The role that planning, urban areas and cities play in the climate crisis

“Urban spaces are at the core of both climate change and climate action, these are the spaces that hold most of the globe’s population and are often where the effects of a changing climate can be felt the most. How we design our cities, use our land, resources and find solutions to today’s problems all have significant impacts on future generations. Urban spaces should not be understood as separate from rural ones and we should be moving to a place where there is a symbiotic relationship between these two as opposed to competition. This month’s instalment of Greenhouse Culture comes from an urban planning masters student, Mae Ly Lim, who is herself learning and who hopes to share some of that process with you. I have included some material that just cherry-picks the available literature and visual resources to show how urbanism and planning connect with the climate and society.”

Dutch streets are 300% safer than American ones. Why?

This video follows an American class trip to Amsterdam to understand how effective street design makes the roads safer for everyone. Additionally, this video illustrates how road design can be multifunctional, serving to improve ecosystem services and enhance biodiversity while creating better places for people. 

‘We Live Here Together’
A short film about creating a sustainable & inclusive urban future

A very short video from C40, a global network of city mayors working together to realise climate action at the metropolitan scale. I would highly recommend taking a look at the work of C40 to see international collaboration on this front. 

Learning to Love the Landscapes of Carbon-Neutrality: Landscape Research:  Vol 35, No 2
Volume 35, 2010 – Issue 2: Landscapes of Energies

Paul Selman (2010) Learning to Love the Landscapes of Carbon-Neutrality, Landscape Research, 35:2, 157-171, DOI: 10.1080/01426390903560414

This paper examines the connection between landscapes and energy production as we move toward more sustainable practices and understanding what it is to recon with our consumption habits in the landscape and embrace this necessary change. 

PEPP essay – Below is an essay looking at how climate issues interact with pre-existing conditions, political and economic realities producing a multiplier effect with a final note in favour of a social equity lens at the solution. 

Climate change presents a complex challenge to managing cities across the globe. Using examples, outline the ways in which cities are using urban planning to mitigate and adapt to climate change risks. 

Climate change presents a torturous mosaic of problems to urban governance because it reflects and multiples insufficiencies in a current system as well as stratification patterns across scales and national borders. This essay discusses the urban planning profession as a tool in cities attempts to manage climate change by drawing upon the experiences of two cities that are vulnerable to climate change, Los Angeles and Jakarta. This essay aims to highlight how the ability to take climate action is closely related to socio-economic realities, governance structures and institutional capacity. This is achieved through a five-part structure beginning with a reflection on climate change and how it relates to the urban planning profession to achieve sustainable development. This is followed by an overview of how planning practice addresses climate change through mitigative and adaptive strategies, the latter being vastly underutilized. The next section examines Los Angeles’ response to the extreme climate threats it faces and is followed by a discussion of Jakarta’s contrasting experience with planning and how it has produced persistent weaknesses in service operations leading to increased climate vulnerability. This essay concludes by arguing that climate change presents difficult problems for urban governance because it is systemic as opposed to isolated and suggests an equity-based lens to overcome such restrictive limitations. 

The need for urban planning to address sustainable development and climate action is becoming an increasingly critical function of the profession as the effects of climate change pose national security threats to a nation’s citizens. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published in August 2021 reviewed contemporary scientific literature and knowledge on climate change, condensing its findings into a sixth assessment report (AR6) that was agreed upon by 195 countries (IPCC, 2021). AR6 confirmed that ‘observed increases in well-mixed greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations since around 1750 are unequivocally caused by human activities with the land and seas absorbing much of the C02 emissions from human activity in the past several decades with varied effect across geographic regions (IPCC, 2021; pg. 6). This increased concentration of GHG in the atmosphere has resulted in effects that are currently felt and impossible to stop as globally we face rising temperatures, longer more intense and frequent heat waves, shorter more severe and erratic rain seasons and acidifying oceans with rising sea levels (Hamin et al., 2019). While these negative outcomes of human activity are globally observed, their effects are not evenly distributed in geographic terms, Africa and Asia are particularly vulnerable given the limited make-up of their governmental capacities and institutions as well as their location (Busby, 2007). In November 2021, the Foreign Minister of the Pacific Island Nation Tuvalu, Simon Kofe, gave a virtual speech to the COP26 summit standing knee-deep in water on what was previously his nations coastland delivering the harrowing message “We are Sinking” (Handley, 2021). Patterns of inequality regarding the negative effects of climate change are observed internationally as well as intranationally, a situation that Sharon Harlon et. al’s study of heat-related inequalities in Phoenix illustrates. Harlon et. al. examined the relationship between microclimates in urban areas, demographics, and resources available at the neighbourhood scale, finding that those in less advantaged areas with higher levels of ethnic minorities were at greater risk of heat exposure and heat-related illnesses (Harlan et al., 2006). Moreover, this study examined the physical characteristics of places that made them more uncomfortable for residents such as density, access to recreational space and urban greenery to expose how climate issues reinforce existing stratification within societies. The concept of achieving sustainable urban development is a powerful framework for creating local solutions to the causes and consequences of climate change as the city scale becomes a critical site in the push back against climate change (Heberle and Opp, 2008). As cities face more frequent large scale natural disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes, coastal erosion or storms, the urban planning profession is at the forefront of cities efforts to protect their citizens. 

Planning practice for addressing climate change is permitted through governance, resourcing, and institutional structures for the creation of resilient and less vulnerable places. Planning efforts to address climate change are widely considered through mitigation or adaptation measures, the former aims to address the causes while the latter accommodates for the outcomes. Elisabeth Hamin et. al summarise mitigation measures as physical planning recommendations, those that dictate urban densities, land use policy, yielding control over the connection between urban form and household energy use (Hamin et al., 2019). Urban planning achieves GHG emission stabilisation through changes to urban form, land-use, transportation, building regulations using the land itself as a level for GHG reduction at the national to the neighbourhood and building site scale (Hamin et al., 2019). In practice, Dorina Pojani and Dominic Stead for example look at physical planning measures such as Transit-Orientated-Development (TOD) and how they have unfolded in three European Capital cities with mature planning systems: Amsterdam, Stockholm and Vienna (Pojani et al., 2018). TOD – its associated benefits such as reduced energy demand, sustainable transport transformations and improved air quality achieved through the synergy between land use and transit – is illustrated by Pojani and Stead as being an intrinsic principle within all three cities planning policies since WWII. Contrastingly, Hamin et. Al’s outline of adaptation measures highlights how underdeveloped policy action for climate adaptation is in the planning of cities (Hamin et al., 2019). Adaptation in planning practice are measures taken to manage the impacts of climate change, reducing risk and exposure to such threats through key actions such as climate disaster modelling scenarios, contextually responsive planning with nature that maximises the benefits of the landscape, designing for the protection of biodiversity and the ecosystems it supports and the introduction of building codes at the individual object level (IPCC, 2014, Hamin et al., 2019). A warming environment is an absolute reality, and this situation is only going to intensify over time, many nations are likely to fail to reach their climate targets, and to protect the quality of life and human health in urban areas, we will need to develop a suite of adaption planning methods and tools to manage cities and climate disruptions (Scott et al., 2020). The effectiveness of a city’s attempt to take climate action is intimately related to wider societal, political, economic and historic elements that can either permit or deny cohesive multi-scalar climate action in the immediate and long term. 

In the face of increasingly hellish climate scenarios, Los Angeles County California is utilising its planning system to develop robust and thorough measures for the protection of its citizens through three distinct climate action plans. Los Angeles city is the second-largest city in the United States with a population of close to 4 million, and over 10 million in Los Angeles County. Xueming Chen’s overview of the urban planning management system in Los Angeles found there to be a good balance between government activities and citizen participation in this wealthy U.S county with a mature planning system (Chen, 2009). Chen found the system is fourpartite with an institution, legal, operational, and technical subsystem with the city Planning Department carrying out activities in subordination to the General Plan Guidelines generated by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. Bordering the Pacific Ocean in the West Coast, Los Angeles County has been categorised as high climate vulnerability and the LA County Climate Vulnerability Assessment (CVA) identified extreme heat, wildfires, inland flooding with extreme precipitation, coastal flooding, and drought to be key risks to the area (Los Angeles County, 2021). The CVA predicts severe impacts by 2050 such as a tenfold increase in heat waves with a doubling of the population that are vulnerable to extreme heat, drastic water imbalances from decade long megadroughts to increased risk of flooding, flash floods and landslides, a rise in the shoreline and a heightened chances of wildfires in towards the northern mountains (Michellehavich, 2021). Kathleen Carlson and Sabrina Mc Cormack completed the first qualitative study of climate change adaptation in American cities in 2014, finding Los Angeles to be the third most advanced city out of six in terms of climate mitigation and adaption planning and its implementation (Carlson and McCormick, 2015). This study focused on the social conditions that supported the creation of climate action plans and found that Los Angeles gained its favourable position of climate preparedness due to the well-integrated nature of its public sectors in disaster situations, its liberal climate-focused political culture leading to a well-developed climate adaption portfolio and the societal culture of environmentalism present. The Mobility Plan 2035 features enhancements to the county’s transportation infrastructure, such as strengthening the connection between land use and transportation planning while devising a complete street network for pedestrians to increase walkability, aimed at reducing overall GHG emissions as part of long-term a long-term mitigation strategy (Los Angeles Department of City Planning, 2016). Immediate efforts to adapt to the rising temperatures experienced in the city include the Cool Streets LA program which utilises light and heat reflective material to stop paved surfaces from retaining heat beginning with a pilot programme in vulnerable neighbourhoods. While faced with profound climate threats and associated economic and societal threats, Los Angeles has both the means and the will to tackle the climate future it faces through its planning system in collaboration with other sectors for a well-integrated and multi-sectoral effort to manage the climate problems facing the city. 

Jakarta’s historic experience with planning is fraught with social control and environmental manipulation under Dutch colonial rule that has resulted in heightened climate vulnerability due to the persistence of insufficient water management systems. The capital of Indonesia’s island archipelago, Jakarta, has the highest climate vulnerability of any city in Southeast Asia in addition to being the largest with population estimates ranging from 10 million to 16 million due to disputed boundary definitions (Yusef and Francisco, 2009, Lysons, 2015). At present, the city faces disastrous climate-related risks such as increased incidence of flooding due to increased levels of precipitation in Central Jakarta, and rising sea levels impacting the north of the city where it meets the Java Sea (Lysons, 2015). Jakarta is the quickest sinking city in the world due the interaction between generic climate threats such as rising sea levels and place-specific human actions such as the practice of groundwater extraction and concrete heavy load construction (Silver, 2008). The widespread practice of groundwater tapping in Kampung communities (1) makes this situation worse as people extract clean water from natural aquifers for daily living due to inadequate access to piped clean water (Putri, 2019, Johnson, 2020). Prathiwi Widyatmi Putri’s critical analysis of water and sanitation services today places this sector at the core of Jakarta’s spatial development and planning, tracing the issue back to Dutch colonial rule in the 1800s (Putri, 2019). Putri’s account details the decimation of natural eco-systems throughout Dutch rule as technical and managerial state institutions enforced the extralocal image of straight Dutch-style concrete-lined canals to the waterways while divorcing socio-ecological traditions and lifestyles from the Javanese people in a technocratic and rational approach to planning (Adger, 2000). The Jakarta City Government’s bid to take climate action has suffered from a lack of co-ordination across institutional bodies and scales in addition to being reactive bounce back style mitigation measures, such as the construction of sea walls, with little to no proactive adaptation measures included in spatial development plans (Firman et al., 2011). The most significant plan developed to address coastal degradation is a 40 billion USD plan to transform the urban form of the city by building a ‘Giant Sea Wall’ that would create new settlements at the shorefront. This plan has been criticised for its lack of concern for equity-based sustainability issues in addition to comments that it panders to private sector preferences (Lysons, 2015). The Jakarta City Government ought to implement more fundamental planning-based approaches that focus on equitably improving access to piped clean water to manage the sinking of its shoreline. Moreover, community lead consultation planning that utilises indigenous knowledge of waterways maintenance and socio-ecological practices, such as the traditional system of wells for the management of stormwater and clean water, ought to be at the forefront of mitigation and adaptation strategies (Jumsai, 2008). While subject to global climate trends, Jakarta is at increased climate risk due the limited institutional capability of its city government, the lasting imprint of a foreign and incompatible colonial ruling spatial development standard and its limited governing capacity.

Climate change presents complex challenges to managing cities, in part, because climate-related threats are systemic, interacting with pre-existing socio-economic realities of a place to dictate a cities resilience (Scott et al., 2020). The IPCC identify multi-level governance and the integration of institutions as a core enabler of climate action with governance approaches that coordinate policy actions across scales the best for measures to slow global warming (Roy, 2018). A rudimentary comparison between the climate action taken in the cities of Los Angeles and Jakarta highlights how urban planning efforts are stifled or permitted by a country’s governmental makeup. Tommy Firman et. al.’s 2011 analysis of Jakarta’s climate-change vulnerabilities noted that the Jakarta City Spatial Plan lacked any real consideration for climate change, emphasised the ills resulting from the lack of coordination across government agencies, and argued for the reinforcement of metropolitan level institutions to achieve sustainable development (Firman et al., 2011). The agencies, institutions and instruments of Jakarta’s planning policy framework are not capable of delivering the level of climate action needed to successfully manage the climate risk posed by a warming environment. The Jakarta City Government ought to focus its approach to planning for climate change on the disadvantaged Kampung communities as this would highlight the multiple positive benefits of adaptation and mitigation with a holistic perspective capable of overcoming limited resources (Royal Town Planning Institute, 2020). This conclusion is similarly reached by Putri, arguing that Kampung’s resilience throughout rapidly changing socio-ecological situations should be seen as a new direction for planning professionals as communities can provide solutions for their environmental problems (Putri, 2019).  Climate risk ought to be viewed as a development problem with multi-dimensional poverty at its core that requires careful and appropriate action rather than reactive bounce back measures (Johnson, 2020). As cities struggle to grapple with the multiplex of challenges posed by a warming environment, urban planners should begin their activities with place-specific evolutionary adaptation measures and a social equity lens. 

In conclusion, a cities ability to take climate action through urban planning is dependent on place-specific relations as global warming issues are intricate and indicative of wider problems present in a nation. This essay has drawn upon the experience of two vastly different cities that are both at extreme climate risk, Los Angeles and Jakarta, to offer a rudimentary comparison between their respective levels of climate preparedness and how it relates to their socio-economic and governmental reality. The city has been discussed as a vital scale for climate action with climate change coming to the fore of the planning profession due to its ability to tackle the causes and consequences of increased GHG emissions. Mitigation and adaptation strategies have been discussed as often skewed towards mitigation, calling for the need to develop planning measures to accommodate for the reality of a warmer climate. Los Angeles has been observed to be a city with the means and the will to tackle climate risk through its well structured and defined urban planning system in collaboration with other sectors of government. This favourable position of climate preparedness contrasts with Jakarta’s historic experience with planning under Dutch rule. Jakarta’s attempts to deal with climate risk have been outlined as conservative and insufficient, with measures such as the construction of sea walls simply responding to a climate threat in an isolated manner, with a need to improve more fundamental infrastructure networks such as water and sanitation with a focus on inclusion for Kampung communities. This essay concluded by suggesting that if cities are to sufficiently address climate change through the planning system there ought to be an equity-based lens and holistic perspective to overcome the wider socio-economic realities, limitations of governance structures and institutional capacity. 

  1. Kampung is an indigenous term for an organic rural settlement with a mixed socio-economic composition that is not a village, nor a slum (Putri, 2019). 


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This PEPP essay was originally presented to University College Dublin (UCD), as part of my Master’s degree, City/Urban, Community and Regional Planning . This entire piece has been entered into a plagiarism library.