Last year, the signs of our rapidly warming climate manifested in ways impossible for anyone to ignore. Bay Area residents were subjected to weeks of smoky skies, poor air quality, and intense heat, and soon increased flooding from storms and sea level rise will become the new norm.

Americans are ready to tackle the climate crisis head on, and now. A study by the Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of Americans believe the government needs to do more to reduce the impacts of climate change.

Some local cities have shown great leadership in reducing our region’s contribution to the climate problem. San Jose in particular has adopted an ambitious plan called Climate Smart San Jose that makes the city a trailblazer in cutting carbon emissions. While plans like these are essential to mitigate the impacts of climate change, many of the effects are already on our doorsteps and won’t leave any time soon. As we move into this tumultuous future, cities like San Jose need to go beyond mitigation, and immediately implement strategies to adapt to the climate impacts that are already here.

Infographic of road, sidewalk, and houses with green infrastructure elements: rain gardens, tree & planter boxes, bioswales, stormwater curb extension, green roofs

Luckily, we know that nature-based solutions like urban greening provide effective and necessary climate adaptation strategies that cities can deploy now. 

San Jose is low-lying and vast. Increased precipitation and sea level rise will lead to more  frequent large and moderate flooding events, leaving many communities vulnerable. Rising temperatures also threaten residents with scorching urban heat effects. As temperatures increase, expanses of blacktop pavement and concrete retain heat and raise city temperatures beyond healthy levels.

That’s why we are advocating that San Jose employ multi-benefit urban greening to make the city more resilient to climate hazards and protect its communities in an equitable way. 

Adding green elements like trees, planter boxes, and other nature-based elements to create green streets better manages the impacts of flooding and improves water quality in the Bay by letting stormwater be naturally absorbed and filtered through the soil. Replacing sections of concrete and blacktop with urban vegetation also protects residents from high temperatures and improves air quality.

Infographic of road, sidewalk, and houses with green infrastructure elements: rain gardens, tree & planter boxes, bioswales, stormwater curb extension, green roofs    
Left: Bioretention rain garden along Autumn Parkway. Right: Rain garden and permeable pavers on Sunol St.
Credit: City of San Jose
Bringing nature back into urban settings doesn’t just help us adapt to climate change and improve water quality in the Bay. Urban greening also improves the quality of life for residents by reimagining public spaces and moving away from streets that solely function to serve cars. San Jose is already in the midst of crafting plans to expand access and safety for cyclists and promote walkable neighborhoods built around “urban villages”.

Urban greening elements can enhance these plans, making streets safer and more appealing all while improving the city’s climate resilience. The urgency for these complementary approaches has become more apparent this year, as COVID-19 travel restrictions during the height of the summer heat increased awareness among San Jose residents, and across the Bay Area, about the need for green, walkable neighborhoods.

How do we make this happen?

First, San Jose’s City Council needs to endorse this vision for the city’s future. Then, the city should create a comprehensive implementation strategy to deploy urban greening and ensure that these benefits are distributed equitably and where they are most needed. Finally, by integrating this strategy with other roadway and neighborhood development plans like the bike and pedestrian safety plans and urban villages, San Jose can efficiently align its design and construction processes, compete for state and regional funding, and realize the maximum community benefit at the lowest cost to San Jose residents.

San Jose has a great opportunity to take its climate leadership to the next level. A broad, and integrated urban greening approach will serve as an effective climate adaptation model for other cities throughout the Bay Area, and promote a vision of equity and resilience. As we head into a time where adapting to climate change is no longer an option, city leaders must begin to focus on these types of solutions more broadly. Urban greening offers one of the most effective, multi-benefit ways for cities to prepare for the new reality of a changing climate, protect residents and businesses, and make the city a more appealing place to live, work, and play.

Justin is the Policy Fellow at Save the Bay.

Justin is the Policy Fellow at Save the Bay.