10 June 2014 — With climate change all but locked in, governments must now turn to adaptation as well as mitigation measures to ensure the safety and liveability of cities. Just last week, the US federal government announced it would give $1 billion to New York and New Jersey to spend on resilience projects following Hurricane Sandy. Much of the money is going towards erecting a 10-mile barrier around lower Manhattan to protect against storm surge and flooding. Leon Gettler explores the resilience measures cities around the world are taking.

Cities are major contributors to climate change: although they cover less than two per cent of the earth’s surface, cities consume 78 per cent of the world’s energy and produce more than 60 per cent of all carbon dioxide, not to mention other greenhouse gas emissions, mainly through energy generation, vehicles and industry.

At the same time, cities and towns are heavily vulnerable to climate change. Think of the hundreds of millions of people in urban areas across the world who will be affected by rising sea levels, increased precipitation, inland floods, more frequent and stronger cyclones and storms, and periods of more extreme heat and cold. Climate change may also cause massive damage to infrastructure and worsen access to basic urban services and quality of life in cities.

The Urban Climate Change Governance Survey (USGS), based on responses from 350 cities worldwide, has found that more cities around the world now include preparations for climate change in their basic urban planning – but only a small portion of them have been able to make such plans part of their economic development priorities. On the plus side, 75 per cent of cities worldwide now tackle climate-change issues as a mainstream part of their planning, and 73 per cent of cities are attempting both climate mitigation and climate adaptation. That is, they are trying both to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and to adapt to longterm changes that are already in motion. But only 21 per cent of cities report tangible connections between the response to climate change and achieving other local development goals.

Clearly there is some way to go. But at least it’s started and the linkages to economic development strategy will surely follow as more businesses come on board.

According to the Carbon Disclosure Project, Seoul plans to retrofit 10,000 buildings by 2030, Austin has a zero waste plan for 2040, London aims to have 100,000 electric vehicles on the streets by 2020, Buenos Aires is implementing a network of dedicated bus and taxi lanes to improve fuel efficiency, Tokyo is introducing higher energy efficiency standards for large urban developments and São Paulo’s goal is to reduce the use of fossil fuel on public transportation by 10 per cent each year, aiming for 100 per cent renewables by 2017.

But then, as Danny Vinik in the New Republic says, it’s not going to come cheap.

“The mitigation techniques needed to fortify a city like Miami will cost billions of dollars, if not more,’’ Vinik writes. “State and local governments will undoubtedly turn to the federal government for help, but that will be a political nightmare. Americans from non-coastal regions will likely object to paying for the restoration and fortification of coastal cities that are no longer naturally fit for habitation.”

Some cities are doing much more than others.

A Newcastle University study across the UK found that only two cities had a strategy or policy in place to reduce emissions and also adapt to cope with future weather patterns, in particular flooding. London was found to have one of the most advanced strategies in place, mitigating the impact on climate change through, for example, energy efficiency, increasing the use of renewables, waste management and the introduction of greener modes of transport. Leicester also scored highly, carrying out rigorous monitoring and providing regular reports on the city’s carbon footprints. Other cities, such as Newcastle, had advanced electric vehicle infrastructures in place while Sheffield and Coventry have established programmes to produce more energy from waste and reduce landfill.

Almost all cities surveyed had set targets for reducing CO2 emissions. But that was just spin. Only a few had set an actual target, figure or timescale, which made the whole exercise meaningless. Also in most cities, adaptation policies lagged behind the mitigation plans. For example, flooding is a key threat in many urban areas. Many of the cities surveyed had flood protection schemes in place but few had assessed whether they were actually effective.

Similarly, European cities are unprepared. A study in the journal Climatic Change performed a detailed analysis of 200 large- and medium-sized cities across 11 European countries and analysed the cities’ climate change adaptation and mitigation plans. It found that 35 per cent of European cities studied had no dedicated mitigation plan and 72 per cent had no adaptation plan. One quarter of the cities had both an adaptation and a mitigation plan and set quantitative GHG reduction targets, but those varied extensively in scope and ambition. No city had an adaptation plan without a mitigation plan.

However, Dutch cities are the most ambitious, aiming to be carbon, climate or energy neutral with100 per cent reduction targets by 2050 or earlier. The Guardian reports that Rotterdam is preparing for the battle with climate change through innovative sponging and water storage design.

“We’re really planning ahead”, says Alexandra van Huffelen, Rotterdam’s vice mayor in charge of sustainability.

“The Dutch have lived below the sea level for centuries and are used to dykes and barriers. But today we’re experiencing heavier and more unpredictable rainfalls, so behind the barriers we’re turning the city into a sponge.”

Surrounded by water on four sides, this delta city of some 600,000 people can’t flush the sudden stormwater away. Instead, it has embarked on a climate change adaptation strategy that turns every conceivable area into water storage.

“We have squares that are set lower than the surrounding streets and pavements that will function as water plazas and fill themselves up with water”, explains van Huffelen. “We’ve also built water storage facilities, for example an underground parking garage with a basin the size of four Olympic swimming pools. And we’ve introduced more green areas, including green roofs and green facades, that will be able to absorb water as well.” The Dutch are also building floating houses and they’re redirecting rivers.

One of the cities that is a real standout is Copenhagen. The Guardian again reports that the city planners are designing convex streets to capture water from storms and flooding and direct it to the harbour. Copenhagen in 2050 will also feature smaller streets with plenty of trees, which will slow anticipated flooding.

Australian cities have to get ready too with a report warning that an extreme heat event in Melbourne could kill more than 1000 people in a few days unless there is better preparation. According to Australian researchers, the most vulnerable cities include Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney’s western suburbs, which endure drier and more intense heat extremes.

Some Australian cities are addressing the issue. The City of Melbourne, for example, has an ambitious target of zero net GHG emissions by 2020. To this end, it is looking at stormwater harvesting and re-use, which can reduce potable water reliance, water public parks and street trees, prevent floods, and improve local water system resilience. It’s also looking at improving the city’s passive cooling efficiency to alleviate the urban heat island effect.

Sydney has a 2030 plan that aims to reduce carbon emissions by 70 per cent by 2030. To this end, it is embarking on initiatives including trigeneration, putting in place a renewable energy master plan, installing energy efficient street and park lights, rolling out Australia’s largest building-mounted solar panel project, implementing an energy efficiency retrofits of major buildings and helping businesses to reduce carbon emissions and energy bills through energy efficiency programs.

In America, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg revealed a $20 billion plan fortifying infrastructure like the power grid, renovating buildings to withstand hurricanes and defending the shore. The plan has 250 recommendations, including the installation of flood walls and other measures to protect some of the areas that were hit worst by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Bloomberg said that the price tag was high, but that the cost of not taking action would be higher. Hurricane Sandy caused $19 billion in damage and loss of economic activity for the city, he said, and if a similar storm were to strike three decades from now, the cost could be $90 billion.

Boston has also been making some radical changes promoting green infrastructure throughout the city to reduce the urban heat island effect and mitigate flooding. The Boston Redevelopment Authority now requires all new large developments to complete a climate adaptation questionnaire. It’s established a climate adaptation Green Ribbon Commission working group to lead the private sector in preparing for climate change. It has also surveyed vulnerabilities of buildings and infrastructure and other important measures.

Toronto, the largest city in Canada, has strategies that include low interest loans to support energy conservation and renewable energy projects, energy retrofits on city owned buildings, tree planting initiatives, expansion of the city’s bike plan, conversion of traffic signals to LED lights, improved water efficiency and energy efficiency in the Toronto Water operations, methane gas capture from open and closed landfills and the purchase of electric-hybrid buses.

This is all new territory for urban planning, embracing a future that will expose cities to a climate they were not designed and built for. But clearly, resilience strategies can’t be put aside. Time is running out.

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  1. I’m not at all sure when it’s going to happen, but we are facing a civilization ending scenario sometime before 2100. It’s the forecast of Limits to Growth published by the Club of Rome in 1972. Tellingly the standard scenario chart has been shown to be very accurate in the decades since. We are facing the end of growth, a concept entirely foreign to our political class, and the public as well. They didn’t include climate change but we have to now. This double whammy is going to drive our societies and our civilization down to a much poorer state, with a great drop in population as the planet will no longer support the current number of people. Cheap oil, the basic driver of our growth over the past century or so is changing to expensive oil. The longer we delay the less resilience we will have.
    What I am saying is the parameters we live with and which guide our decisions re how we live, how we mange our cities and the whole environment, will have to be drastically reexamined. Band aids won’t do! The current plans for energy conservation, habitat conservation etc are just band aids.