Climate Change and Environmental Risk in the City

Environmental issues are becoming more and more a key challenge for cities around the world. C40 shows that “70% of cities are already dealing with the effects of climate change”. Cities have played a significant role in accelerating risks because of the continuous and unlimited urban growth we have witnessed in the past years. They are becoming bigger and bigger, creating over 70% of global CO2 emissions, and consuming ⅔ of the world’s energy. A striking C40 data warns us of the catastrophic effects that climate change can have on urban societies in the future: “Over 90% of all urban areas are coastal, putting most cities on Earth at risk of flooding from rising sea levels and powerful storms”.

What are the consequences of these environmental risks for the future of our cities? How to manage it? What solutions can we find?

In order to avoid any simplistic explanation on a topic of such importance and complexity, we ought to make clarity on the real terms of the discussion. What is risk and how do we define it?

Ulrich Beck sees a different and more obscure dimension to development; a “risk society” based on an acute awareness of risks and loss of faith in progress.
Even more interesting, is how this reflexive modernity embodies the exegesis of the progressive disillusion with institutional and traditional politics. According to Beck this detachment from traditional rhetorics produces a “sub-politics”, concerned with issues such as consumption and lifestyle.
Following this post-modern flavor, Beck concentrated initially on environmental issues such as the problematization of energy. Unlike goods, these “bads” could not be subject to a politics of distribution. The smog produced by domestic coal-burning, affected everyone. Because of this “egalitarian” redistributive effect, environmental hazards constitute an undiscriminated threat for everyone.

Natural hazards and disaster produce increasing catastrophes in cities (just see what has blown up Italy in the last few days!). That does not mean that other kinds of hazards are incapable of producing urban catastrophes. The answer is that natural hazards are joint products of nature and society. Unlike the other threats just mentioned, they are only partly created by humans; thus their unpredictable nature contributes to an incremental and general insecurity.

Since the industrial revolution cities are risk-producers and risk-bearers, both victims and executioners. Economic activity, sprawl and proximity have caused cities to become less and less sustainable; in particular we can infer a negative correlation between economic productivity and sustainability. Take a city-state as Singapore for example; in 1965 it was a polluter’s paradise: mucky rivers, polluted canals and raw sewage running rampant. A modern “Coke Town”. Per contra, things are changing because of the efforts of enlightened personalities. The city’s pioneer generation understood that if you make a city “a nice place to live, then people will come and invest.” Lee Kuan Yew became often called ‘Chief Gardener’ for his belief in the power of plants and biodiversity to transform people’s overall mental well-being, as well as physical spaces. Huge plants crawling up skyscrapers, natural parks and water sanitation measures (just to clean-up Singapore’s river took around 10 years!) represent a significant step towards global future objectives.

The renowned 2030 Agenda of Sustainable Development addresses global challenges such as poverty, inequality but also climate and environmental degradation Nevertheless, 12 years seem to be not enough to face multifarious issues. Concerns have been raised too by the ASviS (Alleanza Italiana per lo Sviluppo Sostenibile). In the recently issued report, the association expressed its concern with respect to the “too slow” progress towards the SDGs, both for Italy and the European Union, which should present a framework of policies by the end of the year.

The 7th Environment Action Program (EAP) constitutes for the moment, the legislative and guiding framework to work on, identifying key objectives such as the protection of natural capital; the transformation towards a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy; and to safeguard Union’s citizens fro environment-related pressures.



Therefore, we should prepare our institutions and environmental management strategies for the twenty-first century, especially in the mega-cities that will likely become the pivots of global society. Worth mentioning is what 100 Resilient Cities does and aims to; pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, their ultimate objective is to help cities to become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges – earthquakes, floods, sprawl, etc. – of the XXI century. Their philosophy is that, addressing both the shocks and the stresses, a city becomes more able to respond to adverse events, and is overall better able to deliver basic functions in both good times and bad, to all populations.

Thus, can we meet the basic needs—food, water, and energy—of a growing population and a growing economy and do better for biodiversity by 2030? If each country shows an increasing commitment towards environmental risk management, the answer will be probably an affirmative one. As James Mitchell has observed, failure to recognize natural hazards as a worsening urban problem suggests a myopic view of urban management and signals flaws in the conceptualization of sustainable development as a principle of urban management. It is to be hoped that efforts will be canalized into correcting the structural deficiencies peculiar of our risk society.