How can communities reduce carbon emissions while preparing for climate change impacts?

Chapter 6 from our report summarizing the lessons we learned on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip. We partnered with the Georgetown Climate Center to get this to you. Chapter 7 coming soon.

Take-home lesson #6: Sometimes greenhouse gas mitigation and climate adaptation goals will conflict; but often times communities can reduce emissions while preparing for impacts.

With the 2014 National Climate Assessment detailing climate change impacts that are currently being felt in all 50 U.S. states, communities around the country are grappling with how to simultaneously adapt to these impacts and reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions. Doing so on a large scale will be key to making sure that efforts to adapt to climate change don’t exacerbate the problem, and instead build towards communities that are less reliant on greenhouse gases—in itself a form of adaptation to a climate-changed world. Small-scale examples are beginning to show that this is possible. Continue reading


How can communities overcome the upfront costs of adaptation?

Chapter 5 from our report summarizing the lessons we learned on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip. We partnered with the Georgetown Climate Center to get this to you. Chapter 6 coming soon.

Take home lesson #5: A key challenge for funding adaptation efforts is finding ways to overcome upfront investment costs in order to save money in the long run. Creative financing mechanisms and savvy individuals can pave the way.

The World Bank has estimated that it will cost between $70 billion and $100 billion annually to adapt to a 3.6-degree-Fahrenheit warmer world by 2050. However, these figures depend strongly on whether our adaptation efforts are proactive or reactive: The United Nations Development Programme estimates that every dollar spent on preparedness for disasters now can save up to seven in relief efforts later. But what does this mean for a local city planner or natural resource manager trying to attach a price tag to a resilience-building project at the local level? Continue reading


How can new partnerships help build resilience?

Chapter 4 from our report summarizing the lessons we learned on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip. We partnered with the Georgetown Climate Center to get this to you. Chapter 5 coming soon.

Take-home lesson #4: Resilience efforts that span multiple government departments or include non-governmental actors are often able to leverage resources and expertise and create wider buy-in for action.

For local governments, the ability to prepare for the impacts of climate change is often limited by available resources and expertise. In some cases, local governments have the motivation to lead adaptation action but lack capacity and knowledge in areas like coordinating volunteers and implementing new technological tools. In other instances, non-profit groups or individual citizens may ‘push’ local government to act. By creating new partnerships across government departments as well as beyond government doors, city planners may be able to fill critical gaps in their own resources, accomplish ambitious goals, and more effectively address the cross-cutting nature of climate change impacts.

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How do communities use climate science to make decisions?

Chapter 3 from our report summarizing the lessons we learned on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip. We partnered with the Georgetown University Climate Center to get this to you. Chapter 4 coming soon.

Take-home lesson #3: Climate science is more likely to be used when it is at the appropriate geographic and temporal scale for local decision-makers.

A common barrier to building local climate preparedness is that scientific information about climate change, produced by researchers around the world and summarized by groups such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, tends to span large geographic scales, typically global or continental, as well as long timeframes. Temperature and sea-level rise projections are often presented for the year 2100 and sometimes 2050 at the global and national levels, and communities have difficulty interpreting how broad-scale information relates to their local risks. Communities need ways to facilitate action at their local scale and on shorter planning horizons, or even briefer electoral timeframes.

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Oysters + rocks + marsh grass = living shoreline at Pine Knoll Shores
in North Carolina

How can communities keep up with climate change?

Chapter 2 from our report summarizing the lessons we learned on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip. We partnered with the Georgetown University Climate Center to get this to you. Chapter 3 coming soon.

Take-home lesson #2: Minimizing vulnerability to climate risks means both iterative, long-term planning and emergency management, depending on the likelihood and intensity of the impact.

Some climate change impacts are gradual and will affect areas we can pinpoint with moderate certainty—sea-level rise, for instance, is generally projected over long time horizons and vulnerable places along the coast are usually identifiable. Other impacts are sudden, extreme, and often unexpected—hurricane intensity, for example, is expected to increase, and we know those storms will occur somewhere at some time, but exactly where and when is incredibly challenging to forecast beyond a few days. When doing an adaptation project in a particular place, the risk—both the likelihood and the intensity of the climate impact—affects the perceived urgency of efforts to prepare, the scope of the options available, and the potential to be successful.

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During our stay, the intersection of 5th and Pennsylvania was closed due to flooding from rainstorms.

What drives communities to take action to adapt to climate change?

Chapter 1 from our report summarizing the lessons we learned on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip. We partnered with the Georgetown University Climate Center to get this to you. Stay tuned for Chapter 2.

Take-home lesson #1: Many drivers motivate communities to pursue initiatives that enhance resilience to climate change impacts; projects that have multiple benefits are more likely to be implemented.

As climate change impacts such as more intense coastal storms, hotter heat waves, bigger floods, and more extreme droughts emerge across the U.S., communities are responding and preparing in myriad ways. At the heart of most action is people’s desire to protect and improve the place where they live, but this core motivation manifests itself differently in different settings. Some communities are driven to action by the ‘wake-up call’ of a hurricane or another disastrous event that exposes vulnerabilities. Some communities find that resiliency to climate impacts is yet another benefit of neighborhood initiatives such as tree planting or smart zoning that enhance quality of life. And some communities may not be thinking about climate change at all but nevertheless implement projects that help them weather the storm or the drought. Understanding what motivates people to build resilience is key when it comes to designing incentives, determining what information people will use to make decisions, and communicating the need for a project.

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Lessons Learned About Life in the ‘New Normal’

When we tell people that we spent 103 days together traveling around the United States reporting the ways Americans are adapting to the impacts of climate change, the first question we usually get is: “And you’re still friends?” The second question is: “What did you learn?”

Our new report, published by the Georgetown Climate Center, answers this second question. Through it, we distill six lessons learned about resilience from the dozens of communities we visited over the course of the Great American Adaptation Road Trip.

report coverThe lessons are:

1) Communities have many reasons for building resilience, and the co-benefits of climate adaptation projects are often key to getting them implemented. Think: The dune habitat restoration project in Galveston, Texas that provides natural storm protection but also engaged 300 inner city Houston youth.

2) The likelihood and magnitude of the climate impact itself affects the nature of the resilience-building actions that can be taken. For instance, gradual sea-level rise allows for iterative, long-term planning in North Carolina while emergency planning is the way to go when facing sudden, extreme events such as flash floods, hurricanes, or forest fires.

3) Scaled-down climate science is essential for local planning and decision-making in many sectors. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, researchers ran local data through global models to find that sea-level rise in the area will be slightly slower than Boston but faster than in the Pacific Northwest.

4) New relationships and partnerships across local governments and with private and non-profit allies can leverage the key skills needed to adapt to a changing climate. Cases in point: Airbnb partnering with San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management to offer safe havens during disaster, or various city departments in Baltimore coming together to combat the urban heat island effect.

5) Communities need new funding and financing models to enable the investment needed to adapt to climate change. For example, a stormwater utility fee in Ann Arbor, Michigan has raised $5 million to reinvest in public flood protection projects and an urban tree program.

6) Sometimes adaptation and mitigation goals will conflict; but often times communities can reduce emissions while preparing for impacts. Our podcast from Long Island, New York explains how a post-Superstorm Sandy solar boom is both cutting carbon emissions and preparing residents for the next storm.

Our report fleshes out each of these lessons, highlighting specific adaptation stories that illustrate the point as well as key “faces of resilience”—people who serve as the linchpin of resilience efforts in their community. As Georgetown Climate Center Executive Director Vicki Arroyo and University of Michigan Professor Rosina Bierbaum write in the foreward: “This report brings to life what it really means to prepare for, survive, and thrive in a ‘new normal.'”

You can check out the report here, but we’ll also be posting its six main chapters one by one over the next couple of weeks in hopes of fostering discussion.

The 'Pleasure Pier' amusement park was built after Hurricane Ike. It might be in trouble during the next hurricane.

What does adapting to climate change look like?

You’ve heard a lot about the scary impacts of climate change – and with the recent release of the 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, it’s clear that in addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, communities all over the world need to begin adapting (preparing, building resilience, insert whichever phrase you like best there) to the irreversible climate changes we’re already starting to see.

So what does ‘adapting’ to climate change actually look like?

If you’ve wondered that too, you can take a (short version) of the Great American Adaptation Road Trip with us and find out. Watch the video recording of a lecture we recently gave at the New England Aquarium. We take you to Boston Harbor, Long Island, the Louisiana Bayou, the forests of New Mexico, the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, the corn fields of Nebraska and Iowa, and, finally, to our hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Comment, pose questions, get in touch. We want to keep talking about this.

The road trippers explore Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park,
Montana before it melts

Come on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip with Us: New England Aquarium Lecture October 9

Since completing the Great American Adaptation Road Trip, we’ve been sharing the things we learned about how climate change is affecting U.S. communities and how they are adapting to the changes they’re experiencing. We’ve shared adaptation stories with all sorts of groups, from 300 6th graders to environmental professionals at the EPA, NOAA, and other agencies.
If you’re in the Boston area, we want to invite you to a free talk we’re giving at the New England Aquarium on Thursday, October 9 at 7pm. You can register here.
We’ll tell you a bunch of road trip stories. Then we’ll reflect on what we all need to do to prevent the worst impacts of climate change and to help people protect the communities they love as temperatures and seas continue to rise. The talk is followed by a reception at 8:15pm where we’ll continue the conversation over refreshments. We promise it will be fun, educational, and engaging!
-Kirsten & Allie
Many residents who lived through Sandy are now raising their homes so they can be better prepared for the next storm. First-floor garages are built to be ‘floodable’ and give the added benefit of off-street parking.

Still Reeling from Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey Town Plans for Sequel

By Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein

July 20-21, 2014

Nearly two years after Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New Jersey, the main drag in the town of Sea Bright, looks almost normal again. Beach-goers unload umbrellas and coolers from the oceanside parking lot. Restaurant-goers order brunch at the sidewalk cafes. Mrs. Rooney, the widow of Sea Bright’s former mayor, is stationed at her hot dog stand, which first opened in 1965. 

Sea Bright’s 1,400 or so permanent residents put on a good face to get the tourists that are the lifeblood of their economy back in town. But it only takes a slightly closer look to see the wounds below the band-aids.

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Walking the Floodplain to Protect Historic Portsmouth from Sea Level Rise

Portsmouth, NH

Kirsten Howard

With the road trip part of the Adaptation Stories project now complete, I’m walking along narrow brick lined streets through the Historic District of my new hometown: Portsmouth, New Hampshire. This quaint Atlantic Seacoast community was the third settled U.S. city, so the homes in the South End neighborhood are historic gems. Some played host to George Washington in the 1700s, while others housed factory workers in a more industrial era.

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Marsh at sunset. | Photo (c) Whitney Flanagan, The Conservation Fund

Maryland Marsh Plans to Rise Above the Rising Tides

Dorchester County, MD

Allie Goldstein

The tall pine stands at the edge of the marsh look permanent to the untrained eye, but when we step off the pavement and onto the forest floor, the ground sways like a mattress. We’re standing on what Erik Meyers calls terra infirma.

“This is all history,” he says. “This is all going to be gone.”

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Kirsten and Allie get irrigated by drop nozzle system in Georgia

On Flood and Thirst: How Communities Are Adapting to the Age of Unpredictable Water

In Keene, New Hampshire, Duncan Watson looks out the window with trepidation as rain pounds the glass of his office at the Public Works Department; in 2005, a flood in his hometown killed seven people. And across the country in Santa Fe, New Mexico, forest fuels specialist Bill Armstrong fears he’s losing a race against the clock to thin and prescriptively burn the tree-crowded national forest before a prolonged drought sets the stage for another mega-fire.

What do these two men have in common? They’re on opposite sides of the same coin, dealing with the consequences of what Watson calls a “caffeinated climate” in which change is not so much about the slowly rising thermostat, but about more pronounced extremes, from very wet to very dry.

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Our Road Trip in 7 Minutes

2 friends. 1 minivan. 31 states. 103 days. 17,358 miles. 158 interviews. 32 adaptation stories. Watch the 7-minute version of the Great American Adaptation Road Trip.


Sharing Shelter in San Francisco

July 23-25, 2013

San Francisco, CA

From Nashville, Tennessee to Santa Fe, New Mexico to Los Osos, California, Airbnb has been a favorite tool for finding accommodations on the road. If you aren’t familiar with it, Airbnb is an increasingly popular online platform through which people rent their spare room or extra apartment to travelers passing through town. The company is revolutionizing the bed & breakfast business—an in-house study found that Airbnb contributed $56 million to the San Francisco economy in 2011 and a whopping $240 million to Paris’s economy in 2012. Continue reading


Why Climate Change Is Not the End of Wine

July 26, 2013

Napa Valley, California

Napa Valley has often found itself featured in national newspapers and magazines as the paparazzied ‘poster child’ of climate change impacts on agriculture. Recent media coverage has been based on two studies: One 2011 study out of Stanford suggests the land suitable for premium grapes in Northern California could be cut in half by 2040, while vineyards might thrive in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. And a 2013 study led by Conservation International, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, predicts a two-thirds drop in production in the world’s major wine-growing regions, including Napa Valley.

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Joshua trees pepper the Mojave Desert in Joshua Tree National Park

Preventing a Joshua Treeless National Park

July 21-22

Joshua Tree National Park, California

The desert has much to teach us about the marvels of adaptation. Relentless sun, little water, and summer temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit can make a forbidding world for non-desert dwellers. Yet hundreds of species conserve moisture and beat the heat in fascinating ways. –Joshua Tree National Park visitor’s map

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Mesquite at the Table

July 19, 2013

Tucson, Arizona

When Laurie Melrood, a social worker who counsels undocumented immigrants, moved to Tucson a decade ago, her motto changed from ‘eat your garden’ to ‘eat your yard.’ It wasn’t an easy transition. For a while, she brooded about the soil conditions behind her house. Then, one afternoon, a Yaqui friend came over, climbed a tree, and started shaking down mesquite pods. Melrood hadn’t given the trees much thought before this moment—in fact, she’d swept the pods off her patio to throw them away. But the stubborn desert plant soon captivated her, and today, Melrood holds mesquite workshops at her home a dozen times a year. She teaches the history and uses of mesquite, then takes the group to harvest pods from trees at nearby Joaquin Murietta Park.

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A prickly pear cactus

Rainwater Harvesters Reap Bounty in Arid Tucson

Tucson, AZ

July 19, 2013

Brad Lancaster describes the strip of vegetation beside the sidewalk outside his Tucson, Arizona home as “an orchard and a pharmacy.” The desert ironwood tree has peanut flavored seeds and blooms that make a delicious salad garnish. Creosote is good for athlete’s foot. Chuparosa has a red flower that tastes like cucumber. The barrel cactus’s yellow fruit can be used for chutneys or hair conditioner. Mesquite pods make nutritious flour. And many more. Depending on the season, Lancaster gets 10 to 20 percent of his food from this sidewalk garden, and another in his yard.

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Some forest management near the Dillon Reservoir.

Denver Residents Pay Forest Service to Keep Their Water Clean

July 11-14, 2013

Denver, CO

As we stand at the Dillon Reservoir in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, we’re daunted by the expanse of water. Sailboats and speedboats zip back and forth, enjoying the summer season. At one end, the water is mostly contained by a high cement wall but for a steady stream slipping over the dam on its way to Denver. Abutting the reservoir is the White River National Forest, made up mostly of lodgepole pine trees. Some trees are laid barren by the pine beetle, some scarred by fire, some still healthy.

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Some ripening peaches at Black Bridge Winery

Colorado Fruit Growers Harness Wind, Water, and Fire to Save Harvest

July 8-10, 2013

Paonia & Hotchkiss, Colorado

Glenn Austin started farming on his family’s organic dairy and tobacco farm in Tennessee at the ripe age of five. As a young man, he worked for Monsanto, but after several years Austin decided petrochemical fertilizers weren’t for him, so he and his wife made the move from Tennessee to the Western Slopes of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains to plant a sustainable orchard. This year he turns 70 and marks his 43rd year farming in Paonia. When we hopped on Austin’s golf cart to tour his family farm, which sits high on a mesa in the North Fork Valley, things were in full swing. Continue reading

Bill Armstrong surveys the charred forest in Santa Fe, NM.

A Fight for Fire in New Mexico

Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico

July 6, 2013

This story does not represent the views of the U.S. Forest Service. Bill Armstrong was interviewed as a fellow alumnus of the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment.

Driving through the Santa Fe National Forest, it is hard to believe that this landscape was once savannah-like, with grassy clearings opening up among the ponderosa pine. Now, there are about 900 trees crowded in per acre where there used to be 40.

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To Restore the Coast, Galveston Gets Kids and Grown-ups in the Same Boat

Galveston, TX

July 1, 2013

This story is dedicated to Ann Graham, who devoted her life to teaching. She was a loving mother, wife, and friend. She was also gifted with an enviable green thumb.

“I just learned how to drive stick shift last month,” Kari Howard chuckled apologetically as she drove us around Galveston Bay, a little jerky in a big, standard transmission Ford truck. We were headed to a sand dune restoration site Howard helped with in the coastal town of Galveston, Texas.

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Wetlands in the Gulf of Mexico protect homes from storm sturges and store carbon.

Gulf Utility Invests in the True Value of Wetlands

The Gulf of Mexico

June 27 – July 2

Charlie Broussard, a shrimper on the docks in Cocodrie, Louisiana, has seen the wetlands he paddled through as a kid shift dramatically—literally. In fact, the Louisiana coastline is changing so quickly that fisherman and oil rig workers who have spent their lives navigating the bayou by boat sometimes get lost as familiar landmarks are drowned. In Louisiana, 1,880 square miles of land have vanished since the 1930s, and the current rate of land loss is equivalent to a football field every 38 minutes.

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Julia Kumari Drapkin (left) teaches road trippers Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein a thing or two about New Orleans snowballs.

An Almanac in the Age of Climate Change

New Orleans, Louisiana

June 28, 2013

Julia Kumari Drapkin originally wanted to start iSeeChange, a media project that connects citizen observers and climate scientists, in New Orleans. As a Florida native who grew up swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, Drapkin never imagined herself living in Paonia, Colorado, (generous) population estimate: 2,000.

So when the producer at KVNF, the local radio station in Paonia, asked her to bring her Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant there, Drapkin found the town on a map. She had covered climate science from the Arctic to Mongolia to Australia and had a hunch that there was more to the simplified story about the ‘climate debate’ in the United States. After talking with the producer, Drapkin realized that Paonia—an eclectic town of coal miners, fruit farmers, and journalists in the North Fork Valley—was the perfect place to rethink that story.

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EvacuSpot reflected in the bus window.

New Orleans Gives Evacuation Plan an Artist’s Touch

New Orleans, Louisiana

June 27-28, 2013

As we drive down North Rampart Street in New Orleans, we pass a fourteen-foot tall, steel statue of a person with one arm outstretched as if to hail a ride. Its pose seems symbolic as much as aesthetic, drawing people to it as if to say, “stick with me and I will guide you.” And that’s exactly what the statue does, because it marks an ‘EvacuSpot.’

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Georgia Farmers Irrigate Smarter

Camilla, Georgia

June 24, 2013


Allie Goldstein: This is Allie Goldstein and Kirsten Howard of Adaptation Stories. On June 24, 2013, we visited Camilla, Georgia.

We spent the day with Casey Cox, a 21-year-old, sixth-generation Georgian who just finished college and has returned to Camilla to help run her family farm. Some people were surprised by her decision.

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Queen Quet, Unedited

Saint Helena Island, South Carolina

June 22, 2013

The Gullah/Geechee people, descendants of enslaved Africans captured in Angola and other parts of the Western Seaboard of Africa who now stretch from Jacksonville, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida, do not have a word for “adaptation” or “resiliency” in their Creole language. And yet, as Queen Quet, the elected head-of-state for the Gullah/Geechee, explains in the (unedited) clip above, the Gullah/Geechee are an incredibly resilient people: they maintained their culture through slavery and today continue traditional farming practices on family compounds.

“What we understand, or overstand as I like to say—that’s what others call adapting,” Queen Quet said. “We call it living.”

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Searching for Shade in Louisville

Louisville, Kentucky

June 12-13, 2013

Known for its derbies and its Olmsted parks; Louisville, Kentucky, is also gaining notoriety as the city with the fastest growing urban heat island in the country, according to research at the Georgia Tech Urban Climate Lab. We wanted to find out what people in Louisville are doing to prepare and protect themselves against the heat. Watch Louisville’s story about the citizens who are banding together to get trees in the ground.

To view more photos click here.

Living shorelines protect the area from flood risk.

In North Carolina, Sea Level Rise Is No Crystal Ball

Beaufort, North Carolina

June 19-20, 2013

On June 4, 2012, Stephen Colbert did what the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission could not: he made sea level rise sexy. In a five-and-a-half-minute spot titled “Sink or Swim,” Colbert poked fun at NC-20, a conservative group that pushed the NC state legislature to introduce a bill that would ban state agencies from considering anything more than historical data on sea level rise in future planning.

Colbert mocked NC-20’s logic with a pointed metaphor: “ If we consider only historical data, I’ve been alive my entire life, therefore I always will be.”

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Vaughn has been helping this homeowner access FEMA grants to raise their home.

Norfolk Rises Above the Rising Tide

Norfolk, Virginia

June 10, 2013

Everyone was dripping wet in the elevator on our way to the Flood Executive Group meeting in Norfolk, Virginia’s City Hall. A young man squeezed in on the third floor.

“I’m thinking of going for a swim today after work—right off my front porch,” he joked.

Norfolk has the distinction of being in the second most vulnerable metropolitan area in the U.S.—after New Orleans—to sea level rise, so quips about flooding are common. But, unfortunately, there is always some truth to the banter: even the day’s intermittent thundershowers would lead to flash floods in some neighborhoods.

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During our stay, the intersection of 5th and Pennsylvania was closed due to flooding from rainstorms.

Delaware’s Beach Houses Surf, Then Freeboard

Lewes and Bethany Beach, Delaware

June 7-9, 2013

When Arthur and Roberta Leib returned to Bethany Beach, Delaware after the Great March Storm of 1962, instead of finding their army-surplus house in its usual grassy lot off 5th Street, they encountered it surfing among the downed utility wires at the intersection of 5th and Pennsylvania. Fortunately, they were able to retrieve the house and move it back to “higher ground,” which according to their son, Jeff Leib, consisted of the foot or two of sand that had blown into the lot with the Nor’easter winds. Thanks to this recovery, we were able to enjoy a few days at the beach in the quaint, blue house with an adventurous spirit. Of course, not every house was so lucky. Continue reading

Increasing the urban canopy is one way to fight heat in Baltimore, Maryland

Keeping Baltimore Neighborhoods Cool

Baltimore, Maryland

June 4, 2013

Baltimore is known as the “city of neighborhoods.” Kristin Baja, the new Hazard Mitigation and Adaptation Planner for the city, is working on learning the names of all 225 of them. She’s eight months into job and doing pretty well so far—as we drive around the city, she’s rattling off names: Patterson Park, the Middle East, Four By Four (which is actually a four block by four block square), Oliver, Ellwood Park. Easier than memorizing neighborhoods, though, is figuring out what areas of the city are in need of more tree canopy. These are the areas with no respite of shade during extreme heat events.

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New Rochelle before and after

Patience After the Superstorm

June 3, 2013

New Rochelle, New York

Last October, Hurricane Sandy ripped through New Rochelle, New York, on Long Island Sound, leaving two-thirds of residents without power. Traffic lights hung blank-faced in the streets. Families intent on going out trick-or-treating two days after the storm were cautioned to avoid downed wires

“Boats were deposited in places we never ever thought we’d see in our lifetime,” said Bill Zimmerman, New Rochelle’s Parks and Recreation Commissioner. Continue reading