Cities in the Era of Climate Change

At the 2009 ASLA Annual Meeting, Alexandros Washburn, Urban Design Chief, City of New York government, argued that major cities must mitigate greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions and adapt to climate change while engaging in “resource creation.” Smart cities can adapt to climate change and create new value in the form of renewable energy and open spaces at the same time.

In total, the U.S. has 8 percent of the world population, but more than 20 percent of its GHG emissions, far more than its fair share. NYC currently has .00125 percent of the world’s population, but accounts for .00250 percent of its GHG emissions. NYC is calculating GHG emissions so they can locate sources of emissions, reduce them, and “remove the penalty of urbanization.”

New York City’s Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability is calculating New York City’s total ecological footprint and carbon footprint (which is a sub-set of a city’s broader ecological footprint). “Every city has a ecological footprint that is larger than its actual size. Vancouver, a green city, has a footprint 126 times its actual size.”

Calculating cities’ ecological footprints is especially important because the world is going urban. This past year, according to Washburn, there as many people live in cities as rural areas worldwide. Worldwide, there will be 5.34 billion people in cities by 2030. In NYC, there will be one million new people by 2030. Cities with populations ranging from 500,000 to 0ne million are growing the fastest.

Washburn noted that there are different definitions of a city. Tokyo contains some 35 million residents. Mexico City has 20 million. However, in Iceland, 200 people constitutes a city. NYC’s government is working with Columbia University’s Earth Institute to “grid the globe” and determine the population density of all areas of the earth. The numbers will enable more meaningful comparisons between cities.

Climate change can impact cities in a number of ways: storm surges, precipitation /wind, rising air temperatures, and sea level rise. The cities that will be most affected are in low-lying areas along coastlines. These cities account for 2/3 of the world’s largest, fastest growing cities, and more than 600 million people.

NYC is most concerned about a possible hurricane strike. If a major hurricane like the one that hit New Orleans hit New York City, 3.1 million houses would be affected. A small rise in sea level would inundate the subway system, the critical transportation system for the city, and overwhelm the 19th century combined stormwater / sewage system. Washburn said this outdated combined water / waste management system “must be fixed, but the costs will be unbelievably high for a city of 8 million people.”

Given the city can’t adapt to the effects of a major sea level rise (there are more than 500 miles of coastline in NYC), NYC must invest in mitigation. “Energy generation is growing 148 percent, transportation usage is growing 120 percent. We have to slow down the increase, have to mitigate.” Washburn argues that city planners can play a critical role in mitigating GHGs: “How we lay out cities has a big impact.” NYC needs to invest more in sustainable planning, transportation, and energy-efficient buildings. Cities have to create resources while adapting and mitigating GHG emissions. As examples of resource creation, NYC is investing in clean power and open spaces.

NYC must also make its own energy and food. Washburn cited vertical farming as a useful strategy (see earlier post and interview with Dickson Despommier). However, instead of skyscrapers, Washburn thinks underused industrial buildings at the city’s fringe are better places for hyper-efficient indoor farms.

Washburn offered some examples of successful combined climate change adaptation and resource creation programs:

Cheongyecheon, South Korea: The mayor of Seoul saw an opportunity to restore a damaged river running through the city. The mayor removed the highway on top of the river, and created dense parks at the riverside. The restored river park serves a key adaptation function — it provides flood control — while also serving as a new green resource for the city. Washburn said “that young mayor went on to become president of South Korea” (see earlier post on this project).

Kibera, Kenya: Development agencies and local community organizations in one of Kenya’s worst slums helped turn human waste that was previously slung into the community’s river into compost. The compost is now used for local agriculture.

Bogota, Columbia: The mayor of Bogota recently said citizens with a 30 dollar bike are equal to citizens with a 30,000 dollar car. To prove this, the mayor closed off more than 70 miles of streets to cars for Ciclovia, a weekend program. The Mayor also created one of the largest networks of bike paths in Latin America and a rapid bus transit system. (NYC’s summer streets and rapid bus system were modeled after Bogota’s).

Posona 2, Tokyo: A unused bank vault in central Tokyo has been turned into a model underground farm. Using hydroponic growing systems and grow lights, the project is a model for urban agriculture. The project also helps train under-employed youth on the most cutting-edge agricultural technologies, giving them a push into a movement Washburn thinks will take off in urban areas.

Brazil’s Favelas: In Rio and other Brazilian cities, there are “walled fortresses” sealing off the planned urban infrastructure from the unplanned favelas. These need to be removed. Washburn argues that “cities can’t reach equilibrium without shared infrastructure and social equality.” Washburn cites an anonymous French artist who worked with favela residents to highlight the lack of infrastructure. The artist plastered large scale pictures of residents across buildings, stairways and other areas to demonstrate that real people live in these communities. Washburn thinks public art can play a role in developing a new “green civic,” highlighting inequality, and is a form of resource creation.

Other adaptation / resource creation projects cited as examples by Washburn: Masdar City, Abu Dhabi; Eco-Viiki, Finland; Marina Barrage, Singapore; and a new master plan incorporating high-speed rail in Stuttgart, Germany.

One thought on “Cities in the Era of Climate Change

  1. Patrick Janiak 09/22/2009 / 6:11 am

    Another person told me how excited she was about hearing Alexandros Washburn speak, so I thought I’d sit in the front row. I was so excited after this session, I had butterflies in my stomache! I can’t say that happens too much, but this got me so excited about being in the right profession, Thanks Alex. There were so many examples about how Landscape Architecture is the “New Civic Virtue.” This was exactly the type of presentation recent graduates need to hear, when we begin to question what we just spent the past 5 to 10 years trying to become, only to be left wondering if we shouldn’t have studied something that we could actually get a job in. This reminds everyone what the possibilities of our profession can bring and how you can transform cities and communities through innovative landscape architecture.

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