John Metcalfe of the excellent The Atlantic Cities site wrote today that ‘unprecedented high temperatures pushed the planet to one of the top-10 warmest years on record; in the United States, it was the hottest year known to humankind, with a particularly brutal heat wave punishing citizens in the summer. Dozens of people died, highways buckled, and farmers kicked at barren fields during the worst drought in 50 years.’
We are seeing what some have referred to as ‘global weirding’ – with abnormally high (or low), dry (or wet) seasons across the globe. Significant rainfall, falling in extreme bursts that our landuse patterns and drainage systems simply cannot cope with, has caused massive damage in the Indian Sub-Continent, China, Australia, the USA and Europe in the last couple of years. Close to home, here in the UK, we have seen a warmer summer for the first time since 2006. But that has come at a cost.
And whilst heat has been a problem, along side that we have seen flash flooding on a scale that has seen people lose their homes, their livelihoods and their possessions. In upland hill towns in Calderdale, England the effect has been devastating: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leeds-22960628
What does this mean for cities? Climate change puts a magnifying glass on all the issues of social, economic and environmental inequality. Increased temperatures, storminess and rainfall will only widen those inequalities. Those who cannot afford to keep their properties dry, cool (and warm) and protected from structural damage will suffer more. It is these communities that should be given priority, particularly where there is evidence of poor health that compounds these issues.
Here in Sheffield, the ‘State of Sheffield 2013
‘ report says ‘There is clear evidence that the climate is already changing, and the years ahead will be about adapting Sheffield to a different environmental future, and mitigating the impacts of global ecological change. Many of the significant factors that contribute to a sustainable environment remain largely invisible – the quality of the air, the release of
carbon into the atmosphere, the use of energy. ‘
Direct effects of climate change on cities and citizens are, without doubt, beginning to be clear and policy makers must take that into account. You cannot, and should not, plan for yesterday’s climate. You have to consider the evidence and the projections of climate change 20, 30, 50 years hence. Observations in 2013 largely mirror the projections put forward by scientists in recent years – so let’s start to implement the measures we need to protect our citizens and the infrastructure of our cities. That will mean new strategies for managing water, with city authorities having a greater say in the capture, storage, movement, treatment, use and disposal of water – with an emphasis on efficiency, reduction and re-use. We certainly cannot continue to treat all water to drinking standards for flushing toilets or watering lawns.
Urban areas need to be un-sealed so that hard surfacing is replaced with exposed soils, green spaces and water: green and blue spaces for leisure, recreation and urban cooling and flood mitigation.
Of course, lessons can be learnt from other cities where, over time, cultures, expectations, lifestyles, housing, diet, education, clothing and fashion, take into account climate.
It is time to learn those lessons – and fast.