Will Our Cities Survive the 21st Century?

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Jeff Goodell, Atyia Martin, Shade Shutters, and Derek Baxter discuss resilient cities at WeWork Reforma Latino in Mexico City.

Jeff Goodell, Atyia Martin, Shade Shutters, and Derek Baxter discuss resilient cities at WeWork Reforma Latino in Mexico City.

Jeff Goodell, Atyia Martin, Shade Shutters, and Derek Baxter discuss resilient cities at WeWork Reforma Latino in Mexico City.

Zayda Avila

Goodbye, Miami, American Atlantis.

The city is sinking. Yes, in the literal sense, swaths of the metropolis—built on flat, permeable limestone—will be swallowed by seas expected to rise 48 feet globally by the century’s end. That includes the $50 million waterfront condos still being developed on Miami Beach. The working-class stucco homes miles from the coast in Hialeah. Beaches, hotels, office buildings, malls, hospitals, schools, highways, wastewater treatment plants, and airports in between.

But even before the Atlantic submerges much of Miami, a metro area currently filled with 2.6 million inhabitants, it will be sunk by its leaders’ failures to reckon with its future. As of now, most of them refuse to warn the public about the threats posed by climate change. They balk at investing in most long-term adaptations. Some are in denial; others fear of spooking high-rolling condo buyers or vacationers. For a city best known for escape and real estate—the porous foundation of its economy and tax base—such a course can only keep them above water for so long.

“Long before Miami is the New Atlantis, it will be broke and waterlogged and full of half-abandoned neighborhoods where mosquitoes breed and leaking septic systems turn Biscayne Bay into an algae-filled lagoon,” Rolling Stone contributing editor Jeff Goodell wrote in his recent book, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World.

It’s also the scene Goodell set for the audience of “Will Our Cities Survive the 21st Century?,” a Future Tense event co-hosted by Arizona State University and COMEXI, Mexico’s influential foreign affairs think tank, on Jan. 23 at one of Mexico City’s WeWork spaces. The conversation brought together reporters, experts, and resilience officers from around the world. And, surrounded by the buzz of the hemisphere’s second-largest city, it put the stakes on display.

Goodell explained that though not every city faces the same threats, the Miami thought experiment provides a good analogy for the risks others will face the coming decades. Rising seas coming for Rio and Jakarta, Indonesia. Unrelenting heat waves looming for Phoenix and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Deadlier quakes lying in wait for Los Angeles and Tokyo. Megafloods on the horizon for Rotterdam, Netherlands, and Guangzhou, China. The specter of scarcity, migration, disease, and instability that will spill over from the stress of climate change. Mother Nature is a fierce adversary, he said, and presents challenges that can’t be easily engineered away. Where are we going to spend our money? Who and what gets protected or saved? Who lives behind the sea walls, and who doesn’t live behind the sea walls?

Atyia Martin, the former chief resilience officer for the city of Boston, said she had to think a lot about these questions of priorities. When she started her job in 2015, she said, “We realized we had to look at resilience from a different perspective. A lot of times with resilience, people get stuck on the environment, on infrastructure, on assets, on the economy, but we don’t really connect the dots between those things and people. The reason all that stuff exists.”

Looking at the data, Martin said, she and her team saw how previous resilience initiatives disproportionately burdened people of color—the majority of the city’s population—exacerbating existing inequalities and stressing the social cohesion that makes urban life successful.

“We can’t claim our city is resilient if only some of us are resilient,” she said. She and others in the conversation agreed that creating a successful future for cities will require involving all communities to communicate threats, set priorities, and make decisions about mitigation and adaptation.

The pressures of the 21st century may push us toward more creative ways of urban living.

Shade Shutters, a senior sustainability scientist at the ASU Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, said that when he went to communities and economic developers in Arizona with tools to help them create green economies, they initially dismissed him, responding that they wanted to prioritize jobs. As in many places (thanks in part to short election cycles), the mindset is often Put food on the table first, then you can think about the long term. But sometimes it takes a change in messaging for people to realize that these long-term initiatives can feed the short-term needs. After years of back-and-forth, Shutters said, he realized how he could help all parties realize they want the same thing. His approach: rebranding “green decision tools” as “innovation and creative economy tools” and asking Arizonans, “How would you like to be an energy-exporting state?”

Improving communication was a recurring theme at the event. Derek Baxter, a city council engineer in Wellington, New Zealand, said that in coastal parts of his city, bright blue road markings indicating “tsunami safe zones”—the inland lines experts determined to be out of reach of the largest projected megawave—demonstrate how clear information can help people to make their own choices. He suggested similar people-centric designs could map earthquake zones or sea-level rise too.

But with the magnitude of the potential devastation posed by climate change, natural disaster, economic disruption, and other threats, how much truth can you tell people before they feel hopeless, overwhelmed, or in denial? How do you turn that information into change when the inertia to do everything the same is so strong? It’s something Barack Obama struggled with, said Goodell, who interviewed the president when he made a public trip to the Arctic in 2015.

“Never let a good crisis opportunity go,” said Baxter, who acknowledged the political difficulty of taking action to adapt to the rising seas, heat waves, floods, and prolonged droughts that climate change has already started to bring to New Zealand. After disasters, people are quick to forget the nightmare of their experience and the goodwill it inspired among the community after. Seize it.

A big theme of the second half of the event was how crisis worked to make Mexico City more resilient. After a devastating earthquake hit the capital in 1985, killing thousands if not tens of thousands of people, public pressure pushed the government to invest heavily in earthquake engineering, stricter building codes, evacuation protocols, and early warning systems. When powerful twin quakes hit last September, including one on the anniversary of the 1985 disaster, the city fared far better.

But the metropolis of nearly 9 million, with suburbs that raise the population up to 21.3 million, isn’t yet as resilient on other measures. Chronic sociopolitical problems, chiefly inequality and corruption, strain the city, as do environmental and engineering problems, including pollution, traffic, floods, and a water supply that’s stressed, overexploited, and depleting. Oh, and the city is literally sinking into the ground. Climate change, which will bring both more drought and more intense rains, will only exacerbate these problems.

Sergio Alcocer, a research professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Institute of Engineering and president of México Exponencial, a think tank focused on advancing tech-savvy public policies, said tackling these many issues should start with setting a minimum standard of resilience for all citizens, regardless of where they live. Leaders then need to prioritize work in areas that don’t yet meet that standard.

“Mexico City is a city of many cities,” he said, alluding to the vast differences in character and quality of life across the sprawling megalopolis. In one of Mexico City’s largest and poorest neighborhoods, Iztapalapa, for example, the municipal water pipes are so filled with cracks that families can’t count on them for water. Instead, they must wait hours for unreliable delivery trucks for a few days’ supply. Meanwhile in wealthy Condesa, for reasons of both affluence and geography, clean water flows freely. A strong resilience plan, said Alcocer, needs to focus on “democratizing quality of life.”

Some of that is already coming from citizens. In the 1980s, Alcocer said, Mexican society was not as demanding, and people often accepted problems as a given. In recent years, he said, more people have been claiming their place, both pushing government and making changes in their own communities.

As a child growing up in a heavily polluted Mexico City in the 1980s, Arnoldo Matus Kramer, now the city’s chief resilience officer, said such citizen pressure forced government to monitor and improve its air quality. He also says he sees a great sustainable mobility movement rising in the city. Young people are starting to walk, bike, or take public transit during the week, which may finally break the car culture that’s led to the city’s nightmarishly congested roads. Meanwhile, there’s been a rethinking of how public spaces can enhance sustainability, such as parks and soccer fields that double as catch basins during floods, or installing rainwater-collection and treatment systems. Governments, nonprofits, and entrepreneurs (including a bar that sells artisanal purified rainwater) are already on it.

In this way, the pressures of the 21st century may push us toward more creative ways of urban living. The rise of cities became the defining characteristic of modern life because they allowed us to create such profound centers of industry, interaction, and innovation. These are the reasons, despite all the stresses and strains, that more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas—and that this proportion is still growing.

The events that shook, flooded, burned, and broiled many of our metropolises in recent years should remind us that these concentrations of people and wealth prime us for new levels of human and economic devastation. Such shocks may look like environmental disasters. But, as the event’s conversation reminded us, their worst damage comes from setting off the man-made ones—corruption, inequality, short-termism—that have been lying in wait all along.

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Kirsten Berg

Kirsten Berg is an assistant editor for Future Tense.