Next-Generation Cities Will Depend on Ecological Design, But Which Places Will Survive?

We're going to have to work with the Earth if we want to thrive. 


There’s no doubt about it, climate change is here… and well, changing our world every day. What was true of our weather and bodies of water 20 years ago may not be the same today, and it’s vital that we keep discovering new ways of embracing what’s coming next.

To celebrate their 100th anniversary, the Ecological Society of America is looking towards the future. In a special November 2015 issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, researchers turned their focus towards urban innovations in the face of climate change. Needless to say, humans are going to have to adapt to the ever-changing environment in order to maintain our standards of living.

Kristina Hill, an associate professor at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design and the guest editor for the latest issue of Frontiers, was kind enough to break down some of the ESA’s research for Inverse.

What’s the Future Look Like for Cities in the U.S.?

Hill emphasizes the need for harmony with nature, rather than control, as one of the chief ways that people will be able to thrive in a changing environment. One of the methods we’ll probably see over the next several decades will be a change in the way cities’ basic infrastructure is constructed.

“Our biggest cities — both those with the most people and those related to the most economic output — are likely to see re-investment in infrastructure to protect and help them thrive with climate change,” Hill says.

So what does that mean for some of the country’s most populated cities on the coasts?

“I don’t think Miami is going to be easy to protect,” Hill warns, citing the city’s lack of protection from the elements. “That’s the one city that might be a lot smaller 100 years from now and might even be abandoned. There’s no clear way of protecting it from both sea level rise and storms, because it is built on sand and on limestone that are both highly susceptible to erosion or flooding from below as well as from the sides.”

New Orleans, on the other hand, Hill believes will still be around: “I think New Orleans will eventually be isolated as an island, connected by bridges to the mainland.”

Meanwhile on the West Coast, San Francisco is at risk if there aren’t enough funds for its upkeep. “San Francisco is pretty high up, but its new development areas (Treasure Island and Mission Bay) are going to be very expensive to maintain, and might eventually be let go,” says Hill.

Hawaiian vacations might also become a little more difficult in the future, as Hill notes that “Honolulu is also in trouble, and not tracking their situation very clearly.”

However, there’s at least one coastal city that might be able to adapt relatively quickly: New York City.

“I’ll bet we are going to double down on New York in Manhattan, moving in the direction of a kind of ‘hardened’ island surrounded by very large levees or ‘super dikes’ that buildings can be built upon, even though it’s very vulnerable,” explains Hill. “But we might lose the Rockaways, parts of Staten Island, and parts of Queens or the Bronx.”

Will There Be a Mass Exodus to the Midwest?

Climate change is going to have an effect on the coastal regions (like rising sea levels), but Hill doesn’t think that necessarily means there will be an influx of populations flocking towards the midlands.

“We’re going to double-down on most coastal cities,” Hill asserts. “Human beings have very rarely abandoned cities, over the last 5,100 years. With our current level of building tech, I think we can figure out amazing ways to stay on the water in almost every city.”

Hill explained that while there’s hope that we’ll be able to adapt, that adaptation to the weather might be slightly delayed… by a couple hundred years, maybe.

“We can’t do the same level of spending everywhere over the next 100 years,” Hill tells Inverse about the amount of money needed to create solid infrastructure that will be able to stand up to the elements. “But we are very likely to ‘recolonize’ lost neighborhoods over the next 100 years after that, as we learn more about building in flooded landscapes.”

In fact, Hill believes that people from the midlands will actually move away from landlocked areas towards larger bodies of water.

“I think people will continue to move to the coasts, especially the West Coast where there are no hurricanes,” says Hill. “The central US will see major heatwaves, floods, fires, and droughts, and may not have enough money to adapt to them quickly enough to stay. It’s a matter of both having the money and economy to support adaptation and the technological capacity to manage new conditions.”

Resources over the coming decades may need to be funneled to specific places based off of how readily and easily they’ll be able to modify their current policies and infrastructure — on a budget, of course.

“Some [cities] will be too expensive to keep over the short run, and if they are abandoned, it may be centuries before people re-invest in those old locations,” says Hill. “Miami is the best example of someplace we might abandon in the coming century, then maybe return to later in a different way.”

A look at Hamburg's innovative HafenCity area.

Joern Pollex/Getty Images

How Can We Change Our Impact on the Earth?

Hill mentions the need to start a cultural revolution that strengthens our relationship with the environment instead of working against the tides, the weather, and other lifeforms on the planet. It will mean dedicating time to learn about the habitats around us on a basic, natural level, but it will help our diverse cities keep flourishing from New York to San Francisco.

“I’m hoping we will see more people learning to live with the dynamics of their local environment,” says Hill, referring to getting smarter about wildland fires, changing plantings, and discharging greywater from our homes into our yards.

Additionally, people will need to find ways to raise their homes and understand more about how flooding works in their areas, rather than relying on public infrastructure (like levees): “That way, the public infrastructure will be able to do more varied things, and support habitat/recreation to help our regions thrive while they change.”

People can make changes in their personal lives, but they also have to be accountable for what goes on in their communities and regional governments.

“Overall, people can do resourceful things at home, but the harder thing is to have the courage to invest in shared projects,” Hill urges. “It will require us to take a leap of faith and trust public development authorities to re-develop districts of cities with private partners. It will require us to spend money and learn about how to produce good public policy together, not just one family or one house at a time.”

In fact, Hill wants people to make sure the projects they’re spending tax dollars on will actually benefit people while they’re paying off those ventures: “Local citizens need to demand that current investments in infrastructure will be useful for at least the period in which taxpayers have to pay back the debt for those projects!”

Hill notes that there’s a widespread problem of spending exorbitant amounts of money on old-world infrastructure that isn’t ready for environmental changes. Highways and water treatment plants need to be ready, but our public policies and investing habits are not up to snuff yet. “If we spend billions to build new plants or roads that aren’t ready for climate change, we will tie our hands and be unable to pay for adaptation for them,” Hill warns. “We’ll still be paying for the construction debt, when we need to adapt!”

Where Are the Leading Innovators?

Hill points out that Germany, the Netherlands, and Japan are leading the way on building innovative environmental infrastructure, especially in flood-prone settings.

“The Baakenhafen district of Hamburg’s HafenCity area will have new mid-rise buildings in the water on deep pile foundations, and we need to watch those projects to learn from them,” Hill says. “The Dutch have already built very cool urban districts with foundations in the water, near Rotterdam called Nesselande, and we can learn a lot from them as well.”

Hill has been particularly impressed by the great waterproofing technologies of HafenCity and Nesselande, which have plenty of buildings with their feet or foundations under water. Hill also mentions that floating buildings and floating whole urban blocks are being developed in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, in Japan, they have built structures on super levees in Osaka.

One of Hill’s ideas for integrating the natural and human realms of architecture is to combine concrete-and-steel structures with materials from the surrounding landscape to create a hybrid, living infrastructure that will withstand the elements.

Change Can Be Good — And We Need to Do It

Change is inevitable — face it, the world is already changing rapidly these days — but we need to make sure we’re rising to the occasion and using the resources we have now while we still have them. Once we find out better, easier, and more cost-efficient ways to adapt, we’ll still have to make sure we’re engaging with the natural environment, our neighbors, and the rest of the world to learn from each other and ensure more than just bare-minimum survival.

“The worst case is if people retreat behind walls in fear, and don’t understand what’s going on outside those walls,” says Hill.

In the end, Hill says that we’ll need to be flexible with our housing, our infrastructure, and our cities if we want to thrive for generations to come.

“Money spent today has to support adaptation, in one way or another, or we’re passing on a bigger problem to our kids and young people,” Hill tells Inverse. “I think that’s flat-out unethical, and terrible public policy.”

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