Preparation, Planning Can Avert Environmental Crisis

Like so many communities across the globe, Cape Cod is experiencing unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The onset of the pandemic happened rapidly, shutting down businesses, closing schools and forcing our communities to quickly adapt and respond to sudden and widespread economic impacts.   

In the wake of the current emergency, the Cape Cod Commission has worked to support our communities. We developed a municipal planning toolkit, a COVID-19 data dashboard, and a comprehensive list of COVID-19 resources. We worked with Cape Cod Healthcare and Barnstable County to create a robust, map-based COVID-19 Community Alert Heatmap System to provide data on cases at various geographic scales and we are surveying business owners to quantify current and anticipated impacts to better position the region for potential solutions and funding opportunities. 

As we work to recover from this crisis, we know we still face other critical regional challenges.  Damage from climate hazards has the potential to create lasting environmental and economic impacts.  Businesses could close, access to homes could become impaired, and critical infrastructure could be destroyed.  This pandemic has given us an opportunity to witness the widespread impacts an interruption in these services can cause. We must continue to build our region’s resilience to climate change – we will benefit from being prepared and proactive.

As a region, we are already vulnerable to flooding, storm surge, erosion, and extreme weather and as climate change intensifies, the impacts will become more severe. As the regional planning agency charged with keeping Cape Cod a special place, the Cape Cod Commission facilitates local and regional action to address challenges that affect the 15 communities that make up Barnstable County. Efforts to strengthen our region against the effects of climate change have been woven through our work for the past 30 years.

In 2015, the Commission and several partners were awarded a three-year grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to complete the Resilient Cape Cod project – a dedicated effort to focus on the critical impacts of climate change, identify strategies for adapting to those impacts, and develop tools and resources to help Cape Cod communities make better decisions. The Cape Cod Coastal Planner, an online decision support tool developed by the Commission, allows for consideration of the impacts of action, or inaction, on both the built and natural systems. 

Through the latest update to the Regional Policy Plan (RPP), developed in 2018, the Commission refocused its efforts on climate change to better incorporate and address mitigation of its causes. The RPP identifies climate change as one of the major challenges for the region, includes actions and policies that seek to mitigate, minimize, or avoid its adverse effects, and recommends a dedicated planning process to develop a climate action plan. As a result, the Cape Cod Climate Initiative was launched in 2019 to join the efforts related to climate adaptation and mitigation, both of which are critical to the overall resilience of our region.    

This work is part of the broader Cape Cod Resiliency Initiative, supported by a $1 million competitive grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) offered in response to the Major Disaster Declaration for the March 2018 nor’easters. The attribute that fuels the Cape Cod economy – our proximity to the coast – is also what makes us most vulnerable. Flooding from the 2018 storms caused devastating impacts to Barnstable County, making roadways impassable and shutting down businesses in some of our centers of activity. Planning for resilient communities is key to the success of our collective economic development efforts.

This major investment from the EDA will help Cape Cod devise and implement long-term economic recovery strategies and identify and plan for the challenges that will impact us the most.  A comprehensive program, the Resiliency Initiative will take a broad look at the impediments to successfully weathering disruptions and change and develop strategies to ensure that the impacts to businesses, communities, and natural resources created by challenges such as flooding and storm surge, are managed and minimized. Enhancing and developing digital map layers and decision support tools will facilitate high-impact, targeted implementation projects and improve planning efforts for all 15 towns on Cape Cod.  

Preparation and planning ahead of a crisis are critical for the protection of our vulnerable region. As we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, we must draw on our experiences as a region and identify opportunities to build our economic and environmental resilience so that we may continue to address our greatest regional challenges.  

Kristy Senatori is executive director of The Cape Cod Commission, the regional land use planning, economic development and regulatory agency created in 1990 to serve the citizens and 15 towns of Barnstable County, Massachusetts. More information at

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