Disclaimer: The following is a work of realistic fiction for our special 2050 issue, published in June 2021. These stories are meant to spark imagination, not forecast the future of Akron.
I recently thought about how much our relationship with nature has changed, all prompted by the passing of one notable anniversary. It’s been just over 30 years since 2020, the year of the global pandemic. When the initial lockdown occurred, we isolated at home and distracted ourselves by taking up new hobbies. We tried to evade COVID-19 by getting outside as space and fresh air made it more difficult for viral transmission. Some turned to their own backyards to escape and with it discovered birding and gardening. Cars packed the trailhead parking lots of Summit Metro Parks and Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Stores sold out of bikes and kayaks.
I took to the outdoors and found refuge in local state nature preserves like the Cooperrider-Kent Bog, Herrick Fen, and Portage Lake Wetlands. I hiked through the winter and really paid attention to the weather. Weather whiplash, such as beautiful sunny and spring-like days followed by intense temperature drops and wild winds, could extend or derail a hike. Although we know Northeast Ohio weather can be wacky, climate change made predicting and planning for the weather much more interesting.
Climate change and its accompanying impacts were difficult to see in the early 21st century in Northeast Ohio. Initially, the slowly increasing temperatures didn’t appear to impact us much. It meant a few hotter days in the summer and some unusually warm winter days. We continued to operate business as usual.
However, we started to see more heavy rain and high wind events bringing flooding and power outages. The number of poor air quality days increased. Concerned citizens began to wonder if the state would agree to start piping water from Lake Erie to the dry Western U.S. Floods, hurricanes and wildfires along with the increased cost of living drove thousands of people to the Midwest. The influx of people to Northern Ohio, including the Akron area, brought up questions about the impacts of the growing population on the environment.
One of the biggest concerns involved aging infrastructure. Older buildings were prone to experiencing flooding. Power outages proved challenging as residents struggled with freezing in the winter and sweltering temperatures in the summer. Both sets of circumstances had health and financial implications, not to mention the emotional strain.
These concerns set in motion a series of efforts to reduce emissions, focus on conservation efforts and adapt to climate change. In the earlier part of the century, most efforts to address climate change focused on mitigation or reducing emissions. Adaptation efforts and actions taken to address the problems resulting from a changing climate needed to happen at a much faster pace. With Akron’s history of invention and innovation, the city and surrounding communities were well-positioned to address some of the biggest challenges through nature-based solutions.
By 2035, Ohio caught up to neighboring Great Lakes states in ramping up its clean energy portfolio. Akron and surrounding communities committed to less concrete and more green spaces. Rather than further spread development outward, Summit County adopted measures to concentrate building within cities. Concentrating growth within city centers also meant reductions in vehicle use. With the addition of multi-use lanes for bikes, scooters and other alternative transportation options, Akron saw a 30% increase in people choosing to walk or bike instead of using a car. These measures helped protect critical green spaces throughout the county, especially those areas surrounding the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Although the City of Akron’s long-term investments to reduce sewer overflow concluded in 2028, improvements to further reduce flooding issues were ongoing. The city relied on homeowners and businesses to help slow the flow of water to its combined sewer system. Structural innovations in gutter design and permeable pavement as well as rain gardens helped alleviate some community and home flooding concerns. Advances in toxic mold management developed in Akron in the early 2030s alleviated black mold health concerns linked to flooded spaces. Homes constructed over the past 25 years have benefited from temperature-regulating insulation and windows. These designs all originated from Akron.
Underlying all of the climate change mitigation and adaptation progress over the past 30 years is something we most often fail to acknowledge. Our collective and collaborative efforts allowed us to achieve what we have today. Just like the pandemic, the efforts were not always as successful as we hoped. At times we had to backtrack and change course to move forward. Sometimes progress did not move fast enough. We experienced loss along the way. Working together, no matter how small the effort, we have been able to create a more hopeful future. I won’t be around for another 76 years, but the collective efforts over the past 50 years towards creating a better environment will live on.
Kristi Tabaj has been a climate change adaptation advocate for over 30 years and continues to submit comments on various documents produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
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