“Why cities?” is a question I am often asked. And to someone who has spent more than 30 years involved in municipal politics, it’s a question that makes little sense, because to me it is obvious why cities are acting on climate change: because they can. And they must.
First of all, the world is now more urban than not — and this is a relatively recent change. In the first decade of this century, for the first time in the history of human civilization, urban populations surpassed rural. From the beginning of civilization, humans were predominantly rural agrarian populations — but no longer. And the trend to urbanization is only growing more pronounced as populations in China and India move to urban areas from rural. The world is getting increasingly urban, and this century will be defined by this historic change.
City governments have different structures and powers in different countries. But there are significant similarities. Almost always they are responsible for planning — for setting a future vision for the city and making the rules about what types and sizes of buildings can be built and where. Where will industry go? Commercial building like offices and shops? Single-family houses? Apartments? Parks? Schools?
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This power to set where and how buildings will be built is often accompanied by the power to regulate or the ability to influence the type of building through building codes. These codes set the material and other standards for the buildings and are detailed and powerful, as they set the rules for an entire industry.
There is one other crucially important thing about the responsibility for planning: by law, city governments are required to consult with residents about the city plan (in Canada these are called official plans — the overall vision for the city — and this term will be used here for convenience) and individual development applications. As a result, city governments have developed robust resident-engagement processes that give local residents a very real say over decisions that affect their lives and their neighbourhoods. There is a lively, robust, and extremely healthy local democracy, in which the voices of local residents are heard, and they can and do participate in decisions made by city hall — well beyond planning. One of the results of this healthy local democracy is that elected members of city council tend to be grassroots politicians who regularly engage and listen to people and vote with the expressed wishes of their constituents at the forefront of their minds.
Furthermore, the responsibilities of cities lead to a direct and obvious connection to environmental solutions. Cities are responsible for parks. For trees. For housing. For public transportation. For water and sewers. Waste management. For income support, economic development, and public health. Often for schools and education as well — in short, for the services that affect people’s everyday lives the most. And many of these responsibilities have a significant impact on the environment, if it chooses. For example, public-health authorities will have a responsibility for air quality, as poor air is a significant health issue. Clean water and waste management have direct links to environmental issues; as a result, cities have for a very long time been responsible for and acted against environmental challenges.
The final point is of tremendous importance: in most of the world, cities have a directly elected mayor or governor, ultimately having overall responsibility for the city government — for its plans, policies, and actions. This role of a mayor can be instrumental and transformative for a city; because of the dual responsibility for both the development and detailed implementation of policy, there is a tremendous potential for effective action by city governments. And there is a history of such actions — we take sewers and clean water for granted in North American cities, but sewers originally were a public-health response to significant outbreaks of disease, particularly in low-income communities, resulting from the use of open sewers for human waste. A history of activist policies combined with effective actions (often with social-justice implications) is embedded in the history and DNA of cities.
Mayors and climate change
Why are mayors interested in climate change? First of all, many simply recognize the moral, ethical, and practical urgency in addressing climate change. Others are smart politicians who listen to the voters. But most of all, the mayors of the world’s great cities are acting on climate change because they must. Cities are already experiencing the impact of climate change, and unlike national governments, mayors cannot wait to act. Mayors have a unique combination of the compulsion to address this issue — because of their residents’ expectation of action — and the ability to act.
Cities that have been hit by super storms, such as Houston, New York, and New Orleans, do not have the luxury of debating whether climate change is real. The mayors of those cities needed to lead both the reconstruction that was necessary after hurricanes Harvey, Sandy, and Katrina and the building of cities that in the future will be far more resilient in the face of storms. Right now, we are seeing an increase in the frequency and severity of storms that is almost indisputably a result of climate change. In this context, it is completely understandable that mayors faced with the significant financial and human cost of these storms would support initiatives to mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions in order to address the underlying causes that are so seriously impacting their cities.
Cities in different countries, provinces, and states have different powers and abilities, but mayors have one thing in common: the history and expectation of action. City governments tend to be less driven by ideological differences and are more practical: responsibilities such as overseeing new development, construction of parks, water and sewers, transportation, housing and other services for low-income residents all require that mayors act, and act in an effective way. While politicians from different political backgrounds might choose to address those challenges with different solutions, a mayor cannot simply pass legislation and then do nothing — residents of cities demand and expect real action.
This background has led to cities being unique incubators of interesting ideas and actions on climate change. At this moment in the world’s history, this catalogue of actions is critical. It is clear that the measures taken to date by national governments are insufficient to meet the collective challenge of climate change. Indeed, some reports suggest that the current levels of action by governments will lead to a four-degree temperature rise by the end of this century, with resulting disastrous changes to the global climate and serious impact on human life, the forced resettlement of tens of millions of people due to desertification and crop loss, the necessity to rebuild cities to deal with sea-level rise, and the increasing severity and frequency of storms, not to mention significant impact on nature.
If we are to build on the accord reached in Paris and hold global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, it is critical that we start today. And this is where the leadership of global mayors and cities matters most. Because if we are to solve climate change, we need to start making changes now. The actions of the leadership of the world’s great cities shows us how.
Excerpted with permission from Solved: How the World’s Great Cities Are Fixing the Climate Crisis. Published by University of Toronto Press, 2020.