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Parque de la luces / Medellin culture department

This year, Medellin, the second largest city in Colombia, is the host of the UN-Habitat’s World Urban Forum, which attracts more than 15,000 urban leaders from around the world. This is a huge accomplishment for a city that had the highest number of homicides in the world just a decade ago. Now, Anibal Gaviria Correa, the Mayor of Medellin says, the city is not even in the top 50 ranking of dangerous cities. How did Medellin turn it around to win the title of the world’s most innovative city? The answer is complex — and the city continues to face many challenges — but the mayor said its amazing progress is really due to “social, not technological, innovation.”

Medellin (which is pronounced Medejin) is the largest city in the Antioquia province. The city, which is nestled in a valley some 5,000 feet up, had a population of around 250,000 in the 1940s. With “informal expansion,” the population exploded to 2.4 million by 2011. Without a plan, slums took root in undesirable locations along the slopes surrounding prime real estate in the valley. People from the countryside moved there to flee the civil war, only to find that a landslide could take away their home in an instant. Pushed up the slopes, these newly urbanized people experienced major displacement, resentment, and, later, incredible violence, fueled in part by drug lord Pablo Escobar and the many drug gangs.

Mayor Correa called 1990 to 2000 the decade of violence. Across the country, 48,000 people were murdered, with Medellin accounting for more than 20 percent of those deaths. Correa said it was no coincidence that during this decade Medellin had areas of extreme poverty and high inequality. In a clear warning to other developing world cities seeing their slums expand, he said violence and inequality are deeply connected.

To climb out of that dark place, the city’s leadership began to create a “structure for public participation” designed to bring all residents into a planning process, even in the midst of Colombia’s ongoing civil war. Three successive mayoral administrations continued the same good policies, creating momentum for the city’s long-term vision, which is to become a “city of life,” with a high-quality public transportation system, parks, and libraries accessible to all.

Empresas de Services Publico (EPM), a public-private utility that provides power, water, sewage, sanitation, and other services to the city also played an important part in making the dream become real. EPM provides hundreds of millions to the city each year, supporting the development of iconic projects like the subway, but also the extended Metro plus system, which includes a cable car that now provides connectivity to slums on the north side of the city.

On the Metro system, which is now the largest public transportation system in Colombia, Mayor Correa said “there is a real pride of the Metro, a culture of respect when you are in this space.”

The city has also financed fantastic “library-parks,” which offer both green space and a place to read. Here is the park for the Spanish Library in the hills of Santo Domingo, which used to be so dangerous the police would not even venture there.

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Parque de Biblioteca Espana / Bomb Magazine

Two new pieces of green under development include an extensive new riverfront park system, which will provide people with acccess to the Medellin river that cuts through the center of the city, and a greenway system, which will provide a “green belt” around the city, helping to reduce landslides and flooding for the poor communities along the steep slopes and perhaps pause sprawl.

Mayor Correa said green spaces are needed for both ethical and aesthetic reasons. If parks are found in all neighborhoods — rich or poor — they improve the ethical make-up of the city. Public green spaces provide “the civic realm where people can become citizens. It’s where everyone can be equal.” Parks also provide urban beauty, which Mayor Correa said is also “necessary for urban coexistence.”

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Parque Explora / Medellin 2009 blog

Another important symbol of how the city is addressing persistent inequality: new day care centers. Mayor Correa said 80,000 children have accessed these new facilities, where they get free meals and a place to play, and their parents get an opportunity to go out and work. The city’s goal is to provide 100,000 children services through 20 centers. At the other end of the educational spectrum, the city is planning two new universities that will serve low-income populations in the city. Mayor Correa wants those young people working in new innovation districts.

The mayor said Medellin still has a long way to go. The city is still far too unequal, even though it’s a bit more equal than other cities in Colombia. (Unfortunately, this is not saying that much, given Colombia is one of the more unequal countries in Latin America, itself the most unequal continent on earth).

After Mayor Correa spoke, UN-Habitat invited experts from around the world to comment on whether Medellin can really serve as a model for other cities.

Swedish Ambassador to Colombia Marie Andersson de Frutos said Medellin is a replicable model because it city government has really worked as a team with the private sector and non-profits. Medellin shows “there is no quick fix. Prescriptions can’t come from a doctor, they have to come from the whole hospital.”

Jose Carrera, Development Bank of Latin America, said Medellin correctly identified that violence was tied to inequality. The city made a great move removing one key aspect of inequality in providing clean drinking water for the whole city, rich or poor. However, he added Medellin, like many others in Latin America, still needs to do a better job of creating new jobs for unemployed youth, which face double the unemployment rates of adults just at a time when they should be most productive.

David Sims, a partner with urban design firm Gehl Architects, applauded Medellin for “incorporating terms like love, trust, equality, and pride” in its new city charter. He said these concepts are difficult to measure but vital goals. Sims said Medellin has learned that true innovation comes from “different people meeting each other and having a conversation.” He also thought the city was doing a great job of focusing on the small things that matter — how people get to work, how they live. “There is a great balance here between the tangible (the physical infrastructure) and the intangibles (the culture).”

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The American Society of Landscape Architects has launched a new Career Discovery web site to help young people explore the profession of landscape architecture. To help teachers steer young people towards the field, a new resource center has also been created, filled with classroom activities.

The Career Discovery website, aimed at students in middle school and high school, explains what a landscape architect does and how to become one. With a background that features the evolution of Columbus Circle in New York City from sketch to reality, the website shows how landscape architects creatively solve complex urban and environmental issues through design. Columbus Circle was redesigned by OLIN, a landscape architecture firm, and received a 2006 ASLA Honor Award in the General Design category.

The website also includes two videos—“Personal Paths” and “Why Become a Landscape Architect?”—featuring landscape architects and designers on why landscape architecture is the perfect career for art- and science-oriented students.

Tools for Teachers is a new education hub for K-12 teachers.  It is loaded with fun, free classroom activities that will inspire lesson plans and start classroom dialogues about landscape architecture. It includes links to all of ASLA’s educational resources, including:

“Students need to know at an earlier age why landscape architecture is a fun, rewarding, and important career that helps communities become great places to live,” said Mark A. Focht, FASLA, president of ASLA and first deputy commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation. “Our educational and career discovery resources will help them and their teachers get excited about what we do and why it matters.”

DIY Tree Art

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The Chandelier Tree / This Is Colossal

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The Chandelier Tree / This Is Colossal

For ages, trees have been a favorite subject of landscape painters. Their material has long provided substance for sculptors and crafters. Now, some contemporary artists are rediscovering the artistic effects that can be achieved with the humble tree. And, showing clear appreciation, these artists aren’t damaging the trees.

This Is Colossal tells us that Adam Tenebaum, a Los Angeles-based artist, was recently bequeathed a number of large chandeliers by a lighting-loving ancestor. Unfortunately, they were too large for his house, so he decided to create The Chandelier Tree, a one-of-a-kind installation in Silver Lake.

Here’s a documentary about the piece:

In Potsdam, Germany, street artists Daniel Siering and Mario Shu transformed an average-joe tree along a road into a startling illusion.

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Daniel Siering and Mario Shu / Street Art Utopia

They wrapped the tree in plastic sheeting and then spray-painted the background landscape on to it.

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Daniel Siering and Mario Shu / Street Art Utopia

The result looks like something from a magician’s act.

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Daniel Siering and Mario Shu / Street Art Utopia

Lastly, artist Brittany Powell created these ephemeral moss sculptures on tree trunks found on a steep trail in California.

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Brittany Powell / Low Commitment Projects

They are part of her series of “low-commitment projects,” which provide her and her friend a chance to create creative “schemes without a huge outlay of time, energy, or money.”

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Brittany Powell / Low Commitment Projects

Powell said these experiments are the “materialization of mental sketches.”

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Brittany Powell / Low Commitment Projects

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“My success is built on a mountain of failure.” This bit of wisdom among others is from Biz Stone, one of the co-founders of Twitter, who shared stories from his new book, Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind, at an event organized by the Greater Washington Board of Trade in Washington, D.C.

Stone, who is regularly cited as one of the most influential people of the information age, believes failure is inevitable, at least before stumbling upon success. “With each failure, you learn something new. You cross off the list all of the things you shouldn’t do.” Now aged 40, Stone is certainly a success. He has earned hundreds of millions from his share of Twitter, the now-ubiquitous micro-blogging services that attracts 240 million visitors each month. Twitterers send out 500 million tweets each day.

Some of Stone’s lessons learned will be useful for all design professionals:

On being entrepreneurial: “Most people think opportunity is defined. But no one takes a step back and looks at the circumstances. I made the circumstances and then took the opportunity.”

On your designer ego: “Don’t love ideas so much that other people can’t participate. Take your ego out of it.”

On creativity: “Creativity is an endlessly renewable resource.” As a part of this, Stone talked about his time designing book covers. He said he learned that “there is no one perfect book cover. There are infinite perfect covers.” If your client doesn’t like one book cover — or landscape or building design, for that matter — simply create another.

On being vulnerable: “There is value in vulnerability. We put a human face on our early failures at Twitter. Twitter wasn’t built for success. We had to do that. Our underdog image helped us.”

On leadership: “Always be positive, the north star. You have to keep your employees happy, laughing. You can’t yell at people when they are stressed out.”

On profit: “If you love what you are doing and believe that a company or product will do better by aligning with a meaningful cause, then passion will be aligned with profit. Find value and then amplify that value through a business model.”

On creating value: “You will always win if you are doing right by your users.”

On major credit card debt: “I had faith my future self would be smart enough to solve this.”

On great wealth: “It amplifies who you are. If you are a jerk, you will become the biggest jerk. If you are a thoughtful, empathetic person, you will go into philanthropy.”

On philanthropy: “You don’t need to be rich to start giving. You should give early on. In fact, giving has compound impact.”

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Place de la République before aerial view / © Air-Images.net

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Place de la République after aerial view / © TVK

A piece of Paris has been recivilized for walking (or skating, or scootering, or protesting). Taxi Drivers aren’t happy, but they’ll get over it.

By Tim Waterman

Over lunch at the cheap and cheerful Gai Moulin restaurant near the Pompidou in Paris, I spoke with the man at the next table about his experience of the Place de la République. He replied that it was outside his usual haunts, but that he had always seen the space as “a sort of absence.” This is precisely how I remembered the Place from previous trips to Paris. It was somehow dark, cold, and wet in every season; a vortex of angry traffic that made fugitives of pedestrians, a margin, a nonplace. What a pleasure, then, to return to find a space filled with warmth and activity even on a damp winter day.

The design, by the French architecture and urbanism practice Trévelo and Viger-Kohler (TVK) with Martha Schwartz Partners and the landscape architects AREAL, has brought the city back together where it had been fractured by traffic planners and years of small streetscape adjustments unaided by strategy. TVK was responsible for much of the design, the meetings, the consultations. One of the great successes of the space is owing to creative input from Martha Schwartz Partners: the partial pedestrianization of one side of the square. The other is owing to a very sophisticated grading strategy.

The Place de la République sits at the corner of the 3rd, 10th, and 11th arrondissements and at the center of a spiderweb of streets with no fewer than seven roads connecting (and more diving into forks just before). There are also five Métro lines that converge underground and eject people at five points around and within it. The square’s current shape is the result of the talented megalomaniac Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s interventions in the Second Empire. The construction of the square and the adjoining boulevards involved the destruction of a row of theaters on the Boulevard du Temple. One of the earliest known photographic images, a daguerreotype of the Boulevard du Temple, shows the area before Haussmann’s picks began to swing.

The center of the Place de la République is the top of a gentle hill on which sits a gaudy statue of Marianne, France’s national emblem, brandishing an olive branch with bombast. Before the renovations of the square she sat marooned on a traffic island, her pedestal covered with graffiti deposited during demonstrations. Now she floats over the dome of space, and the topography bends away from her and down the many radiating streets. The hilltop has been gently smoothed in every direction, which gives it a decisive tautness. It doesn’t have “hospital corners,” tucked into itself nicely as so many squares do; rather the tautness extends beyond the square and down each connecting street. As Schwartz says, “The project’s big win was to attach the square to the rest of the city.” The decisive, perhaps brutal, confidence of Haussmann’s avenues has met its complement. The square and the surrounding streets have all been joined in grand unity.

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Place de la République / © Pierre-Yves Brunaud. Picturetank

The redirection of the traffic, which partially pedestrianizes the northeastern side of the square, is almost a photocopy of London’s Trafalgar Square, which was also a choked gyre of traffic until Peter Heath, at Atkins, and Norman Foster, at Foster + Partners, corrected it in 2003. Whereas Trafalgar Square is completely pedestrianized along one side, its Parisian counterpart allows bus and taxi traffic along its quiet side. It’s hated by taxi drivers, who claim that there is now a permanent bottleneck at the Place de la République. The London version is not loved by taxi drivers either, nor by the National Gallery, which, with characteristic English reserve, claims the space is now so overrun with tourists that it has turned into an undignified carnival. In 2009 the gallery actually tried to have the traffic returned to the square.

The city of Paris is willing to wait out the taxi drivers, though. The intentions are overall to make Paris a place much friendlier to alternative transportation modes, and the hope is that congestion will ease as car usage declines. Paris also gives over automotive spaces to the pedestrians, bikes, and other wheels along the Seine during the summer when a beach appears on the road, and on Sundays all year.

On my midwinter visit the tourist throngs that plague Trafalgar Square weren’t in evidence at République, but the square was certainly thronged on my arrival. Thousands of Kurds and their supporters had turned out to protest the murder of three Kurdish activists in Paris the previous year. Flags of a variety of countries waved from the hands of young protesters who were climbing Marianne’s pedestal. Food vendors set up at the edges of the crowd, and then, lining every street in incredible numbers, there were armored gendarmes with their vehicles, drinking coffee and waiting for trouble (which never came). From my hotel room just next door we could hear the indignation of the crowds and the speakers coming in waves.

At midnight the square was full of piles of refuse being gathered together and trucks with pressure washers. A couple of flags still fluttered around the statue. The next morning, a Sunday, was clear and bright, and early on in the day the traffic around the square was light. With a cup of coffee and a croissant I watched the Place de la République awaken. First there were just a few of us—a couple of homeless people on a bench, the other coffee drinkers, a few people whizzing by on bicycles. Gradually, though, a wide variety of other types of wheeled vehicles began to appear, attracted by the large, clear, smooth space. First a father teaching his tiny son to ride his bike, then a mother and a young girl both with pink Rollerblades, and a toddler on a scooter who let it fall to the ground in order to have a good full-throated cry. Later, two girls with unicycles carefully threaded their way through a group having a kickabout with a soccer ball.

While I watched all the activity dependent upon a clear, level space, a delightful paradox became evident. The space does, as I’ve mentioned, slope off into streetscapes in every direction. It’s far from level. However, along the pedestrianized edge of the square, a series of four flights of stairs provides balconies over the space below and helps to give the illusion of levelness. Thus it is possible to stand in the square and simultaneously comprehend it as both meticulously level and pronouncedly domed. What’s even better is that this isn’t an accident. It required some very canny and careful grading. Not one of the flights of stairs meets the slope in the same way, and there are cross slopes to the cross slopes.

There’s a particular irony that Martha Schwartz Partners should have helped to design a space where the design work flies so low under the radar. Her practice is founded on her flair as a provocateur. She has always wished to move the landscape profession by exciting comment and provoking debate, and always with highly visible design overtures. “I am the army ant that sacrifices its body to build a bridge,” she says. She utterly rejects the old dogma within landscape architecture that it is at its best when it is invisible. I couldn’t help asking whether such a minimalist space was enough for her. No, of course not. If she had her way she would have swept the old plane trees away that guard one side of the space, replacing them with a series of big fountains. But it was not to be.

She explains the Place de la République’s subtlety in terms of the fabric of Paris itself. Paris doesn’t need landscape spaces that shock it back into functionality. It’s already working in so many ways, and so sure of itself. Paris, she says, “doesn’t need a defibrillator.” Still, one gets the sense she would have used one anyway if she could have. Maybe it doesn’t need it, but it can certainly take it.

There are also difficulties trying to make a design splash in a public space where so many people have ownership. “The public landscape is the most contested of all spaces,” Schwartz says. “It is where everything overlaps. It’s more political territory than it is environmental or social, for example.” In addition to the many stakeholders, how much can happen in a project depends upon the political will of the powers that be—whether they will take on risks, which may depend upon where they are in the electoral cycle. “TVK took the largest part of the project—they were sitting there with the politicians.”

It is the big moves that work here, and perhaps also all that work with the politicians. Other gestures are much less assured. The square’s simple austerity allows the warmth of human activity to fill the space. TVK seems to have become frightened of such minimalism and added to the square a small wooden stage at the southeast corner, but it looks paltry and tentative. Worse, the square is dotted with wooden benches, the outsized timbers of which seek to reference overstuffed sofas. These appear jokey and compensatory. Finally, the northwestern end of the square is held in place with a small rectangular café, grandly named the Monde and Médias Pavilion. Its glazed walls allow a seamless interaction with the surrounding space, and a roof cantilevers out over seating next to a water feature—perfect for parents wishing to watch their children. There is gently glowing lighting that adds a delicate ambience. From the water side, this is a successful ensemble, but viewed from the street side the café’s lines are far less confident. The floating effect of the cantilever doesn’t elevate the building here—it is decidedly grounded. The heavy beam that forms the cornice and counterbalances the cantilever overpowers the building with top-heaviness, and as an otherwise unadorned box the architecture offers no other tactic with which to counteract this effect. Viewed from the major approach down the Boulevard Saint-Martin across the busy street, it is a graceless and unwelcoming presence.

I leave Paris in the midafternoon and walk to the Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar back to London. The southern expanse of the Place de la République is now filled with youths skateboarding, and the clatter of boards is so constant it sounds like the pop and crackle of a poorly tuned radio. To all the other wheels in the square I add the two of my suitcase. TVK created a beautiful bande dessinée graphic to convey the various programs and activities that were to be contained within the new Place de la République, and they’re all in there—the kids, the Kurds, the skateboards. Even the sullen taxi drivers might reluctantly find themselves in the mix.

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Place de la République / © Pierre-Yves Brunaud. Picturetank

So many of the groups that have ownership of the square have been there through the weekend. The grout is already coming away between the stones from all the pressure washing at night—a direct result of so much activity. It’s gone from being an urban margin to something that integrates the city around it, making it legible. The charming little cafés near the Square du Temple are now part of the same city that contains the tranquil Canal Saint-Martin, which, just on the other side of the Place de la République, dives into a tunnel through the same hill that is crowned by Marianne. What the graphic fails to show is that the site’s narratives aren’t contained here. They are now part of all of Paris’s trajectories again—they stretch outside, they connect, and they bring the whole place into focus again.

Tim Waterman teaches at the Writtle School of Design in Essex and at the Bartlett in London. He is the author of two textbooks on landscape architecture, and he travels and speaks widely.

In honor of National Landscape Architecture Month (NLAM), the April issue of LAM is available for free.

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Pause / Shawn Lani via The Architect’s Newspaper

San Francisco has long been a test bed for innovation when it comes to its streets. With their Pavement to Parks program, the city showed how low-cost parklets and pop-up plazas can make streets much more welcoming, creating new street life where there was once only cars. Now, the city is experimenting with what they call Living Innovation Zones (LIZs), public-private spaces that also feel like design installations. The city thinks these places can become “catalysts for exploration, innovation, and play.”

The idea of the LIZ program is to express in physical form what San Francisco is all about: innovation. San Francisco sees the LIZs as a way to demonstrate the “economic and technological movements that define San Francisco today.” These public installations are people-friendly monuments to the city’s “creative expression and DIY spirit.”

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said the city’s everyday pedestrians and visitors will also benefit: “this is a whole new approach to activating our public realm.”

The first LIZ is on Market Street at Yerba Beuna Lane. The city gave a spot to the Exploratorium, the city’s museum of science, to create an interactive educational experience. The city says 20,000 people pass by the installation every day, meaning about 7 million will see it each year.

According to The Architect’s Newspaper, the Exploratorium’s LIZ is called Pause, and it was designed by that museum’s Studio for Public Spaces, along with Gehl Architects, and the Yerba Buena Community Benefit District. The installation has a set of “whispering dishes,” a musical bench “activated by hand-holding,” and a “pedal-powered cell phone charging station.”

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Shawn Lani, director of the Studio for Public Spaces at the Exploratorium told The Architect’s Newspaper that people may pick up some science while enjoying the space. “Hopefully, you develop proficiencies for seeing space, and that’s a type of learning—it’s not always about delivering that science punch line.”

This is just for the first innovation zone. The city plans ten more.

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Dry river bed. Darcha, India / Wikipedia

In the second in a series of new reports, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said the impacts of climate change are already being felt in every continent and every ocean, and the effects will only worsen as greenhouse gas emissions enter the atmosphere at an accelerated rate. Also, while some countries have started adaptation planning in earnest, the world, according to a global coalition of scientists, is largely “ill-prepared for risks from a changing climate.” The 300 scientists from 70 countries who wrote the report were assisted by 430-plus contributing authors and another 1,700 expert reviewers.

The report, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, outlines the impacts of climate change thus far, the future risks, and opportunities to reduce those risks. The report focuses in on the “vulnerable people, industries, and ecosystems around the world.”

According to The New York Times, the report itemizes immense environmental change: “ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and fish and many other creatures are migrating toward the poles or in some cases going extinct.” And it emphasizes that these changes are happening now. For example, in the American West, mountain snowpack is declining, threatening drinking water supplies. And coastal erosion due is increasingly widespread.

Environmental changes will have a certain impact on people. Communities everywhere are vulnerable but often for different reasons. “Climate change often interacts with other stresses to increase risk.”

According to the report’s scientists, climate change is now affecting “agriculture and people’s livelihoods.” For example, a coastal community may not only face sea level rise but their fishing-based economy will see dramatically decreased yields with ocean acidification. Inland tropical communities not only face increased heat and reduced water supplies, but food production will become more challenging.

Across the board, the report states that in the coming decades, “climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hotspots of hunger.”

But it may not be all doom and gloom, at least for those communities with enough money to adapt. Chris Field, Carnegie Institute for Science and co-chair of the report, said: “We definitely face challenges, but understanding those challenges and tackling them creatively can make climate-change adaptation an important way to help build a more vibrant world in the near-term and beyond.”

The report found that an increasing number of governments and major corporations are initiating far-reaching adaptation adaptation plans. As an example, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will spend $2 billion on its Rebuild by Design program. And coastal cities like New York are taking a hard look at their infrastructure. The New York Times reports that Consolidated Edison, the power utility in NY, will spend $1 billion to storm-proof its systems.

While wealthier countries have opportunities to adapt, poorer ones may not. The World Bank estimates that developing countries need $100 billion in assistance from wealthier ones to better bear the brunt of the effects. Climate change could create massive food insecurity, increasing hunger in places already vulnerable to food shortages.

Further explore the key findings through these useful infographics. The third in the series of reports will be released in April, with the final synthesis report in October 2014.

Also, see new web-based resources recently released by the Obama administration, including a set of apps to help U.S. communities adapt, as well as new tools from the World Bank for developing countries.

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