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After new climate change report, can cities take the heat?

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Remodelling the way the world’s cities are built is a popular answer to fighting climate change. Sarah Bates and Simon Basketter discuss how the built environment affects our lives—and powerful forces to be overcome if we’re to win change
Issue 2800
City burning and flooding

Cities are causing climate destruction, and it’s only set to worsen

A new report into escalating climate catastrophe raises how designing global cities differently could stop environmental collapse. “We are at a crossroads”, said Hoesung Lee, chair of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose latest report issued yet another dire warning. “The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future. We have the tools and know-how to limit warming.” Big problems require big solutions. Cities—how they are designed, ­constructed and fuelled—are a critical battle in the climate crisis war.

Some 4.2 billion people—55 percent of the world’s population—live in cities. And that number is expected to increase to 68 percent by 2050. It’s true that there are different ways cities can be built and run to help the climate. But there are limitations to how much difference these cities can really make. In reality they would require replanning the entire system we live under. Barriers to these new cities are not technological advancements—it’s the way capitalism is built to prioritise profit. We cannot address how to change where we live by leaving the system intact.

The IPCC says that there are just three years left to reach peak greenhouse gas emissions. And it wrote that the world would need to become “net zero”—emitting the same amount of carbon as is generated—by 2050. To address the problem, the IPCC calls for a “deep decarbonisation and systemic transformation” in how cities are designed and function. “The exciting message with cities is that it’s not too late to do something,” said report author Karen Seto. 

“We’re going to be adding 2.5 billion more people to urban areas by 2050—and a lot of those cities have not been built yet. The world is adding a new city of 1 million every 10 days, the pace of development is still very high, but there’s still a lot that can be done.” The report makes three main suggestions to lower emissions. It says cities should electrify ­transport, plan neighbourhoods so they’re easy to walk around and use nature as a way to trap and store carbon. 

Some of these attempts at adaptation are already underway, such as the idea of a “15 minute city”. This would make ­everything people need on a daily basis accessible within a 15 minute walk or bike ride from their homes. The latest report said a move to 15 minute cities could help cut urban emissions by 25 percent. And it calls for the creation of more green spaces, such as green roofs and small urban forests, to capture and store carbon. As well as helping with carbon emissions on a global level, the idea also helps bring down temperature around the building. And it would break up the lethal “heat island” effect experienced in big cities.

Using nature as a flood defence system, like the “sponge cities” of China, will also make big cities—most of which sit on the coast—more resistant to extreme weather. Rapid urbanisation across China is wreaking damage on local environments. Massive investment has gone into creating “eco corridors” of ­waterways and vegetation that are able to quickly absorb large amounts of water. It’s right to raise these demands and using the latest technology will be necessary to address climate chaos. 

Yet it is not enough to save us—to do this we have to address the wider system we live in. By its very nature capitalism pushes the development of cities, which causes both slums and mansions side by side. London, the city with the most millionaires in Europe, also has the biggest inequality gap. The structural limitations of ­capitalism—including multinational developers and landowners—aren’t going to invest in green cities if it costs them. That’s why it would require a social movement on mass scale to save the planet from impending crisis. Under capitalism decisions are made in a chaotic way.  

One city could design amazing net zero buildings, while another constructs developments in a way that is hugely damaging to the environment. National and local governments aren’t keen to invest in long-term urban ­projects that will only begin to reap ­benefits long past the next election. They’d rather sell land to save money to profit-hungry developers. Private firms, who exist to ruthlessly exploit individuals and the planet, want fast returns. Fundamentally challenging a carbon belching system sits directly opposed to their interests.

The electrification of transport is a good example. Such a massive shift would require every government and private corporation—including the fossil fuel giants—to write off the billions they’ve already invested. Utopian projects that look to save the planet without social transformation are not helpful in the long term. And they do nothing to address the rest of the system causing the planet to burn and choke. The gentle suggestions of the IPCC should remind us that we have to fight the climate crisis. But to do that we must win a new society that puts ordinary people first. 

Nigeria—a tale of two cities

Large scale adaptation to climate crisis remains something of a pipe dream, but the rich are already preparing their battlements. Lagos in Nigeria is Africa’s most populous city. Some 24 million people live there, yet it’s set to become uninhabitable by the end of the century because rising sea levels will engulf the low-lying city. It is decimated every rainy season and the coastline is eroding, making the city even more vulnerable to flooding. Local climate activists are desperate for proper funding to make the city adapt holistically to climate catastrophe. 

Lagos, like so many others, is a tale of two cities. Rising flood waters aren’t set to bother the residents of the gigantic Eko Atlantic city being built on the affluent Victoria Island. The rich will gain from a sea wall that will be 8 kilometres long to protect their luxury flats. Eko Atlantic is an example of how “climate adaptation” by the rich can actually compound the chaos for the poor. Residents of nearby Okun Alfa community say construction of the new city means their coastline settlement is more likely to be swept away. They say that dredging the coast bed for construction has meant sea surges have become ever more devastating for their homes and lives.

It’s also true that many cities in the global south are different to those in Europe and the US. Many, such as Lagos, are made up of vast regions, cut off from even basic services, around the city. The people within are abandoned by authorities, left to find their homes in the city’s infrastructure overspills such as motorways.

This is why we must act

Some of the hottest cities in the world are set to have temperatures soaring to such a degree that will threaten human life even further. The IPCC report recommends older buildings be retrofitted with devices to cope with sweltering temperatures and new construction taking into account a hotter world. Cities can suffer from the effect known as “urban heat islands”.  

This is where asphalt, concrete and other building materials trap heat more effectively than vegetation, making cities so much warmer than rural areas. The report calls for an increase in nature in cities through such measures as urban forests or “green roofs” full of plant cover. Yet many people in some of the hottest and poorest parts of the world don’t have a regular energy supply at the moment. 

Iraq is a particularly brutal example as its temperature is rising twice as fast as the global average. It recorded a temperature of 51.7 degrees Celsius on 28 July 2020. As temperatures soared in Baghdad in June 2021, power outages left many of the 7.5 million residents without fans or air conditioning. It led to mass protests over power supply problems and government inaction.

Marx, Engels and the city as a site of capitalist accumulation

Revolutionaries Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels pointed out that the growth of cities gave rise to a series of contradictions in the countryside. This included, importantly, declining soil fertility. At the same time the city saw the impoverishment of the working class, segregation and environmental degradation. As Marx put it, “Even the need for fresh air ceases to be a need for the worker. Man reverts once more to living in a cave, but the cave is now polluted.”

The capitalist city came out of transformations in relations of production in agriculture and manufacturing. The theft and enclosure of common land led to the exclusion of agricultural labourers from the means of agricultural production. At the same time manufacturing entailed a rapid expansion in the demand for workers in industrial centres. Engels noted every large city has at least one slum. He described how cities were built with exploitation of empire and the importation and then discrimination against immigrants. 

He insisted they matter to class formation. There are sites of paid production—workplaces—and spaces of reproduction—neighbourhoods. This has contradictory implications for collective action. The unification of working class life has a tendency towards separation along occupational and ethnic lines. Cities created rapid increases in productivity which generated not only poverty, but also fantastic concentrations of wealth. 

Capitalist cities require states putting productive resources and infrastructure in specific locations. The state plays an important role in coordinating urban labour markets, organising private and collective consumption, elaborating strategies for infrastructural investment, and defusing resistance to exploitation. Much of east Asian recent urbanisation conforms to the classical relationship between industrial growth and rural–urban migration, as described by Marx and Engels. Cities are not just spaces of exploitation—they are battlegrounds.

Cities have even created their unique form of resistance—the urban riot. Conflicts over whose space is whose and how it is run come out in every housing campaign and fight to save a tree or a park. Blocking a road is transgressive to the normal running of capitalist society. Streets are for traffic and the smooth running of commerce. They are not—as every cop is there to remind you—your streets. Controlling space has to be central to any vision of changing society. While battles over common spaces have been part of class struggle for hundreds of years, the fight to disrupt or reclaim capitalist space is central to modern resistance.

Controlling streets begs a question about who controls the buildings on either side. We need different planning. We need more interventions, regulations that favour the working class and the environment—and a limit to the power of capital. But Engels’s conclusion in The Housing Question can be applied to broader environmental questions. He concluded that under capitalist conditions, housing problems can only be moved around, not solved. By taking control of our cities we will be able to rebuild the link with town and country and transform them into spaces that are liveable.

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