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Francesca Vietor

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Climate Change and Urban Sustainability: Building the Infrastructure for Resilience

Posted: 09/30/2013 5:50 pm

In 2009, for the first time ever, a majority of the world's population lived in cities. By 2030, six out of ten people will live in cities. By 2050, that number will grow to seven out of ten. That is three billion additional urban dwellers forecasted by 2050.

Our urban centers are rapidly growing, and we are ill-prepared to meet the challenge. Our climate is changing, and our urban infrastructure is crumbling. Our energy grid has never been more fragile, our landfills are close to overflowing (maybe because we waste almost half of our food?), and our water and wastewater transport and treatment system is in a state of disrepair. The majority of our tax dollars continue to get directed to building highways instead of public transit, and the American Dream seems further out of reach than ever before.

So, what do we do? How do we build our urban centers so that we are both climate resilient and able to keep up with our growing population? How can we engage our communities and urbanites while we build the green job economy that holds such promise?

First, cities need to get a lot smarter about how they use their water and energy, where their food comes from, how they move people around, and where they build housing. Healthy food, adequate clean water, accessible transit, and affordable housing are the building blocks of a quality urban life.

To fuel our growing cities, we will need reliable, local, and renewable energy. California has blazed the path toward this clean energy future with a host of regulatory, legislative, and financial tools, from its landmark AB32 legislation, to community choice aggregation, to clean fuel vehicles. We need to localize these programs in our cities, and institutionalize them from the ground up.

Then there is water, our municipal lifeblood. Climate change will cause water shortages for an additional 100 million urbanites by 2025. We need to rapidly move toward investing in green infrastructure and diversifying our water supplies. The multiple benefits of green infrastructure can no longer be ignored -- it is not just about storm water management, but the data now shows that green infrastructure can boost everything from a city's carbon sequestration to its economic vitality. Recycled water, improved groundwater management, water efficiency, grey water systems, and rainwater catchment are a few of the many water diversification and conservation tools that urbanites can use today to help build a resilient urban water system.

Transit-oriented, energy-efficient developments (TOD) must also become a priority in our city planning if we are going to move the dial on climate change and create livable cities. TOD is a type of community development that includes housing, office, retail, healthy food, and other amenities in a walkable neighborhood and located within a half-mile of transit. TOD is the sustainable solution to everything from housing affordability, to traffic congestion, to climate change. Plus, it can provide safe, green places for our children to play, and for our parents to grow old.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to invest in and lift up our most entrepreneurial and determined community leaders to get the job done. By 2050, people of color will become the majority, and immigrants will account for two-thirds of urban growth by 2025. We need to provide education, job training, and green-collar opportunities to this growing demographic, include them in decision-making at all levels, and recognize the important role they play in a healthy urban infrastructure.

If we move quickly to engage our communities and leaders in the building of a sustainable urban infrastructure, we may yet provide the resiliency we need to adapt to a rapidly changing climate.

My eight-year-old urbanite will thank you.

 

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