City of Somerville

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Reducing carbon emissions is the most important strategy for mitigating climate change, and this specific goal was first identified in the Climate Forward Plan. Related indicators include the percent of buildings’ energy use from sustainable sources and the share of buildings with solar panels.



The scope of the Climate and Sustainability topic chapter is: climate change mitigation, climate change adaptation, resiliency, energy efficiency, waste reduction, environmentalism, renewable energy, carbon neutrality, and pollution prevention and mitigation.



Somerville Climate Forward is Somerville’s first comprehensive climate change plan, grounded by a set of implementable actions. These tasks aim to reduce Somerville’s contribution to climate change and work towards carbon neutrality, to prepare Somerville for the unavoidable impacts of climate change, and to fairly distribute the opportunities created by climate action and work to alleviate the unequal burdens of climate change.

In considering climate and sustainability in Somerville, the working group wants to build on the solid foundation in SomerVision 2030 and Somerville Climate Forward, our climate action plan. SomerVision 2030 established sustainability as one of our community’s key values. The working group builds on this in SomerVision 2040 by making Climate and Sustainability a new topic chapter with a focus on:
Strong environmental leadership
  • Balanced transportation modes
  • Engaging recreational and community spaces
  • Improved community health and access to prevention and protective services
  • Effective stewardship of our natural resources
  • In addition, Climate Forward extensively considered the changes that will reduce emissions in the following sectors:
  • Buildings
  • Transportation
  • Environment (stormwater management, tree canopy expansion, consumption patterns)
  • Community (education, civic, and community participation)
  • Leadership to advocate for issues that can only be addressed at state or even federal levels
Many Somerville residents are already aware of climate change and other environmental issues and are eager to take action. This existing awareness will help to support individual efforts and mobilize needed behavior change at a larger scale.
Beyond policy positions, the City has implemented several programs and physical designs to to enable the community to make sustainable lifestyle choices. The City developed the Somerville Waste Wizard to answer resident questions about how to safely dispose of waste and electronics. Textile recycling was recently launched. The City has invested in cycling facilities, including a bikeshare program to make biking a more attractive option. Priority bus lanes on Broadway makes bus service more reliable and attractive for riders even during heavy traffic. Investments to increase the city’s tree canopy will help cool the city during the summer. Somerville is conducting parking reviews to evaluate the city’s relationship with cars, especially in corridors with robust public transit.
The Green Line Extension will soon offer further public transit opportunities. In 2016 the Solarize Somerville campaign led to the installation of over 100 solar arrays on Somerville homes. If you’re interested and haven’t yet been engaged, check out Sustainaville, the City’s home to the programs and initiatives to reduce our contribution to climate change and increase climate awareness.






Climate Forward is Somerville’s first comprehensive climate change plan, grounded by a set of implementable actions. These tasks aim to reduce Somerville’s contribution to climate change and work towards carbon neutrality, to prepare Somerville for the unavoidable impacts of climate change, and to fairly distribute the opportunities created by climate action and work to alleviate the unequal burdens of climate change.




Environmental justice seeks to ensure the equitable distribution of environmental risks and benefits and fair and meaningful participation in environmental decision-making for all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income. In Massachusetts, an Environmental Justice Community is an area with a median household income that is equal to or less than 65% of the statewide median, or an area with over 25% of residents identifying as a race other than white, or an area with over 25% of households having no one over the age of 14 who speaks English very well, or some combination of the three

There are many challenges and opportunities related to climate change and sustainability because the problem is not simple to solve. Solutions are local and global and action needs to be taken in a wide variety of ways. We’ve identified the issues as: scale of influence, existing infrastructure, the environment and health equity, air quality, and engagement.
The biggest challenge facing Somerville are issues of scale. Much of what we know is environmentally harmful to Somerville is outside of municipal control. The air pollution from Interstate 93 is mostly from cars passing through and not beholden to any Somerville rules. Buildings in Somerville are the biggest consumers of fossil fuels, but Somerville has limited ability to impose new building codes because this is done at the State level. Similarly, transportation requirements like miles-per-gallon minimums are set by federal authorities. Many of the emissions contributing to climate change can only reform through policy change at different levels of government or from technological solutions.
Changes in Somerville will not be enough to stop climate change nor shelter Somerville residents from its impacts. Our actions may not produce any near-term, discernible benefits and makes it difficult to justify the costs of action on the municipal scale. This lack of control often manifests locally in resistance to changes that would make our community more sustainable. However, municipalities have an important role in effectively mitigating and preparing for climate change. It takes individual investment of cities to reduce their own GHG emissions and prepare for the impacts of climate change in order to move toward the collective impact necessitated by the current challenges
and opportunities.
Climate change is driven by fossil fuel emissions and efforts to reduce emissions will require addressing well-established infrastructure. Buildings contribute 65% of Somerville’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Most are privately owned, so mitigating steps, if not mandated, will occur based on property owner interest and willingness to pay. Especially in circumstances where tenants are paying the energy bills, there is little incentive to improve. In addition, it will take drastic changes to wean the housing stock off fossil fuels.
Transportation contributes nearly all the remaining GHG from Somerville (32%) and is attributable almost entirely to single occupancy vehicles. Policy throughout the United States has privileged car ownership by directing tax money to build and maintain roads, zoning for an oversupply of parking, and creating below market-rate parking permit schemes. any residents purchased cars assuming these policies would continue, and fight for it to remain so.
However, this perpetuates the problem. In order to impact the number of cars owned by Somerville residents the City should consider limiting the number of subsidies available – market rate parking policies, zoning to not create an oversupply of parking, and right-sizing roads for all modes. While electrifying cars can reduce carbon emissions, reducing cars and vehicle miles traveled (VMTs) overall will be difficult to do while so many subsidies remain in place. The City is constantly balancing the needs of all roadway users whether motorists, cyclist, or pedestrian.
The remaining three percent of carbon emissions come from waste, particularly from plastic waste. Plastic waste, especially from packaging, is an integral part of the US economy and very difficult to avoid. But, because plastic waste emerges from a myriad of sources yet contributes to less than three percent of Somerville’s carbon emissions, even solving the problem would not provide a major contribution to making Somerville carbon neutral.
The effects of climate change will not be uniformly or equitably distributed. Those who are least likely to afford mitigation costs will also be the greatest impacted. Certain populations are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change such as children, older adults, and people with disabilities. The Wellbeing of Somerville Report provides several examples of how age and socio-economic status may put certain groups within Somerville at an increased risk:
• Young children have a limited ability to communicate when overheating or when left in dangerous situations and are less self-sufficient, more reliant on adults for transportation and other needs, and less likely to cope emotionally during a disaster or climate event;
• New residents to Somerville may not be aware of emergency alerts and services available and may have difficulty with language access;
• Renters may have less capacity to make improvements to their homes and therefore could be more vulnerable to heat waves and flooding; and
• Older adults are more susceptible to extreme heat, the impacts from poor air quality, and insect-borne diseases and they may find it more difficult to access support services or evacuate during a climate event.
In addition, income and/or wealth influences the capacity to prepare for and recover from an extreme climate event. Thus, it is important to consider the role of policies, programs, and institutions which have historically distributed risks and opportunities unequally across the population.
According to the National Climate Assessment, climate change will affect human health by increasing ground-level ozone and/or particulate matter air pollution. The Wellbeing of Somerville Report highlights air quality as an environmental issue with serious health implications. Research shows that Somerville is a community disproportionately burdened with poor air quality, especially in the neighborhoods adjacent to Interstate 93 and Route 38. Recent studies have shown that ultrafine particles emitted from traffic are associated with (Walker, Douglas I., et al. “Metabolomic assessment of exposure to near-highway ultrafine particles.” Journal of exposure science & environmental epidemiology (2018): 1) respiratory infections, lung cancer, heart attacks, stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and are associated with elevated risk of asthma, heart conditions, and obesity.
Ensuring a just and equitable transition to a clean energy economy and a clean energy future will not be easy. However, it’s critical that any system the City deploys incorporates various language translations, easy access to information, and community events.
Climate change will affect everyone in some way or another. To move forward, we must focus on the opportunities that are available to us.Climate and Sustainability overlaps with several other chapters. Sustainability will need to be incorporated into all future plans that have any impact or expectation for future fossil emissions.

Focus on our largest GHG contributor. Buildings are the largest contributor to Somerville’s emissions, and we need to continue to focus on them even though we have limited leverage. We need to support building retrofits, keeping in mind that improvements resulting in rent increases is an undesirable outcome.

Leverage control. Above all, Somerville needs to understand what aspects of emissions we have control over, and what we can do within that realm to reset unconscious norms. For example, supporting permeable pavement or planting native plants or trees able to survive the anticipated heat. These must be deliberately considered and acted upon.
Target behavior change. Behavior change is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The community wants to make better choices, but the City should support efforts to make “better choices” more intuitive and straightforward.
Re-evaluate programs. Programs that were the right fit for the Somerville of 10, 20, 50 years ago, might not be the right fit for the Somerville of today. For example, the City currently utilizes zero-sort recycling (a SomerVision 2030 recommendation), which often has the unfortunate side-effect of decreasing the efficacy of recycling programs. We should continually monitor the results of programs to make sure they’re still the best fit for our community and stated goals.
Expand messaging. Climate change solutions will entail large changes for residents, local businesses, and how the City operates. How can we help the community understand and accept these changes prior to implementation?
Continue to educate and incentivize. Somerville can think creatively about how to incentivize positive behavior change (for example commuting by bike instead of by car or having a public forum to formalize commitments to fly less like Europe’s No-Fly Pledges.
Integrate sustainability in other City objectives. Whether the city budget, neighborhood planning, or regulation, we need to integrate sustainability in all City processes, especially the way we live and move about.
Include food. Food systems are both heavily impacted and contributors to climate change and a community’s resilience. In line with the Somerville Food Assessment findings, Somerville should aim to minimize the amount of food that is wasted and support local emergency food providers in creating a more cohesive network for receiving and distributing recoverable food.
Prioritize Infrastructure. Our infrastructure plays a critical role in improving our sustainability and resiliency to future climate events. We should explore traditional and innovative ways of addressing our problems.





Focus on our largest GHG contributor. Buildings are the largest contributor to Somerville’s emissions, and we need to continue to focus on them even though we have limited leverage. We need to support building retrofits, keeping in mind that improvements resulting in rent increases is an undesirable outcome.










A vulnerability assessment explores what aspects of a system might be sensitive to certain threats. The City’s Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment focused particularly on sea level rise and storm surge, precipitation, and temperature to analyze how the city would be directly affected by anticipated climate change. This enabled the City to identify the most at-risk populations, assets, and systems, which informed the Climate Forward planning process.

• Align sustainability values with existing city programs and policies.
• Continue to pursue policies that make Somerville less dependent on fossil fuel emissions.
• Develop a plan and guidelines for combating urban heat island impacts.
• Develop policy incentives to encourage sustainable behavior relating to consumar awareness – particularly for building energy consumption, but also for consumer good and transportation choices.
• Familiarize residents with various funds for supporting sustainable development, or consider generating a fund and encouraging residents to donate towards maintaining/planting vegetation locally as an offset for air travel.
• Incentivize landlords to make retrofits, which reduce fossil fuel emissions, improve indoor air quality, and increase resilience to flooding and heat extremes in older housing stock.
• Support and encourage green leasing efforts.
• Support implementation of the Stormwater Management Plan.
• Educate renters to ask for average utility costs prior to renting.
• Require education on residential energy efficiency measures and financial incentives as part of any City-sponsored first time homebuyer programs.
• Build on the zoning overhaul and increase or add new sustainability metrics.
• Publicize Somerville’s sustainability-related values more prominently.
• Leverage social networks and citizen groups to share information and opportunities for reducing climate impacts, including food waste.
• Consider the use of public benchmark data for friendly competition between consumers: disaggregate and publicize data for neighborhoods to recognize good behavior and galvanize those who can improve.
• Ensure that materials on climate change are translated into multiple languages and are available to a wide diversity of groups, especially those most impacted by climate change.
• Adopt visible symbols of our commitments – explore opportunities to support renewable energy production.
• Engage the community in conversations around emergency response plans related to extreme weather events and disruptions to food supply due to climate change impacts. These conversations should inform the development of community-driven emergency response plans (for example cooling stations that are appealing and engaging) and aim to increase personal resilience to climate change. They should be well-promoted to a variety of subpopulations.
• Publicize Somerville’s successes to other communities to demonstrate that sustainable living is possible and encourage other communities to take steps to reap the same benefits.
• Educate Somerville residents and businesses on climate issues and available actions, to build a citywide culture of engagement and awareness.
• Utilize existing communication forums to enhance citizen awareness. For example add current air quality readings to the City website or within the Somerville newspapers.
• Leverage communications technologies and social media. For example provide text message notifications on days with poor air quality to encourage residents to abstain from driving, minimizing additional pollution and protecting their health. Many Somerville residents groups are highly active on social media, which can be used to personalize city announcements or initiatives.
• We should increase scientific literacy of City officials. Somerville already focuses on data-based problem solving. Enhance this by educating City staff and elected officials about new technologies, adaptation strategies, and other solutions.
• Get more community members engaged in climate issues by building a citywide culture of sustainability. For example match engaged residents with those who are less able to devote time to understanding and acting upon climate mitigation initiatives. This could include initiatives like planting vegetable gardens, grocery shopping to minimize plastic consumption, or providing forums for high school
SomerVision 2040Topic Chapters24students to learn about the issues.
• Support public engagement. Somerville can identify, support, and disseminate grassroots efforts already underway and leverage these to drive changes, particularly in the emissions-heavy building and transportation sectors.
• Expand data-driven action and establish protocols for data collection on local air quality on an ongoing and permanent basis.
• Transportation and land-use planning decisions can lower traffic related air pollution and resident exposure. Somerville should leverage the planning process to:
• Put standards in place for new buildings to ensure that indoor air pollution (allergens and particulate pollution) is significantly reduced from outside
• Pursue protective ordinances in areas within 500’ of a high-traffic roadway
• Mitigation measures for air pollution generation, such as EV stations• Emphasize road diet and walkability score; and
• Emphasize transportation equity for transportation modes, but prioritize low emission mobility
• Create programs to help existing property owners and tenants within 500’ of high capacity roadways.
• Support pedestrians, cyclists, and additional public transit. Between traffic gridlock and MBTA dysfunction, the timing is right to experiment with alternative methods like biking, Mystic River ferry service, dedicated bus lanes, street cars, paratransit, and micro-mobility (for example electric bikes and scooters).
• Leverage the Green Line Extension. This major change gives the city a window of opportunity to make other changes to reduce vehicle miles traveled and consequent emissions. These opportunities include restricting parking permits in transit-accessible areas, increasing the cost of city parking permits, and reducing street parking in favor of space for carbon neutral (or even negative) emissions, like bike lanes or more trees.
• Take full advantage of existing natural resources. While many green spaces are used and appreciated, other resources like the Mystic River can be further developed as community spaces. New connectivity can help residents access and value the natural world.
• Revisit historic precedents. Somerville used to have many more people, yet much less vehicular traffic. Engage with our history to better understand what low-emission living looked like in Somerville and how we can readapt it today.
• Make thoughtful land use choices. Somerville neighborhoods are walkable, with good sidewalks and often many nearby services and destinations like stores and restaurants. Can neighborhoods further expand their self-sufficiency both to build social capital and minimize the need for vehicle trips? This initiative will be especially powerful if it includes job creation.
• Consider grant programs or financing options for any retrofitting projects residents apply to their homes and/or modes of transport.
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