The State of Cities
I recently attended the Rutgers Climate Symposium, where this year's theme was 'cities and climate' — especially appropriate for an event situated in the USA's finest megalopolis. A key takeaway from the day was the degree to which -- due to their high concentration of people, money, and physical assets -- cities are at the front lines of climate- and environment-related issues, more so than rural areas, provinces, or countries. One speaker, Bill Solecki, listed a number of unique challenges cities have faced in the last few centuries, which have been encountered and dealt with largely in serial fashion: fire, sanitation, air pollution, open space, and urban decay. From this perspective, sea-level rise or extreme heat is just another challenge that will mainly be felt first in cities, and that will strain the resources of some, but likely fail to change the larger arc of history that bends toward urbanization. The speaker Julie Pullen noted that this trend represents an opportunity across much of the globe to effect major change in urban form and lifestyles as the century progresses.
In fact, this positioning of cities on the front lines of global issues has been the case for about as long as cities themselves have existed, if for no reason other than that local governments are typically and of necessity concerned with more-prosaic matters than national leaders, who have more of a tendency to helicopter in, make a pronouncement, and helicopter out (hence Fiorello LaGuardia's quip that 'There's no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage'). The greater complexity of cities than suburban or rural areas inspires and motivates a greater complexity of governance, and this fact is largely implicated in the strikingly complete sorting of the US (and many other places) into liberal urban and conservative rural halves.
Whatever their political leanings or economic status, another emergent theme was the need for municipalities to work together to tackle problems too big for any one of them to face alone. Not every city can afford an office of environment or climate, nor is there always the political will for it. Leveraging existing knowledge, financial, and political networks brings down the cost associated with addressing climate-related problems through economies of scale, and consequently reduces the potency of the argument that a given solution is too expensive or cumbersome to implement. For example, the various cities in a metropolitan area could all use information from the same study to assess their vulnerability to sea-level rise; could all finance seawall improvements through the same pooling they use to fund transportation infrastructure; could all coordinate these actions through the same conference of mayors they all belong to; etc. Organizations like the Global Covenant of Mayors and the Urban Climate Change Research Network also serve as conduits for resources and information while still allowing cities to take their own individualistic problem-solving approaches.
As a result, one of the main lessons of the symposium and of the most-recent Urban Climate Change Research Network report was that the most effective climate-related consortia all consider their programs as elements of larger programs or strategies, rather than being viewed ipso facto. Another aspect concerns disadvantaged populations: in environment-related issues as in political and financial ones, and in the developed world as in the developing, these communities are where there is the most room for improvement in terms of communication and implementation of cost-effective measures to address problems (whether done proactively or reactionarily). Thus, these populations must be explicitly focused on for substantial equity strides to be made.
Lastly, integrated and participatory decision-making around urban climatology is crucial for making decisions that are good (as these require the input of various leaders and organizations) and also decisions that are actually implemented (as this only happens when the aforementioned people consider the decisions legitimate and accurate). As speaker Cynthia Rosenzweig emphasized, this is exemplified by, essentially, keeping an open mind rather than letting pure science dictate the decisions. Risk reduction, reaction, and long-term planning should be considered hand-in-hand. It's doubly important to keep this integrated framework in mind in the frenzied weeks and months after an extreme event, which is when much of the political energy and financial muscle are available to enact changes. More broadly, Bill Solecki stressed that the intersection of extreme events, climate change, and urban areas is where there's the motivation and wherewithal for society-wide adaptation measures, and where these measures would have the biggest impact. And yet, they also illustrate one of the most fundamental challenges in applying the results of urban-climatological studies: that while we have lots of data on roughly what's expected in terms of climate in the next 100 years, we don't know what to do about it -- that is to say, we don't know how to react viscerally, and certainly not how to plan in an organized and effective manner. Which is exactly why these kinds of mutual brainstorming sessions between urban climatologists and everyone else with a stake in the future of cities in the 21st century are so important.