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Durham County

By Nicole Cason

Just north of Highway 64, bordering Raleigh to the northeast, lies Durham County, North Carolina. The sixth-most populous county in North Carolina is home to over 300,000 residents and vibrant community within. The area is part of the Research Triangle Region of the state, which is known as a hub for technology and academia. Like many other communities across North Carolina and the country, Durham County is already experiencing the effects of climate change and is preparing for an uncertain climate future. We got a chance to speak with Tobin Freid, the Sustainability Manager of the county, to discuss how the Durham community is becoming more climate-resilient.

By Nicole Cason

A California native, Tobin pursued a degree in Environmental Policy and Urban Planning at University of California-Santa Cruz. After graduating, she moved to Washington D.C. for an internship in environmental policy at the White House; however, she ended up loving it so much that she found herself a full-time job working at the Department of Energy in the nation’s capital. From D.C., Tobin received her master’s degree from Tufts University at The Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy, where she focused on international environmental policy and conflict resolution. While attending Tufts, she became engrossed with sustainable development and spent two summers working in Panama with shade-grown chocolate. Tobin returned to the U.S. and moved to Durham to attend Duke University, where she earned a second master’s in Resource and Environmental Policy and Sustainable Development. With all of this knowledge and experience, Tobin turned an internship into a job with the Triangle J Council of Government (TJCOG), a regional association of local government working on topics such as transportation issues, alternative fuels, and demand management. After five years with the TJCOG, Tobin was the first person hired for the position of Durham Sustainability manager in 2008, which at the time was a joint city and county position and only the second position of its kind in the state (with Asheville being the first only two months prior). In 2019, the dual management of the City of Durham and Durham County became overwhelming, so the office split and Tobin has headed the Durham County office ever since.  

Tobin describes herself as a “generalist” who loves to get to work on all things climate, which is related to virtually everything around us. This includes mitigation efforts, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions from government operations, as well as community adaptation and resilience planning. While the county has been cutting as many emissions as they can, they are already feeling the effects of climate change, which will only continue to worsen. As such, Tobin seems to have a hand in almost everything climate-related in the county, ensuring the county is climate-resilient and working towards sustainability goals. One of Tobin’s main roles is to develop policies for the county, which ranges from high-performance building policy to plastic water bottle policy, and everything in between. She also does project management activities for the county, which has included applying for electric vehicle charging station grants, implementing programs in approved policies, and working with community groups and elected officials to address the most-pressing issues to Durham County residents. Additionally, Tobin coordinates with other local government officials across the region and the state to coordinate programs and policies.  

When asked about the biggest climate challenges facing Durham County, Tobin highlighted extreme heat, drought, extreme rainfall and flooding, and wildfires as the four main threats to the region. In the summer of 2021, the county worked on an urban heat island mapping project to assess hotspots in the area. Urban heat islands occur in cities when natural land cover is replaced with densely concentrated pavement, buildings, and other infrastructure that retain more heat and thus experience higher temperatures than outlying areas with more natural landscapes; this effect can in turn increase energy costs, air pollution levels, and heat-related illnesses. Undertaking this mapping project was valuable for Tobin and her team to assess where urban heat islands are across the county and allocate resources effectively to address the situation. Some areas of Durham County can be as much as 10 degrees hotter than other areas only two miles away. Additionally, we were surprised to hear that wildfires are one of the biggest climate threats facing Durham County and the entire Research Triangle region, as we typically think of wildfire events affecting the Western U.S. and more mountainous areas of Western North Carolina. However, extreme heat combined with extended periods of drought can spark fires in new areas, while smoke can travel from as far as California and Oregon and affect air quality and temperature in central North Carolina.  

In terms of preparing for an uncertain climate future, Tobin and Durham County are taking actionable steps towards climate resiliency, often on a regional level in coordination with other local governments. Every three years, a new climate hazard mitigation plan is created in conjunction with Alamance and Orange County. This climate plan details specific climate hazards and steps that need to be taken to deal with and mitigate these threats. However, mitigation is only one facet of climate resiliency; Tobin is also working towards helping citizens prepare for and recover from climate hazards. For example, the urban heat island map can be overlayed with historical emergency calls in certain locations to determine if there is a correlation  ....
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