Eric Klinenberg: Adaptation: How can cities be “climate-proofed”?


Published in The New Yorker on 1/7/2013

by Eric Klinenberg


For the past decade and a half, governments around the world have been investing in elaborate plans to “climate-proof” their cities—protecting people, businesses, and critical infrastructure against weather-related calamities. Much of this work involves upgrading what engineers call “lifeline systems”: the network infrastructure for power, transit, and communications, which are crucial in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Some of the solutions are capital-intensive and high-tech; some are low- or no-tech approaches, such as organizing communities so that residents know which of their neighbors are vulnerable and how to assist them. Even if we managed to stop increasing global carbon emissions tomorrow, we would probably experience several centuries of additional warming, rising sea levels, and more frequent dangerous weather events. If our cities are to survive, we have no choice but to adapt. Writer speaks with Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at Columbia University. Genuine adaptation, Jacob believes, means preparing for the inevitable deluge. “The ocean is going to reclaim what we took from it,” he said. He thinks that New York can learn from Rotterdam, which has a long history of flooding. After enduring a devastating storm surge in 1953, Rotterdam began building a series of dams, barriers, and seawalls. It’s now experimenting with an architecture of accommodation: it has a floating pavilion in the city center, made of three silver half spheres with an exhibition space that’s equivalent to four tennis courts, and buildings whose façades, garages, and ground-level spaces are engineered to be waterproof. It also has a resilient power grid, designed to withstand strong winds and heavy rain, with power lines which are primarily underground and encased in water-resistant pipes. The island nation of Singapore offers other lessons. Singapore began adapting to dangerous weather thirty years ago, after a series of heavy rains during monsoon season caused repeated flooding in the low-lying city center. Mentions Singapore’s Marina Barrage and Reservoir, which opened in 2008. Still, a strategy of resilience will involve more than changes to our physical infrastructure. Increasingly, governments and disaster planners are recognizing the importance of social infrastructure: the people, places, and institutions that foster cohesion and support. “There’s a lot of social-science research showing how much better people do in disasters, how much longer they live, when they have good social networks and connections,” says Nicole Lurie, a former professor of health policy who has been President Obama’s assistant secretary for preparedness and response since 2009. Discusses, at length, the case of a deadly 1995 heat wave in Chicago, during which people living in neighborhoods with stronger social networks fared better than people who lived in comparable, but less socially cohesive, neighborhoods. Since 1995, officials in Chicago have begun to take these factors into account. City agencies have maintained a database that lists the names, addresses, and phone numbers of old, chronically ill, and otherwise vulnerable people, and city workers call or visit to make sure they’re safe. Writer travels to Rockaway, Queens, where the Rockaway Beach Surf Club has become the main community organization, providing food, cleaning supplies, camaraderie, and manual labor for nearby residents after Hurricane Sandy. Discusses the likely costs of infrastructure investments, and how those costs compare to the investments which were made, after September 11th, to guard against terrorism. Discusses the arguments for and against large-scale projects such as seawalls and other barriers. Mentions how “climate-proofing” investments might benefit communities in other, non-disaster-related ways.


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Archive type: Academic Article
Year: 2013
Author(s): Klinenberg, E.
Working Group: Oikos
Format: Journalism