MIT Says Climate Change Now Mainstream in City Planning

MIT Says Climate Change Now Mainstream in City Planning

An increasing number of cities around the world now include preparations for climate change in their basic urban planning, but only a small portion of them have been able to make such plans part of their economic development priorities, according to a unique global survey of cities released June 2014. The Urban Climate Change Governance Survey (UCGS) is based on responses from 350 cities worldwide. It underscores the extent to which city leaders recognize climate change as a major challenge as they try to figure out how their responses can create jobs, growth and cost savings in areas ranging from transportation networks to distribution of businesses.

“Climate change isn’t an isolated issue,” says Alexander Aylett, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), and the lead author of the Report. “It has large implications for all aspects of urban life. What we are seeing is cities starting to build climate change into the DNA of how they approach urban planning.”

According to the findings, 75 percent of cities worldwide now tackle climate-change issues as a mainstream part of their planning. And, 73 percent are attempting both climate mitigation and climate adaptation. That is, they are trying both to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and to adapt to long-term changes already in motion. But only 21 percent of cities report tangible connections between the response to climate change and achieving other local development goals.

Aylett calls it a “cliché” that environmental and economic progress cannot coexist and cites a number of cities where jobs and growth have derived from climate-change efforts. Portland, Ore., he observes, developed incentives, training and regulations to help sustainable construction firms grow.  A pilot program called “Clean Energy Works Portland” employed 400 workers to reduce home energy use, thus reducing carbon emissions by 1,400 metric tons annually.

Urban planners in Alberta, Aylett notes, have studied the cost savings associated with limiting metropolitan sprawl and concluded that denser development could save $11 billion in capital costs throughout the next 60 years and $130 million in annual maintenance. But most cities, he suggests, have simply not yet identified ways to link climate planning and economic development in the first place.

“It isn’t so much that it’s hard to reconcile economic and environmental priorities,” Aylett says. “It’s that we’re not trying.”

Regional Differences Remain

The new report is a companion to a survey conducted in 2012. This year’s results revealed continuing regional disparities in urban climate planning. Compared with the global average of 75 percent, US cities lag in planning for both mitigation and adaptation with just 58 percent of cities addressing both. This echoes the 2012 survey, which revealed that a smaller portion of US cities were doing basic climate-change planning compared with those in other regions — 59 percent in the United States, for instance, compared with 95 percent in Latin America.

Globally, 63 percent of cities say they have between one and five employees dedicated to climate-change planning while North American cities are most likely to have just one staff member focused on the topic. According to the Report’s executive summary, “A lack of funding to hire sufficient staff to work on climate change is a significant challenge for 67 percent of cities.”

On a different note, about 85 percent of cities have conducted an inventory of local greenhouse-gas emissions. And 15 percent, as part of that effort, have tried to track emissions that stem from goods and services consumed within that city. As Aylett points out, “Beginning to address these upstream emissions is crucial if cities are going to help reduce global emissions.”

Results also reveal that local industries and businesses are relatively disengaged with urban responses to climate change. About 25 percent of cities say that local businesses have been crucial to creating and implementing their climate mitigation plans whereas 48 percent report that local civil-society groups, such as nonprofits or other organizations, have been involved in climate planning.

The survey is a collaboration between DUSP and ICLEI, the world’s largest association of cities. The Report was being released in conjunction with an ICLEI-backed conference on urban planning held in Bonn, Germany. To conduct the survey, questionnaires were sent to officials in more than 700 cities worldwide with 48 percent of them responding to a set of 69 queries.