pay the highest toll; the inverse is often the case.
Last year, a heat wave scorched western North America from late June into the middle of July. The event was coded ostensibly as a one-in-a-thousand-year weather anomaly. A heat map of the event shows the western shoulder of the U.S. and Canada as charred coastline and interior, as if the two countries missed that area when applying sunscreen.
The event put a pin in the record books for Canada, which at 121 degrees, saw its highest-ever recorded temperature. An estimated 1,400 deaths were attributed to the heat wave.
Those temperatures disproportionately affected poorer communities, who had fewer resources to draw upon in escaping the heat.  In such extreme weather events, even the abundance or absence of tree cover can mean the difference between one or two heat-related deaths and many.
And last year in Texas, a freak winter storm killed electricity transmission to many communities, contributing to the deaths of nearly 250 people.
The Texas utility grid proved fragile when faced with snow, ice and frigid temperatures, and many perished from hypothermia when the power went out over the course of days. It reiterated Mother Nature’s power of surprise, her ability to rewrite the script. It was also a symbol of our collective complacency, a failure of human imagination and preparedness. 
These events have been climate wake-up calls for many communities across the continent, forcing governments and citizens to reckon with the reality of a warming world. Infrastructure and institutions built during the last century, it seems, are now stressed to their limits and beyond by weather events severe and strange.
More-connected communities are part of a strategy that can steel societies against a changing climate, and that’s where the Metrowest Climate Equity Project might point to some answers and solutions. The project launched in the fall of 2021, and will continue into next year.
Its climate survey, said Wilson-Martin, is as much about making connections between neighbors as it is about having those questions answered. Those neighbors include Natick, Ashland, and Framingham, who have partnered together in the project.
It includes strengthening connections between communities separated by barriers of language and class. It consists of bolstering the bonds between those neighbors and local and state governments. And finally, it involves widening the focus to see all of this within the shared community of an interconnected country and world.
In short, it means breaking down walls, mending and building bridges.
We’ll need them to traverse the moats and basements that fill and swell from more frequent flooding. We’ll need them to bridge connections during those times when the power, heating, and air conditioning fails. 
“This is a method that we can use to talk about more than just climate,” said Wilson-Martin. “So many of our communities are facing similar challenges. So we might as well be working together on similar solutions.”