Cities as Safe havens: Looking into the Climate Future

Compact high density cities in Britain, Canada and parts of Northern Europe will be the lifeboats for the human race come 2100. That's the underlying prediction coming out of a feature article in this weeks edition of The New Scientist. "How to Survive the Coming Century" imagines a world where the current predictions of 4 °C have come to pass. The article opens:

"ALLIGATORS basking off the English coast; a vast Brazilian desert; the mythical lost cities of Saigon, New Orleans, Venice and Mumbai; and 90 per cent of humanity vanished. Welcome to the world warmed by 4 °C."
Chalk it up to unintentional black humour that the article is followed by another titled "Why do some people kill themselves?"

Overall the presentation is a bit too dramatic for my taste. Those of us who are going to be scared about climate change are worried already. The article does provide a good summary of what the likely impacts of warming are going to be. But more interesting is the ensuing discussing of how our social, economic and municipal systems can respond.

In a world where shifting rainfall patterns and increased droughts have displaced millions, cities take on increased importance. Synthesising the work of a variety of prominent scientists, the article argues for dense urban settlements as the only way to house our species, while simultaneously preserving valuable agricultural land. One of the main challenges will be designing infrastructure systems that can handle that kind of load.

The article has already been picked up by the UK media but it should only be a matter of time before it come out in the Canadian press as well. The article saves a special place for Canada:
"The area of Canada alone is 9.1 million square kilometres and, combined with all the other high-latitude areas, such as Alaska, Britain, Russia and Scandinavia, there should be plenty of room for everyone, even with the effects of sea-level rise. These precious lands with access to water would be valuable food-growing areas, as well as the last oases for many species, so people would be need to be housed in compact, high-rise cities."
As I found out while I was working in Portland, climate refugees are already on the radar of American cities. Maybe it's time that Canadian cities started think along those lines as well. The likelihood of mass migrations has a political dimension as well though. Given current efforts to clamp down on migration into Europe and North America there may be other issues that we need to deal with. As one climatologist pointed out, "If it turns out that the only thing preventing our survival was national barriers then we would need to address this - our survival is too important."

Another response of course is increasing urban resilence to a changing climate. Interestingly, today also marked the launch of the
UN-World Bank publication ""Building Resilient Cities" in Vietnam (one of the countries that will be hardest hit by climate change). I've blogged about the guide previously here.

Coupled with discussions of how national borders may change, the need for better integrated global energy and resource systems, and a discussion of global migration the New Scientist article is well worth a read. There is also a nifty interactive google map. (Given the context, there's some unintended irony here too in the "to here" "from here" tabs.)


New York Times: Energy & Environment

The New York Times has just launched a new Energy & Environment section and from the first offerings it looks like it is going to be a treat. An outgrowth of the excellent GreenInc. blog, the section styles itself as a front line investigation of the way Energy, Economy and Environment have become intertwined in efforts to respond to our combined financial and ecological crisis.

I've enjoyed the blog so far because it cuts through the hype that surrounds a lot of green issue and asks some important questions. The most recent post on in the new section follows suit, providing a glimpse of the difficulties US states and cities may have in managing the $6.3b windfall of efficiency related funds soon to be coming their way thanks to the federal stimulus package. In some cases departmental budgets are increasing 123 times almost overnight. The challenge is going to be whether cities and regions can manage these funds well enough to balance the drive to spend as quickly as possible and the need to make sure that quality projects are carried out.
"The money in the bill is enough to pay for a tremendous expansion of efficiency efforts across the country. But as with other parts of the stimulus package, the efficiency plan is creating tension between spending the money quickly, to get rapid economic stimulus, and spending it well, to do the most good over the long run."
Still, states and cities should have a big pool of applicants to choose from to staff new positions. Of all the people laid off in other sectors there have got to be a fair number with the skills to help manange these projects...

Jungle Home: Lost in Paris

This furry green home, cloaked in a hydroponic curtain of ferns, makes for some captivating photos. Designed in Paris by architecture firm R&Sie Architects, the home also produces its own fertilizer brewed in clusters of hand-blown glass beakers that are woven into the ferns almost like clutches of spider eggs. Billed as a private laboratory and living space for an "urban witch" this project is as much conceptual art piece as concrete dwelling.

The firm describes it as "the story of an urban witch living behind a rear windows designed as a duck cabana. As alchemist, she feeds the plant with drop by drop hydroponics system watering liquid substances coming from the bacterian chemical preparation in 200 beakers disseminated in the ferns surfaces.The neighborhood is both attracted by the green aspect and repulsed by the brewage and the process to produce it." The beakers themselves look quite attractive, so I can only imagine that there is something about the source of the growing medium that disturbs the neighbours...

R&Sie are known for their artistic and experimental interventions into the urban sphere. Their work uses art installations or hightech visualizations and models to make concrete philosophical discussions about nature, urbanization and the overlap between the two. Although the interior is a bit sparse for my taste, I like how this project stretches the limits of what we think of as green building. Aesthetics should be a key component in the discussion of sustainability. The sleek aesthetic of glass sheathed office towers, for example, is responsible for some of the least efficient and most un-livable spaces that occupy our city centers. This project makes you wonder how far we would be prepared to go in the other direction...
(see also inhabitat)

Feeling Vulnerable?

New York is doing something that few other urban centers are doing: it is starting to look seriously at what climate change has in store for the city. A report (.pdf)released this week presents a systematic look at what the city is likely to deal with before the century is out. Done in partnership with NASA and Columbia University, it attempts to take what we know from global level climate models done by the IPCC and make it meaningful at the local level.

With report after report after report showing that we are in this much deeper than we had realized, issues of adapting to the effects of climate change are starting to get peoples' attention. The days when we thought we could "fix the climate problem" if we just cut back emissions are quickly fading.

We all have a general idea of the likely effects of a more volatile climate (droughts, floods, heatwaves etc.). But it is very difficult to predict what the specific stresses will be at a local scale. As far as I know only a few cities are attempting this work; similar projects are being carried out in London, UK and Durban, SA (where I am at the moment) in partnership with the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change research. And in Canada last year, a Federal Engineers Report (link to report) detailed the vulnerability of infrastructure in seven communities across the country.

For New York, that means starting to prepare for the human and mechanical stresses of a 4 to 7.5 degree (Fahrenheit) increase in temperatures and the impacts of an increase in both the occurrence and severity of storms and flooding. That for a city that already suffers from heatwaves and (on a dry day) pumps 13million gallons (50million litres) of water out of its subway system. What does it mean for your city? Read more...

The Worst(ening) Case Scenario

In October, I posted on the fact that we have have already overshot even the worst case scenarios of the 2007 report by the International Panel on Climate Change. Micheal Lemonick, former senior writer at Time magazine and now a columnist for Yale University's Environment 360 blog and Climate Central, provides an excellent update in his most recent post. Lemonick synthesizes a large body of work about rates of warming in the Arctic and Antarctic that complement the research on rates of GHG emissions that I was referencing in the fall. His post also goes some way into explaining why earlier models were off the mark, as well as discussing the physical dynamics that have added to the increased speed of melting in the Green ice fields.

Some highlights:

Unexpectedly rapid melting of the vast ice sheet in Greenland, for example, suggests that sea level could rise between 1 and 2 meters (roughly 3 to 6 ½ feet) by the end of the century — nearly triple what scientists projected just two years ago.

We are on a course for an ice free Arctic within 10 to 20 years.
Carbon dioxide is spewing into the atmosphere faster than any model anticipated, with the IPCC forecasting that if nothing is done to slow greenhouse gas emissions, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 could be as high as 900 parts per million — triple pre-industrial levels — by the end of the century. That could boost worldwide temperatures by an average of more than 4 degrees C (7 degrees F).
By now, we are used to worsening news about the climate. The thing to remember here isn't just that things have gotten worse, it's the speed at which things are getting worse and the effects that that will have that we need to keep in mind:

“Even one meter,” says Gavin Schmidt, of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Sciences, “is a disaster. It would directly threaten millions of people, and trillions of dollars of infrastructure."

We have a tendency with climate change, as with many other complex problems, to try to imagine they are stationary targets. It makes making our own plans that much easier. One of the many challenges that we face is coming to terms with the dynamic nature of the systems that we live in and the rapidity with which they can change. Read more...

Smart Cities v. Big Utilities (or "Is Ontario all that?')

Sometimes the internet is a mess. Other days it throws up pieces of information that seem to fit together almost too perfectly.

Utilities Foot-Dragging?
For the second time this month, Ontario's work to encourage renewables and transition towards a smart grid has attracted praise from south of the border. The New York Times' Green Inc. reported in glowing terms on the success of Ontario's feed in tariff. [Offering 11 Canadian cents ($0.9 U.S.) a kilowatt-hour for small-scale hydro, wind and biomass and 42 Canadian cents ($0.34 U.S.) for solar (vs. 5 cents for nuclear, coal, gas and large hydro) has netted them more proposal than they new what to do with. They exceeded their 10-year target cap of 1,000 megawatts in the first year.]

I've also written positively about Ontario's efforts. But there are some questions that need to be asked: Like was the cap set too low? Both the CBC and Greenpeace have taken critical looks at the province's efforts and pointed out that it seems to be deliberately limiting the rollout of renewables while promoting a long term plan that still centers around expanding nuclear power. Nuclear takes a long time to build and won't be running until years after the new power is needed. Renewables on the other hand can be put in place more quickly and so can respond quickly to increases in demand.

I'm not in a position to evaluate those claims - but similar accusations are starting surface in Europe as well. Reuters reports that major energy utilities are being accused of lobbying in Brussels to slow the pace of change. They are even being fingered for being behind the recent demise of a 500 million euro fund for research into smart grids. Their aim, apparently, is easy to understand: they want to protect their market. They are after all in the business of selling electricity.

Developers Give Them a Run for Their Money
If major utilities are unwilling or unable to change, big developers don't seem so sluggish. Reuteurs quotes the deputy director of one French construction company laying out their new business plan: "We have entered an era of breakthroughs and of a technological revolution in the construction sector. Because tenants will pay 60 percent less in electricity bills, we can charge higher rents and we will sell the surplus of electricity back to (French utility) EDF."

Cities take on a new level of importance in this situation; their relative autonomy allows them to push for changes large utilities might want to resist. Local level incentives have the ability to bring more renewables on-line. Municipalities that take the bull by the horns will start becoming energy independent as buildings and municipal systems (waste, water etc) are used to generate the energy the city needs. We are not talking about smart grids here, so much as smart cities.

Obviously I have a horse in the race here, and believe in the positive impact that cities can have. But amidst all the hoopla, I think its useful to sound a note of caution as well. Despite the ability to create real incentives for renewables, few cities have actually acted on that potential. Reuters credits the EU ambitious emissions reductions targets for spurring interest in urban energy systems. Yesterday 400 EU cities pledged to go even further. I hope they do. But we've seen similar statements before (from the underperforming US Mayors Agreement for example). The potential is there, but without real effort and support it could all end with the first press conference. So push you utilites and call you councillors.

Take it Seriously: Urban Agriculture and Food Security Revisted

A few months after leaving South Africa last year, and in the midst of the global food-price riots, I wrote a piece on Urban Agriculture and Food Security. It was mostly guess work at the time, but based on the amount of food I had seen being grown in Durban it seemed pretty clear that individual and community gardens provided a buffer zone between the most vulnerable residents and skyrocketing international food prices.

Now that I'm back in Durban for the next two months, more information on the theme has come my way at it seems like my guess wasn't far off. Stephanie Nieuwoudt, at IPS, provides a portrait of the women running one particular project in the township of Philippi, just outside of Capetown.

More and more residents have been turning to local agriculture to find nourishment in the face of climbing prices. And the yields are impressive: a
local official there explains that "a backyard garden four times the size of an ordinary door, can supply a household of six people with fresh vegetables for a year." Properly maintained it can keep producing for year. The Philippi project and many other like it have been carried globally since 2005 as part of the Cities Farming for the Future Project.

Apart from the gardens themselves, the most interesting thing to have emerged from the first phase of the project is what has gotten in their way. People don't take urban agriculture seriously. In many cities, both municipal officials and local farmers are in the dark about the role that local agriculture can play in supporting urban development. Urban agriculture has not played a big role in established models of urban development up to this point (it's "Central Park" after all, not "Central Farm"). As a result it simply isn't on the radar of key decisions makers and isn't receiving the support it needs (service provision, credit, structures for land tenure, infrastructure and training).

Beyond food security (which is itself crucially important) urban food production can do a lot. It can promote the social inclusion of disadvantaged groups, reduce the amount of waste in municipal landfills (or streets), reduce urban heat island and to improve the overall urban micro-climates and help maintenance of buffer zones around urban areas. But only if city officials and residents learn to see agriculture for what it is. Not a remnant of the rural past that many new arrivals have left behind, but as a key part in the systems that will allow residents to create cities that are healthy and stable homes for even the most poor.

UPDATE 14/04/09: Worldchanging just posted an piece by Mark Winne on the same theme, but from an American angle. From Fresh From...the City:

“Urban farming can be transformative in terms of the economy, nutrition, health, and public safety,” Cimperman says. “Our goal is to make Cleveland a national leader in the local food economy.” He and the FPC have secured a zoning change that permits community gardening. They are now working on new zoning to create larger plots, one-acre or more, and allow chicken-raising and beekeeping.

Similar approaches have succeeded in Portland, Oregon, where the 15-member Portland-Multnomah Food Policy Council has encouraged the city to open up more land for community gardens through their “Diggable City” project, which has turned the public spotlight on the need for more urban plots. Even though 3,000 people currently till the city’s community gardens, there are still 1,000 gardener wannabes on a waiting list


Empowering Sustainable Planning (and then taking it for granted)

A little over a month ago, Portland made history when the new mayor merged the Office of Sustainable Development (OSD) and the Bureau of Planning. Naturally, no one outside of the local media seems to care very much. Bureaucratic restructuring doesn't have the same caché that attracts journalists to the photogenic icons of sustainability. No eco-roofs, no LEED condos, no plug-ins for hybrid cars -- nothing pretty to look at. But thanks to the merger, Portland's new Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is in all likelihood the most powerful "green" municipal agency in all of North America.

Sustainability coordinators -- or Sustainability Offices if your city is lucky enough to have one -- are usually Davids inside the Goliath of the municipal structure. With little budget and no direct control over policy, their job is to steer cities in a new direction and transforms the ways in which they do business. In this case though, it seems that David has eaten Goliath. The former Office of Sustainable Development was initially funded through recycling revenues and relied on various forms of persuasion and diplomacy to get its work done. It is now at the head of a bureau that is one of the best funded and most powerful in the city.

In the short term, I am not sure what this will mean for Portland. This transformation was possible to begin with because there was already a close working relationship between OSD and the Bureau of Planning, thanks in large part to Gil Kelley , the Bureau's former director (for his parting Op-Ed in the Oregonian see here). Also, thanks to OSD's hard work and a general public support for environmental issues, the city is already leading the pack when it comes to sustainability. In part, the new bureau simply reflects this reality. All the same, the merger took many employees by surprise and some of the initial coverage has been quite critical.

In the long term, I think we will see more of this is the kind of merger. Or at least I hope we do. One of the underlying objectives of work on sustainability is that the principles that we are working to establish will one day be taken for granted. Even though we are fascinated by new technologies, much of what needs changing has to do with how we make day-to-day decisions. To build up the skills to rethink how we make those decisions, a staff dedicated to local sustainability is essential. But as more and more cities begin to adopt ecologically intelligent principles as their new "common sense" it will make less and less sense to maintain old administrative divisions that keep Sustainability off on its own corner.

Many effective initiatives are blocked by a lack of either the will or the power to implement them. By creating a bureau that has both will and power, Portland provides a great example of what may become a trend as cities adapt to changing priorities and circumstances.


This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.

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