Modus

The cities creating new jobs to fight climate change

How does a chief heat officer keep Miami cool and how do you incentivise building managers to make low carbon choices? Modus speaks to the experts to find out

Author:

  • Mark Williams

19 July 2022

Photo collage of Denver, Dublin and Miami with coloured squares linking them

National and local authorities around the world are showing they take climate change and sustainability seriously by hiring people in roles that are often brand new. These roles have been created with a specific remit to focus on the areas where the built environment can play a significant part in tackling climate change.

Modus spoke to three environment professionals who have been hired to focus on a range of green issues by their respective cities. We asked them why their job was created and how it can have a positive impact on the lives of residents there. Surveyors may soon find elements of each of these jobs becoming part of their own, if they aren’t already.

Jeff Tejral is a building decarbonisation incentives manager for Denver in the US, Jane Gilbert is the world’s first chief heat officer for Miami Dade County and Lorraine Bull is biodiversity officer at Dublin City Council in Ireland.

Landscape photo of the Denver skyline with orange squares collaged over the top

Jeff Tejral Denver’s building decarbonisation incentives manager

How do you incentivise companies or people to decarbonise their buildings?

Right now, we’re focused on the financial aspect, knowing that we’re asking a building manager to make a choice that’s going to cost more money. If it’s an under-resourced building, we might say this is going to cost you more now but there is a long-term benefit. We have to fill that knowledge gap on the cost difference between replacing a like-for-like gas system versus switching to a heat pump. What is the financial incentive?

Why did Denver decide now was the time to create the job of decarbonisation incentives manager?

I asked that same question in my interview for the role. It’s very specific and I think they wanted to show their intention. We have a climate protection fund and a climate protection plan that work purposefully towards getting the marketplace to move buildings to low carbon or no carbon solutions for their heating and cooling. I think Denver really wanted to plant its flag out there and say this is what we’re going to do.

Are you the first person in the world with your job title?

I have not seen another one like this, it’s potentially the only one in the world. Denver wanted to make sure this job title was specific and went out to the public in a way that says ‘this is what we want you to do’. There are many others who are working in the same area to decarbonise buildings though, whether it’s on the policy side, education or incentives.

Do you work with other cities and municipalities on decarbonising the built environment?

Absolutely. One of the biggest things I try to do is never reinvent something that’s already working somewhere else. We may need to tweak it for our area, but if there’s a pilot that’s been run somewhere else in the world with good results, I would not want to go out and rewrite the whole book.

Equally there are also plenty of decarbonisation programmes out there that look good on paper but just aren’t working and we can learn from them too.

Do you encounter much climate change scepticism in your line of work?

I think the scepticism has got more to do with the cost of installing the low carbon option or carrying out the retrofit. If you’re the first one to have to do it, the costs are bigger for you and there are more unknowns. That’s why the incentive programmes demonstrate someone else has already done it and what the costs and benefits are to you in the long-term. Building managers and owners are very much watching the bottom line and know that energy prices are volatile.

Do you think jobs with a focus on sustainability are becoming more common?

If you think about where health and safety was 30 years ago, you used to have someone on construction sites whose job was specifically about safety and everyone else was there to work. Now it’s part of our hiring processes and training – safety is part of what a lot of people are doing. It’s ingrained in the culture and people get rewards for doing a good job or having a safe site. It protects lives, keeps work flowing and is better for everybody. Eventually we will get to that point with sustainability, where it’s ingrained into the culture.

Portrait photo of Jeff Tejral with orange squares overlaid in a pattern
“I think Denver really wanted to plant its flag out there and say this is what we’re going to do” Jeff Tejral, Denver

 

 

 

 

Landscape photo of the Dublin skyline with coral squares collaged over the top

Lorraine Bull Dublin’s biodiversity officer

What does your job entail day-to-day?

My job is to manage biodiversity across Dublin city. We have a biodiversity action plan that’s now in its third iteration. I manage that plan and the projects within it, such as conservation research or data collection relating to biodiversity, as well as education, outreach and partnerships. For example, we work with Dublin Bay Biosphere and the Dublin Mountains Partnership, which have their own list of projects.

How does your job influence Dublin’s built environment?

I look at applications coming in through the planning system. That could mean reviewing environmental impact statements or bat survey data. Normally a project, depending on where it is, will have to have an assessment screening.

The application then goes to An Bord Pleanála, Ireland’s planning board, and it gets reviewed from there. They have an ecologist too and people can object for a number of reasons. Some planning applications go back and forth for a long time before coming to fruition.

How do you work with planners?

I might receive an email from someone in planning or development with a query about a project – they might need specific information related to biodiversity. I can advise them on the surveys they need to get done or some of the data that we already have.

For the construction phase of a development, I would be looking for a construction management plan. This might help to mitigate noise levels and dust pollution by putting in screening.

For any work in the water they have to speak to Inland Fisheries Ireland and get survey work done to make sure there isn’t any impact on the marine wildlife. The River Liffey runs through Dublin and contains salmon, crayfish and trout.

If there’s a project that goes against EU habitats regulations and will have a significant impact on local wildlife, we will push to have that project denied or it will go back to the drawing board. Larger scale developments that could have impacted migrating Brent Geese have gone back and forth between the Irish courts and sometimes the European courts.

Are clashes between developers and biodiversity departments common?

They can be, but there will always be a goal of no net loss of biodiversity. That is in our development and action plans and we’re now moving towards an ethos of insisting on a biodiversity net gain. All the large-scale building projects and developments should be enhancing biodiversity in the area.

What are some of the ways developers can contribute to a biodiversity net gain?

Any new buildings going in, even right in the centre of the city, could be installing swift bricks (that provide nesting spots for swifts), plants for pollinators or designing green or blue roofs. The green space you have around the building could be improved for biodiversity. You could put up bird boxes, bat boxes, plant native trees or suitable nesting trees. Use plants that create a good habitat for pollinators.

Portrait photo of Lorraine Bull with coral squares overlaid in a pattern
“All the large-scale building projects and developments should be enhancing biodiversity in the area” Lorraine Bull, Dublin City Council
Landscape photo of the Miami skyline with green squares collaged over the top

Jane Gilbert Miami Dade County’s chief heat officer

How did the role of chief heat officer come about?

Miami is known for its risk from sea level rise and hurricanes. When I was chief resilience officer for the city and did outreach in neighbourhoods to understand what their biggest concerns were in relation to climate change, extreme heat came up a lot. In this country we’ve historically declared weather disasters when there’s a lot of property damage. But an extreme heat event doesn’t necessarily lead to major property damage.

The role of chief heat officer came out of conversations between our mayor Daniella Levine Cava and an international think tank called the Arsht-Rock Resilience Centre. The idea is that cities have response plans for extreme heat events, and their planning department might focus on mitigating urban heat islands. Many of our cities are getting hotter because of climate change and our development patterns.

What does your job entail?

This year our mayor declared 1 May to 31 October an official heat season and charged me with elevating the public awareness to the level that we already have for hurricane preparedness. So I piggybacked on a lot of what we do for hurricanes, for example putting extreme heat materials inside hurricane prep guides that go to every house.

I hired a researcher who identified the zip codes within the county that had the highest heat vulnerability, that we need to be targeting with our outreach campaign. Areas with the highest land surface temperature, higher poverty rates, families with young children, a high prevalence of outdoor workers – those are our biggest risks.

We also have a programme to train citizen emergency response team volunteers that are the first responders in a disaster. It could be a climate or weather-related disaster or a terrorist attack. We created training that was specifically around heat response and gave them kits and have been deploying them at large festival events and gatherings during our heat season.

Is Dade County one of the hottest parts of Florida with the biggest heat island problem?

No, central Florida has it worse because Dade County has the cooling effect of being right on the ocean. And unlike other parts of the US or in Europe, most people here have air conditioning (AC). On a regular day, most people have protection.

Those who don’t are outdoor workers, the unhoused and people that we call ‘AC insecure’ ­– who can’t afford their utility costs or their AC unit breaks and they can’t afford to replace it. An extended power outage during a heatwave is a community-wide risk, which can happen during a hurricane.

What is the worst kind of building for absorbing and releasing heat?

A low, flat building with a dark roof. Some of our high buildings create shade in the surrounding areas and often have reflective materials on them. On some of the older structures, the surface of the roof can be over 50℃. Luckily new construction is going lighter because it saves so much money on utility costs.

Are lots of roof gardens the dream scenario?

Certainly, roof gardens are cooling and offer lots of other environmental and quality of life benefits, but I wouldn’t say exclusively that. A mix of roof gardens, use of the space for solar and reflective roofs. Reflective roofs can really help cool the building and the surrounding area. Sometimes the roof gardens are a lot to maintain and not all roofs are designed to sustain that.

 

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Portrait photo of Jane Gilbert with green squares overlaid in a pattern
“Our mayor charged me with elevating the public awareness of extreme heat to the level that we already have for hurricanes” Jane Gilbert, Miami Dade County

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