Adapting to Climate Change in Cities May Require a Major Rethink

Posted by Linda Shi on Wednesday, May 18 2016


Linda Shi

Editor's note: The following article by Fellow Linda Shi first appeared on the New Secrity Beat website.

Around the world, urbanization and climate change are transforming societies and environments, and the stakes could not be higher for the poor and marginalized. The 2015 UN climate conference in Paris (COP-21) highlighted the need for coordinated action to address the profound injustice of the world’s most disadvantaged people bearing the greatest costs of climate impacts. Among those at the COP were mayors from around the world advocating for the important role of cities in these efforts.

In theory, local urban leadership on climate adaptation could significantly reduce the vulnerability of those who need the greatest protection. More people live in cities than ever, providing an opportunity to concentrate climate investments.

In reality, most adaptation proposals try to protect existing development in coastal and low-lying urban areas in ways that perpetuate continued growth in these exposed areas. It remains unclear how large proposed infrastructure projects such as the Great Garuda Seawall in Jakarta, Indonesia, or Eko Atlantis Island in Lagos, Nigeria, will affect vulnerable groups. The fact is, there are winners and losers in urban climate adaptation projects, and it is the poorest and most marginalized who (as always) tend to lose.

The Paris talks accentuated the disparities between the capacities of different cities and peoples to adapt. Developed countries pledged $248 million in additional adaptation funding to be disbursed among the world’s 48 least developed nations, home to 932 million people. This is not even a drop in the proverbial bucket given the heightened climate change impacts expected in many of these countries.

Meanwhile, the Rockefeller Foundation announced that 22 cities, home to 33 million people, mostly in rich and middle income countries with Kigali, Rwanda, being the exception, had pledged 10 percent of their budgets, totaling $5.2 billion, for resilience projects.

Most research on urban climate adaptation has focused on the global injustice of climate impacts or case studies of local adaptation initiatives and projects. However, central questions about social equity within and across cities have not been well addressed. When do adaptation projects enhance social justice? When do they deepen disparities and marginalization? Frankly, we just don’t know.

In response, in a paper published in Nature Climate Change, my 10 co-authors and I outline a roadmap of four areas of research to shed light on the equity impacts of urban adaptation efforts and uneven planning processes. Our research strategies were developed at the memorial symposium honoring the late JoAnn Carmin, associate professor of environmental policy and planning at MIT and renowned scholar of climate adaptation and environmental justice.

Broadening Participation in Planning

The first point we found is that we need to better understand how participation in adaptation planning affects the fairness of outcomes. While there are many ways to determine fairness, government policies – from environmental justice to affirmative action – often try to level the playing field by prioritizing resources for disadvantaged groups. In cities, efforts to enhance the fairness of planning have historically translated into holding a few community meetings in affected neighborhoods.

But we also need to understand how limited government participation or a focus on private sector leadership can influence adaptation strategies. For instance, what happens when adaptation planning is conducted by environmental or planning departments, but not agencies key to social and economic wellbeing, like public health and economic development? What kind of planning or stakeholder engagement produces plans that elevate and address social vulnerability?

Communities around the globe will be adapting to climate change for the rest of this century and beyond. Without answers to such questions, we should not necessarily expect urban adaption to leave the most vulnerable better off.

Catalyzing Adaptation Across Cities 

Second, we need research on how to expand adaptation knowledge and initiatives to rapidly growing cities and those with low financial or institutional capacity.

The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group is a network of the world’s largest cities – home to half a billion people – that are engaged primarily in climate mitigation but also some adaptation efforts. Another 3.5 billion people, however, live in smaller and/or poorer municipalities, many of which are growing very rapidly and have few resources to plan for climate impacts or join global networks.

The lack of capacity in these cities presents a different kind of injustice. Resilience planning that does not address the divide in resources and proactive action could exacerbate existing development gaps between large, wealthy, global cities, and “the rest” – even though many more people live in these lesser-known urban areas. What tools, modes of engagement, or planning scales would more effectively reach them? There are not many ready answers.   

Governing the Scale of Planning

Our third area of research was spillover effects between cities. As more urban areas take up adaptation planning, it will be challenging to manage side effects. Should places like Foster City in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, build a seawall to increase its protection (and avoid FEMA flood insurance rate hikes) if it leads to greater vulnerability to floods in poorer neighboring cities? Conversely, what would induce one city to undertake adaptive actions that benefit the region but run counter to its own interests, whether that means raising taxes or foregoing development?

In addition, many adaptation strategies, from building seawalls to transportation and drainage upgrades to building codes and insurance policies, do not fall under the purview of local governments. This leads to a number of governance questions, such as, at what scales should we plan for climate adaptation? Do we have the governance mechanisms to plan for and adjudicate decisions at the metropolitan regional scale? How do we evaluate the social equity of adaptation plans at different scales? As experiences and research in these areas accrue, how do we share this knowledge with millions of localities worldwide?

Designing for Social Justice

Finally, we must critically examine the actual outcomes of new initiatives and projects. As with many infrastructure and land use interventions, adaptation projects raise a number of equity concerns. These include direct displacement through the construction or expansion of infrastructure; indirect displacement where resiliency investments lead to increased land values and “green gentrification;” social exclusion if new projects create “ecological enclaves;” and a perpetuation of past marginalization when, for instance, cities invest in protecting central business districts so they can remain in waterfronts while evicting low-income residents from waterways.

Despite the need for greater adaptation, we must ask, who drives and benefits most from “resilience building” projects? Do these interventions help those most at-risk or simply promote new waves of displacement? What criteria would help promote social justice in adaptation and resilience projects?

The magnitude of climate change impacts requires us to reexamine our models for planning. In the United States, planners and the public alike have avoided major urban interventions ever since urban renewal in the 1970s, opting instead for small-scale, community-based adjustments. Yet, projects like New York’s Rebuild by Design and itsnational follow-on program, are bringing together designers and community groups in new ways that may help us deliver more sensitive, large-scale urban projects.

Building on these efforts, we need to continue to find ways to bridge the divide between design and engineering professionals, whose training rarely touches on social equity, and policy analysts, planners, and academics, whose work often stops before the physical intervention and implementation step.

Towards Just Adaptation

Ensuring just climate adaptation policies requires systematic research that gathers and assesses empirical evidence about the outcomes of adaptation plans and implementation. As we, the collective international community, gain more experience with climate planning, identifying cases of the good, the bad, and the ugly will help us develop guiding principles, processes, models, and tools to help localities adapt. Right now, however, little of this data about how to promote socially equitable adaptation is available.

Our research points to the need to rethink who participates in adaptation planning and how. We see coalitions and dialogue between nontraditional partners, such as diverse public agencies, social and environmental justice advocacy groups, and urban design and engineering professionals, as key to transforming how people talk about and produce equitable adaptation outcomes.

Ultimately, this research agenda forces us to ask a more fundamental question: whether existing mechanisms for city planning and regional governance, created in an era when the climate was stable and most people lived in rural areas, can be the foundation of a just society when most people live in cities, the boundaries of which bleed into one another, and the climate is increasingly unstable.

Linda Shi is a PhD candidate at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, where her research examines how new regional collaboratives for climate adaptation are changing metropolitan governance in the United States. For more information about this research, please contact Linda at

Sources: 100 Resilient Cities, The Daily Journal, Fast Company, Global Environment Facility , The Guardian, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, The Jakarta Post, Nature Climate Change, San Jose Mercury News, SciDevNet, Urban Climate Change Governance Survey, U.S. Department of Housing.

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