This post begins with the foundational assumption – foundational fact, really – that the world is warming. Our climate is changing, and that’s not an assumption, that’s a fact. Last year was the second warmest year on record in the US; 2012 was the warmest year recorded. We experienced a series of climate-related storm/fire/flood events, and around the world we’ve seen several extreme droughts in the last few years. 

It’s easy to find people, and when I say “people,” I mean pundits and politicians, who are eager to convince you that climate change is a theory, that it’s not proven, and/or that there’s nothing we can do about it. These claims are politically charged, and in the dark magic of our times, that makes the facts that we just saw politically charged, EVEN THOUGH THEY ARE FACTS.

Our task here is not to debate the cause of climate change or what actions should be taken to limit greenhouse gas emissions and eventually to reduce them. Our task, regardless of each of your beliefs and place along the political spectrum, is to discuss the city in a warmer world, and the facts demonstrate that it is a warmer world. 

So: what next? What does the heat of a warmer world mean for urban environments and their residents? What does it mean for urban design? 

We know quite a bit about climate change at this point. Once the Pope and 190+ countries get on board with something, it’s officially big news. We, in this class, know more about climate change now thanks to the readings recommended by Rachel May at SU Sustainability and tweeted @susandieterlen with #citybynext. Rachel also recommends Climate Wire, a subscription-only resource you can access here . She also recommended Vox and Grist more generally. New information is constantly coming out about climate change, so you need to stay up to date with resources like theses.  

Some of the highlights (?) of climate change impacts at the scale of the postindustrial city include more unpredictable or extreme weather (called “global weirding”) and its impacts in turn, including flooding and landslides, extreme heat events, and power outages due to storm events. While some places (California?) are becoming drier, here in the Northeast we expect to become rainer, which brings a different set of challenges. There’s a substantial public health angle here, not just from heat and natural disasters, but from infectious disease shifts due to changing weather and climate refugees. Declining air quality due to more pollen and mold, as well as ground-level ozone, is an issue, particularly in urban areas where air quality is already poor. 

In fact, one of the more insidious and sinister aspects of climate change and the city is that many climate change impacts turn up the heat, in a somewhat dreadful play on words, under existing urban problems. Climate change impacts makes these problems wicked-er. Combined sewers overflow more as rainfall and storm events increase. Inner-city asthma rates increase due to that declining air quality. Already-vulnerable populations take the brunt of extreme heat events, a killer that flies under the radar but that the CDC takes very seriously. Inequality matters more in a warmer world. Resilience becomes more necessary all the time.

Whenever you read this, chances are excellent that there will be a new story about some aspect of climate change and its impacts out today. We in environmental design fields are grappling with how to design, build, and retrofit places in this new context. It’s tempting to view this as a game of catch-up or a huge limitation – “climate change ate my design.” I propose that climate change impacts are a constraint, like any other constraint in that established design language of “opportunities and constraints.” And like any other constraint, it’s inspiration waiting to happen. The biggest obstacle to a great design is a blank slate. You need some boundaries, some context, to make it real enough to mean anything. This isn’t Sketch-Up. 

Should you need it, there is ample motivation or inspiration in the need to reduce greenhouse gas levels – to reduce, not just mitigate. The challenge lies in breaking this global effort down to the scale of a single design decision. What does a warmer world mean for this flooring tile, this section of curb, or this window?

How can urban design simultaneously address climate change at multiple scales? 

Let’s find out.

WHAT DO I DO FOR CLASS? 

  • Read this post and click on all the links within it. 
  • Read the articles; review (that means look through, but don’t read every word) the websites.
  • Think about what you agree with, what you disagree with, and what doesn’t make sense to you. 
  • Come to class prepared to talk to your classmates about it.