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.)


2 Responses to "Cities as Safe havens: Looking into the Climate Future"

Mira said... 27 February 2009 at 09:55

As the editor of a magazine focused on infrastructure renewal, but not mandated as a "green" publication, we've really only touched on these issues in articles about disaster mitigation and adapting infrastructure for a more extreme climate. Presentations like these are a little "the sky is falling" for my taste. Still, it's disturbing to think that stories on underwater cities and climate change refugees might be in our editorial lineup in the coming years.

Alex Aylett said... 28 February 2009 at 17:42

I agree Mira. I don't think we are alone in having lost patience with writing that goes out of its was to dramatize events that are already dramatic enough. It's exciting to see adaptation starting to hit mainstream discussions though. Population migration is one of many elephants in the room right now. The others are infrastructure vulnerability, health, and food security.

Strip of the hyperbolic tone and I thought the article did a good job of showing the pressures that cities will face as they become key parts of our strategy to deal with these issues. Even if internationally we build higher and stronger borders, cities are still going to have to cope with the pressures of internal displacements. And ethically, we may want them to do a lot more...


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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