Cities and Climate Change adaptation: Can we learn from each other?

By Melanie Lombard, Hallsworth Fellow and Alfredo Stein, Lecturer in Urban Development, both at the Global Urban Research Centre.

Image: Household adaptation measures to severe weather, 29 de Octubre Barrio, Estelí, Nicaragua. Source: Global Urban Research Centre


The United Nations’ selection of Cities and Climate Change as the theme for World Habitat Day is a significant and welcomed event. Although climate change has become increasingly prominent on the international development agenda, historically the focus has been on the effects it has on rural environments and agricultural production. This is slowly changing. Given the fact that more than half of the global population now lives in urban areas and that the majority of urban growth this century will take place in low and middle income countries, the effects of climate change on cities are likely to be high up on the development agenda for the foreseeable future.

Many cities are already experiencing the effects of extreme weather disasters generated by climate variability, exacerbating existing patterns of urban vulnerability caused by poverty and inequality. Settlements constructed on flood plains or in landslide zones by low-income residents faced with no alternative housing options present a highly visible risk. Less noticeable but no less severe are the effects of severe weather on shack housing lacking basic services, such as heat stress, heavy rains and recurring storms.

The UN Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen in 2009 signalled the importance of moving from a focus on mitigation – in other words, interventions to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases – to adaptation, or how socio-economic systems can cope with and build long term resilience to the effects of climate change. Adapting cities to the effects of climate change requires a commitment from city governments to allocate and invest resources in infrastructure and technology. Such a commitment may be hard to conceive in situations where resources are scarce at the local level, and other needs require urgent attention.

However, rather than seeing this as a zero sum equation, city governments could instead mainstream climate change adaptation into urban policies more generally. Recent research undertaken by the Global Urban Research Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, Estelí, Nicaragua and Cartagena, Colombia, shows that in many cities of the global South, poor communities, households and small businesses are already adapting their assets through small, incremental measures to changing weather patterns. This suggests potential for urban governments to recognise and build on these innovative, low-cost responses already taking place in vulnerable neighbourhoods and incorporate them into broader settlement upgrading programmes.

But the potential for learning from the poor goes beyond the city level. While global problems suggest global responses, they also provide an opportunity for transnational learning. In cities of the global North, governments are responding to the need for climate change adaptation through existing planning frameworks and infrastructure networks, applying the latest technology usually through top-down frameworks. Meanwhile, in the global South, communities are developing their own adaptation strategies, often without central and local government support. What would happen if the two approaches were brought together? Applying community-driven adaptation responses from the global South to a Northern context could facilitate greater citizen participation, flexibility and ad hoc responses. Meanwhile, transfer of planning processes and infrastructure knowledge from the North to city governments of the South could strengthen their capacities to support existing community driven efforts to adapt to climate change. As well as being one of the biggest development challenges of this century, climate change thus also offers opportunities to improve the way we plan – and participate – in cities.

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