May 21, 2013

Crafting Cities Truly Responsive to Climate Change

The Original Green Roof. Kabul, Afghanistan. Sutika Sipus 2013.

I know very little about climate change.   I understand the basic arguments, and having worked at the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences a few years ago, I am familiar with some of the recent research.  But as an urban planner, I admit that I know very little about the role of climate change in urban development.   I often feel like I'm woefully ignorant on the subject because I do not know how to measure emissions from traffic densities or how to determine the carbon offsets from an infrastructure project.  It turns out I'm not alone, most planners can't do this, including many who label themselves as sustainability experts.  Whats the deal?

Yesterday during a Skype meeting with a US nonprofit about an urban violence project, climate change was mentioned and it made me wonder, why do so many of us urban professionals know so little about this subject?  It is a significant variable in the health and function of cities, it has tremendous long-term implications, and it is particularly relavent for coastal settlements.  It is also frequently discussed in terms of conflict, sustainability and the debate over environmental refugees,  although that case is something of a misnomer.  Food production and national security are frequently mentioned in the conversation.  From the quantity of channels in which climate change is discussed, we can evaluate it as a significant variable, but then I must ask myself, after all these years of school and work, why isn't it a standard part of every conversation, plan, and most projects?

Why climate change is ignored or under utilized in urban planning and development

1. Part of the answer has to do with the nature of the variable. Climate is a huge phenomenon that cannot, as a whole, be directly observed.  Consequently, it is unwieldy.  Climate science tends to rely upon large quantities of data, collected and combed by climate experts.  The data and the outcomes are also designed for use by climatologists, not necessarily for urbanists or social scientists, and consequently there is a disconnect between the data and the populations that could create solutions from it.   Greater partnership between policy makers, specialists, and climate researchers could lead to more directly useful information.

2. Previous social science research concerning climate change has been poorly defined and messy.  I'm sure there are plenty exceptions, but looking through google scholar, I found that so many projects pursue participatory or perception-based methods that also mix climate change with other issues such as public health risks.  

Take for example this page for community health concerning soil and food.  This project advocates a community based research process in Malawi among farmers to develop response strategies to climate change.  That sounds good, except it also manages to include HIV awareness/prevention, and the methodology "focusses on gender/age inequalities."  I can only imagine that the research designer was trying to diversify the project in order to acquire funding, because such a schizophrenic research design will prompt a blurred mess of outcomes.  I appreciate the complexity intended in the study, but keeping specific to goal (adaption strategies for climate change among farmers in Malawi) provides a higher probability of success for those farmers.  Aids education, gender, and age, do not need to be a part of the project and only creates distractions.

3.  Social science research and development projects that take a strategically proactive approach to climate change tend to have a rural focus (such as this project with farmers in Ethiopia).   It makes perfect sense to work with farmers to experiment with strategies to contend with climate change in coming seasons.  Excellent.  But how does this translate to urban environments?

There are plenty of examples of climate change and poor urban planning causing problems (such as flooding in Argentina), but what about the successes?  Current "best practices" tend to focus on novel solutions such as green rooftops and house boats.  Seriously?  This sort of approach to problem solving perfectly exemplifies everything that is wrong with the field of urban planning.  May I ask, how many square meters of roof-top gardens in a city/state/nation/world will be required to reduce carbon emissions by 2% in a year?  How many liters of water collected in rain gardens will produce the same impact?  This is not a legitimate approach.  It is ad-hoc and based more in good will than good thinking.

Also, many of the messages propagated among urban-dwellers is to conserve - recycle, turn off lights, use public transit -  or to rely upon technology (such as sustainable architecture and infrastructure) rather than to individually experiment with livelihood strategies to produce environmentally advantageous outcomes.  I'm not a big believer in social programming for baseline behavior change, and the notion of experimentation has more pro-active connotations than the emphasis on reduction.  While there are likely some urban projects that take the proactive, experimental, and strategic approach, these are in an extreme minority.  In the meanwhile the public sphere is dominated by media messages constructing conservation as long-term responsibility, not messages of environmentally-positive production because of urgent necessity.

4. There is a lack of concise research methods for urbanists and social science researchers.  I've spent the last 24 hours searching for published, quality research concerning urban settlements and climate change at the individual, human scale (not the sort of research pursued by climatologists).  There are many papers concerned with participatory action research methods with farmers to research the affects of climate change on their livelihood and to develop solutions to contend with this.  Where is the same kind of for cities?  It must be out there somewhere, but its not omnipresent, and that is a problem since cities generate the greatest quantity of carbon emissions.  It seems feasible to use the same strategy for cities, but we can assume that the impact will be more difficult for urban residents to discern. 

The Outcome

If climate change is to become a valid concern for urban populations, it must be removed from the abstract and exposed among the lived day-to-day reality of the population.  We must first ask ourselves what sort of clear and tangible evidence for climate change exists within our cities and neighborhoods. The best social research and work today seems focussed on developing coping strategies for the victims of climate change, such as rural African villages and farmers.  But this social research needs to happen in our cities and suburbs as well, not because urban dwellers are to be positioned as the evil propagators of climate change, but because without a proactive approach, they will be the future victims.

We also must drop the fantasy assumptions about the so-called solutions on land use and green space to which we presently adhere.  Upon identifying the specific incidents of climate change, we can create relavent methods within our communities to internalize the evidence to then develop strategic, pro-active responses to contend with the harsh reality of climate change.  Furthermore our responses must contain a series of relavent tactics that can a) quantitively reduce carbon emissions in our cities and b) develop coping strategies for the negative impact of climate change.  

While we strive to do our part to mitigate or even reverse the trend of global temperature increase, we must also accept that temperature change has a longstanding history and will continue, although at a slower pace.  Our cities need not be prepared for climate change, but accept the responsibility in the present tense and thus become responsive.  Whereas preparation implies a coming event, response suggests a current and ongoing engagement.