Dr. Missy Stults

Dr. Missy Stults, Sustainability and Innovations Manager for the City of Ann Arbor, spoke with Current about how communities can adapt to climate change. With a PhD in urban resilience from the University of Michigan, Missy previously served as a contractor working with cities and tribal communities to advance their climate and sustainability agendas.

What is urban resilience? There’s a quote: “We have to avoid the unmanageable, and manage the unavoidable.” We’ve passed the luxury of not preparing for climate change. We have to reduce impact, we have to prepare, and we have to do it through a lens of social equity, acknowledging that not everyone is impacted equally by climate change, and not everyone has the same ability to influence climate change. Urban resilience is those three things blended together.

What’s in the works to make Ann Arbor more resilient?
Resilience hubs, which are pretty new and cutting-edge. The idea is, how do you ensure that every neighborhood has what they need to thrive — not just to be okay, but to thrive — before, during, and after a disaster? The “during” is kind of easy, because we know what to do for a disaster. It’s the other parts that are really exciting to me. You design it with the community so that for the rest of the time, when you’re not in a disaster, it’s activated to be what the community wants. We take a place that’s already trusted and loved by a neighborhood, and we work with them to make that space whatever they want, maybe. . . really good after-school care, or maybe they want a new economic engine in their region. And then from the city perspective, I’m making sure that should disaster strike, that place is ready. It’s basically fostering social cohesion.

Why is social cohesion important? When you know your neighbors, you’re much more likely to take care of your neighbors, and to work together toward collective aims. That’s Disaster 101. In Seattle, they’re collecting information so neighbors know who can’t get out, who needs meals, whose kids aren’t in the area. You start accumulating that place-based knowledge, and then it’s not just the government that comes in. I take care of you and you take care of me. The government can come in when it’s time, but in a full-blown disaster, you can’t be everywhere at once. So, social cohesion is, to me, the most important thing that we need to be fostering.

How do you keep from burning out while working on climate change? Everyone in this field is an optimist, because you pretty much have to be. The status quo, we know where that gets us… The science tells us what the world’s going to look like in the future, and it’s not okay. So basically, we have two choices: we can be complicit in that, and we say the world’s going to suck and that’s okay, or we disrupt the status quo. And if we disrupt it, it’s going to make us all really uncomfortable, but what’s the alternative? I have a three-year-old daughter. I can’t look at her, and not at least try to disrupt wherever we can.

What are you doing to connect sustainability with affordability? We have an equity advisor that’s looking at our work plans to make sure the most vulnerable are front and center. One thing we’ve committed to doing in this office is working with the affordable housing commission… If we do this full steam ahead only focused on energy, we’re going to leave a lot of people behind.

How can people who are interested get involved? Look at the sustainability website and contact me directly. I want to get different voices sitting at the table, because they’ll ask different questions and they’ll look at the world differently, and that’s essential to solve the kinds of challenges we’re facing. Anyone who’s got ideas, time, interests, and passions, we want them.

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