Urban Species

flood 1

“Cities are the 21st century’s dominant form of civilization — and they’re where humanity’s struggle for survival will take place … Half the planet’s population lives in cities. They are the world’s engines, generating four-fifths of the global GDP … As the economist Ed Glaeser puts it, ‘we are an urban species.’”
~ Robert Muggah and Benjamin Barber

Cities are being hit hard by climate change, and that means more and more people are being affected. People, including new immigrants, are increasingly drawn to the cities, in the hopes of finding employment and better lives. Usually, the new arrivals are relegated to the poorest and least protected areas of the cities. Cities are the melting pots of civilization, where races and cultures roil and mix together.

But cities are under siege by a variety of problems. Cities face the instability of governmental and societal structures from population changes, increasing air pollution, extreme heat, and those closest to the shores are beset by flooding due to sea level rise. Brian Kahn reports, “The fossil fuels driving climate change make people sick, and so do impacts like extreme heat, wildfires, and more extreme storms … In short, the climate crisis is a public health crisis.”

The Weather Channel reports that a high percentage of the world’s population lives in coastal areas, subject to flooding from sea level rise caused by climate change. Researchers Benjamin Strauss and Scott Kulp point out that, “Every global shore touches the same ocean, and the ocean is rising.”

Most often, the hardest hit areas are those occupied by immigrant, poorer and racial minority populations with less political clout to drive protection and reclamation efforts. Often the result is forced relocation. Flooding compounds the local problems and can exacerbate existing disparities, furthering political tensions.

But it’s not just rising seas. Researcher Jim Morrison notes, “Globally, heat is the number one weather-related killer, causing more deaths each year than floods, tornadoes, or hurricanes. Extreme heat can kill directly via heat stroke and indirectly through increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Climate models show that in some cities the number of high-heat days could double by 2040.”

Extreme heat also combines with air pollution to create unhealthy conditions. Major cities across the globe are wrestling with air pollution problems – limiting auto traffic, restricting diesel vehicles, and emphasizing mass transit systems. Meanwhile, the effects of heat and air pollution can stretch health care services, even for those that can afford them.

Researchers Somini Sengupta and Nadja Popovich note, “City dwellers want cleaner, healthier air and less traffic. The long-term payoffs can be big: Curbing transportation emissions, which account for nearly a fourth of all greenhouse gases, is vital to staving off climate catastrophes … Several (cities) have begun by making it expensive to bring older diesel cars and trucks into the city center. Some are aiming to keep out diesel vehicles altogether during rush hour and eventually all vehicles with internal combustion engines.”

So, amid the rising sea levels, increasing heat and compounding air pollution, the health of our cities impacts the function of our social and political structures. Costs associated with transportation, health care, housing and other services increase at the same time that competition for those services increases. Robert Muggah and Benjamin Barber note that “Cities are humanity’s most realistic hope for future democracy to thrive, from the grassroots to the global … What is clear, though, is that the struggle for justice, equality and sustainable growth will take place in cities … Many of the most ingenious and effective responses come from cities with intractable problems, and the fact that cities and urban residents are rolling up their sleeves and getting things done — where nations have failed — offers real grounds for hope.”

Diverse solutions are being explored. According to Morrison, extreme heat can be addressed “neighborhood-by-neighborhood, choosing from a variety of strategies that include removing or whitewashing black asphalt or roof surfaces, adding more trees for shade, requiring developers to vary the heights of new buildings to increase airflow, and opening more public air-conditioned spaces.”

He quotes researcher Vivek Shandas who says, “It’s the built environment that we’re really trying to understand because, ultimately, we’re trying to adapt the landscape to respond to this increasing frequency, intensity, and duration of heat wave.” He continues, “research has uncovered six things that affect urban heat. Three are living — the volume of the tree canopy, the height of the tree canopy, and the ground level vegetation. Three are human-built — the volume of buildings, the difference in building heights, and the coloring of the buildings … We can … ameliorate some of the effects. It ultimately comes down to how to help these people. We have the technology.”

Melissa Breyer reports on a study from Ohio State University, “Despite the proliferation of control technologies, air pollution remains a major concern across the United States, suggesting the need for a paradigm shift in methods for mitigating emissions.” Cost concerns were also studied. “They concluded that in 3/4 of the counties analyzed, it was cheaper to use plants to mitigate air pollution than it was to add technological upgrades … The power of plants could be used to help quell the impact of emissions from industrial sites, roadways, power plants, and oil and gas drilling sites.”

The solutions that address problems in cities also help to address climate change effects across the board.

As noted by Muggah and Barber, “The road ahead is pocked — cratered even — with uncertainty. There are no simple solutions to our planet’s most pressing problems.”

“In the meantime,” Melissa Breyer says, “planting trees certainly cannot hurt. They will lead to cleaner air, and have so many other benefits as well — thank you, plants and trees for taking another one for the team.”

Additional information:
Melissa Breyer, Plants Better than Tech for Reducing Air Pollution, November 7, 2019, TreeHugger Daily News
Brian Kahn, Climate Change Is Already Making Us Sick, November 13, 2019, Gizmodo
Jim Morrison, Can We Turn Down the Temperature on Urban Heat Islands?, September 12, 2019, YaleEnvironment360
Robert Muggah and Benjamin Barber, Why Cities Rule the World, May 31, 2016, ideas.ted.com
Somini Sengupta and Nadja Popovich, Cities Worldwide Are Reimagining Their Relationship with Cars, November 14, 2019, New York Times
Benjamin Strauss and Scott Kulp, 20 Countries Most at Risk From Sea Level Rise, The Weather Channel, September 25 2014

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