Will Our Cities Save Us? Municipalities at the Nexus of Change
Editor's note: The following post is adapted from several previous posts published in GWIR over the past year about how cities are often the best examples of furthering sustainable development, resilience and adaptation in a climate-changed world. This post has been entered in the Masdar Engage blogging contest for the upcoming Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week
At the national and international level climate action is stalled under the unyielding weight of factionalism and meeting the diverse agenda of a global community. At the personal level the issues of climate change and building a sustainable future for our children seems overwhelming; whatever efforts we can lend to the cause feels too small and inadequate.
In many ways meeting the challenge of climate change and sustainable development is often most effective at the municipal level. Cities strike a balance between meeting the diverse needs of its inhabitants with the ability to adopt and adapt to the realities and challenges of global warming, development, infrastructure and energy.
Climate adaptation for cities
In the wake of the devastating storms of 2012, including Hurricane Sandy in the United States, the need for municipal-level adaptation and resilience became clearer than ever. With Sandy, New York and New Jersey saw communities destroyed and lives devastated due in part to decades of poor planning and decimation of natural infrastructure. Urban communities often take the brunt of not only extreme weather events, but the consequences of poor planning and development. The extreme weather trend has only continued globally in 2013, with drought, unprecedented storms and record temperatures in every part of the world.
Coming to grips with the risks, especially as climate change bears down on urban centers with more intense storms, there are a growing number of initiatives aimed at building resiliency in the urban environment. Earlier this year the Rockefeller Foundation announced support for RE.Invest, a new public-private partnership at helping cities across the US integrate increased resiliency in urban infrastructure and adapt effectively to extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy. The Foundation, in partnership with c.dots development and CH2H Hill, has pledged $3 million in the effort.
Initially, RE.Invest will select eight US cities through a national application process to provide seed money and technical support to create "community investment vehicles" that leverage private investment in local municipal water infrastructure.
"Using innovative sustainable infrastructure such as replacing concrete with porous pavement, restoring creeks and wetlands, and increasing tree cover can help cities manage storm water often at a fraction of the cost of upgrading traditional concrete infrastructure. These projects can also save significant taxpayer money, beautify communities, and make them more attractive to businesses and investor and more resilient to extreme weather," said Nancy Sutley, Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, in a press release.
"As we focus on ensuring the federal government makes it easier for cities to build and invest in sustainable infrastructure, the RE.invest Initiative is a great example of how private organizations can forge creative partnerships that leverage private investment to support clean and healthy cities, and save taxpayer dollars."
The city as an agent of change
But cities also represent the best, most effective means of implementing proactive change. Dr. Emma Stewart, head of Sustainability Solutions at Autodesk, sees the urbanization of human populations as a "tipping point" for change:
"We are now an urban species by definition," says Stewart. It took until 1960 to reach 1 billion people living in cities, another 25 years for the second billion, 18 years for the third, and "if projections are right only 15 years to add a fourth."
From a sustainability aspect there are "significant positives in terms of this tipping point we've reached," explains Stewart:
"So on the social side, cities have been a boon, really, to humans. On the resources side cities also, theoretically, provide us economies of scale delivering basic services like utilities or water, or even health care, safety, security.
As well as investing for adaptation to climate change, many cities and urban planners are adopting methods and policies for creating the "sustainable city of the future." Initiatives like the CDPCities Program, the Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design and Construction or the Sustainable Cities Institute at the National League of Cities are but a few examples of motivated action on climate action and the future of human development.
In the face of changing climate, growing resource constraints and increasing population, the conversation lately centers on the idea of resiliency as the new sustainability. Writing in the New York Times, Andrew Zolli describes resiliency as "how to help vulnerable people, organizations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world."
It’s a broad-spectrum agenda that, at one end, seeks to imbue our communities, institutions and infrastructure with greater flexibility, intelligence and responsiveness to extreme events and, at the other, centers on bolstering people’s psychological and physiological capacity to deal with high-stress circumstances," writes Zolli.
Cities are ground-zero for this new resiliency-focused thinking and planning in our chaotic times. And partnerships between cities help shepherd the best ideas across international borders and economic sectors.
On December 3rd, 2013 the Rockefeller Foundation named the first 33 cities for its 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge. Each city was selected based on its vision, need and plan for building resilience in a manner that connects government, citizens and the private sector. The Challenge is an example of how cities working together can develop and share ideas, innovations and best practices for meeting the common challenges we all face in the 21st century as individuals as well as members in local and global communities.
Will our cities save us?
Is it enough? Can we depend on local governments and private organizations to meet the challenges we face without national and international policy action and individual effort?
In the end the global community will need to step up and do its part and individuals will need to embrace how their singular understanding and action feeds the collective effort to create a livable future. But, as Stewart says, we are an urban species, and it is in the cities where ideas can take root and the great challenge of our times will be met.
Will our cities save us? To the extent that cities, and networks of cities, represent the best collective effort toward a better future, they are the best catalyst of change for a sustainable, resilient future.
In cities we can most effectively plan for the worst and hope (and work toward) the best.
Image credit: Nicola since 1972, courtesy flickr