eco-friendly city

Adaptation

These 5 resilient cities can teach us how to survive the climate crisis

These cities can teach other urban spaces how to move forward.

Getty Images

The year 2021 may very well be remembered as the year we woke up to the climate crisis.

Fierce wildfires battered Greece and the western United States, carrying smoke thousands of miles across continents. Floods swept through parts of Germany, killing hundreds. The 2021 hurricane season has been brutal, and it’s not over yet.

In August, the United Nations released a bone-chilling report, linking extreme weather events to human-induced climate change and projecting that they will occur more frequently in the coming decades.

Cities, in particular, are uniquely susceptible to the effects of an escalating climate crisis due to their population density and extensive infrastructure. Very few cities are currently equipped to deal with more frequent extreme weather events, as seen by the devastation of sudden flash floods in New York, New Jersey, and other parts of the northeastern US.

But there are a few cities whose leaders have taken proactive measures to adapt their cities and protect their residents from the climate crisis. These cities serve as models for how we can modify and strengthen our built environments, reduce human suffering, and protect urban centers from the effects of a warming planet.

Here are the five of the most climate-resilient cities around the world, and what they teach us about how humanity can avoid and mitigate our coming climate apocalypse.

5. Fukuoka, Japan

Population: 1.5 million

A view of Fukuoka from the roof garden of ACROS Fukuoka Prefectural International Hall. The 15 stepped garden terraces contain some 35,000 plants representing 76 speciesGetty

“As with many cities globally, due to climate change, Fukuoka is facing the dual threats of increased extreme heat events and heightened risk of flooding from rivers and surface runoff due to periods of intense rainfall,” Leslie Mabon, the lead author on a 2019 study about Fukuoka’s green spaces and a researcher at Open University, tells Inverse.

In the face of climate change, the city has put in place proactive measures to make their city greener — literally.

How is Fukuoka adapting to climate resiliency?

“In Fukuoka, urban greenspaces probably play a bigger role in reducing extreme heat events than they do in mitigating flood events,” Mabon says.

These urban green spaces include the terraced gardens on the roof of the Grin Grin Park buildings and ACROS Fukuoka Prefectural International Hall. These green spaces help reduce the temperature of their immediate surroundings.

“Over the last decade or so, the city government — in collaboration with local universities and research institutes — has also tried to build a better scientific understanding of where the hottest areas in the city are, and of how effective different types of urban green spaces can be in mitigating urban heat island effects,” Mabon explains.

The city’s plan includes surveying how winds flow through the city to determine where it would be best to plant trees and maintain parks. These green spaces can also help absorb water runoff during periods of intense rainfall.

The city has also encouraged its residents to grow green plant walls on the sides of their homes for cooling purposes and to reduce energy costs.

How can other cities adopt this model?

Mabon says that there are three lessons other cities can learn from Fukuoka’s model.

  1. It can take a long time to see the benefits of urban green spaces and green roofs. “ACROS, for example, was constructed in the mid-1990s, and it has taken several decades to reach the level of greenery and biodiversity it has now,” Mabon says.
  2. Every city faces different climate challenges and will require different evidence-based approaches to adopt urban greenspaces. Talk to residents and reach out to researchers “who are familiar with the local context,” Mabon says.
  3. Invest in many smaller community-based projects — think community gardens and neighborhood green coordinators — to evenly reduce climate risks across the city.

4. Chicago, USA

Population: 2.71 million

Chicago has adopted climate resiliency measures, including vertical farms and green stormwater infrastructure. Getty

Chicago’s inclusion on this list might come as a surprise, especially since it’s seen as one of the United States’ most vulnerable cities to climate change, according to an analysis of data from the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative.

The NRDC, which is working with Cook County, Illinois to develop climate resiliency measures, writes: “Rainfall regularly overwhelms the region's stormwater infrastructure, causing flooding and sewer backups into basements and below-grade apartments.”

But this underscores how necessary it is for the city to adapt to climate change — and quickly. It’s already made impressive strides toward climate adaptation measures.

How is Chicago adapting to climate resiliency?

Chicago makes this list for two reasons, primarily due to its climate preparedness:

  • Being an early adopter of green stormwater infrastructure
  • Developing urban vertical farms

In 2014, under then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the city developed a $50-million, five-year green stormwater infrastructure plan with the aim of reducing basement flooding and water pollution and improving environmental quality and climate resilience.

Some of the key features of this plan include:

  • Capturing, storing, and filtering water through green techniques rather than channeling it into storm drains
  • Investing in permeable, or more water-absorbent, pavement to reduce flooding
  • Compiling rainfall frequency data so officials can better predict flooding

The city offers resources on the ways it is using green design to maintain water runoff and reduce flooding through rain gardens and natural landscaping.

The city also plays host to one of the world’s largest urban vertical farms, which grows vegetables in a 90,000-square-foot facility. Chicago made this urban vertical farm possible by changing its zoning laws.

How can other cities adopt this model?

The climate crisis increases the risk of food insecurity. The US Department of Agriculture writes that “vertical agriculture could help increase food production and expand agricultural operations as the world’s population is projected to exceed 9 billion by 2050.”

Urban vertical farms also reduce the carbon emissions associated with transporting food across long distances.

Meanwhile, in the wake of recent flash floods due to Hurricane Ida, many Americans have called for green infrastructure to reduce cities' risk of flooding, such as planting mangrove trees or using oyster sea walls.

Many cities in China have already adapted green stormwater infrastructure, known as “sponge cities,” in the face of increased flooding.

3. Rotterdam, Netherlands

Population: 598,199 (not including the greater metro area)

Rotterdam is prone to urban flooding, but the city is taking measures to reduce the harm to its residents.Getty

The low-lying Netherlands is particularly vulnerable to the ravages of urban flooding, which will likely increase in severity as the climate crisis continues. While the port city of Rotterdam is especially vulnerable, its officials have worked to develop green infrastructure.

A UN report on climate-resilient cities states: “By mixing grey and green infrastructure, with a focus on adaptive measures to capture rainwater and slow drainage, the [Rotterdam] authorities are aiming to build a waterproof city.”

How is Rotterdam adapting to climate resiliency?

City leaders have increasingly turned to waterproofing measures — such as elevating buildings — to increase Rotterdam’s resiliency against urban flooding.

Some of these more intriguing waterproofing measures include:

  • Growing plants along railways to absorb flooding and reduce heat
  • Developing ‘water squares’ that can absorb rainfall and ease the stress on sewage systems.

During dry seasons, these squares are often used for community activities.

In a 2018 report, Maurizio Francesco Errigo, a member of the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture University of Enna Kore, writes:

“In Rotterdam, architects and urban designers are finally responding to the threats of rising sea levels by ‘welcoming the water’ into the city, so the waterscape is becoming a new paradigm of spatial planning.”

How can other cities adopt this model?

The city of Tokyo is another good example of a city that has been modifying its subways in anticipation of increased urban flooding due to the climate crisis. The city has installed large water reservoirs underground and placed rain shields at the entrance of train stations.

2. Ahmedabad, India

Population: 7.2 million

Ahmedabad is working to protect its more than 7 million residents from the effects of a warming climate. Getty

Indian residents face significant risks as the climate crisis advances, including heatstroke as global temperatures rise and produce more frequent heatwaves. The densely populated economic center of Ahmedabad is no exception.

“After a devastating heatwave hit the city in 2010, experts estimated that heat contributed to more than 1,000 deaths,” Prima Madan tells Inverse. Madan leads the Natural Resources Defense Council’s India strategy related to energy efficiency and cooling.

Now, city leaders in Ahmedabad are working to “protect local communities from rising temperatures and the deadly threat of extreme heat,” Madan says.

How is Ahmedabad adapting to climate resiliency?

In 2013, city leaders developed the Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan to warn vulnerable populations that are most at risk of heat-related illnesses. A 2018 study found the plan prevented an additional 1,190 deaths each year due to heat-related illnesses.

Another innovative aspect of the plan is the city’s “cool roofs” initiative. This entails using eco-friendly building materials — such as coconut husk and paper waste — and cheap lime-white paint to deflect sunlight away from buildings. This keeps residents cool. According to Madan, cool roofs reduce indoor temperatures lower by 3.6 - 9° F.

Cool roofs are “cost-effective solutions that work to protect vulnerable groups and slum communities,” Madan says.

How can other cities adopt this model?

A few other areas in India, such as Telangana, have already followed suit and begun adopting similar cool roof measures, though “cool roofs in India have yet to be adopted at a larger scale” Madan says.

“There is a need for more and more cities to adopt cool roofs and fight extreme heat and urban heat island effects,” she adds.

However, the low cost of cool roof measures will go a long way in helping cities adopt them. According to Madan, a square foot of reflective white paint costs ₹0.50 (~$0.07).

1. Copenhagen, Denmark

Population: 638, 678 (not including the greater metro area)

Copenhagen is seeking to become the world’s first carbon-neutral city by 2025. Getty

Denmark has made great strides in climate change progress, including adapting to increased downpours.

Recently, the city attempted its most ambitious climate adaptation initiative yet.

How is Copenhagen adapting to climate resiliency?

Copenhagen has pledged to become the first city to go fully carbon neutral by 2025, despite a growing population.

“We want to combine growth, development, and quality of life with reduced CO2 emissions so that we can become the world's first CO2 neutral capital in 2025,” city officials report in a mission statement.

The city is already well on its way. According to a National Geographic interview with the city’s executive climate program director, Jørgen Abildgaard, two measures are helping the city go carbon neutral:

  1. Biking over cars: 49 percent of all trips in the city occur on bikes
  2. Efficient energy use: 98 percent of the city’s heating comes from waste heat from electricity production.

Seawater cooling measures may also have removed 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the city’s atmosphere, according to the World Economic Forum.

How can other cities adopt this model?

Many countries, including the U.S. under President Biden, have committed to going carbon neutral by 2050, but recent studies suggest that we’re going to need to stop the extraction of fossil fuels — significant contributors to carbon emissions — imminently.

Cities make up more than 70 percent of global carbon emissions. The UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed calls low-carbon cities necessary “to overcome the climate crisis.” To make a rapid shift to a carbon-neutral future, we’re going to need to involve leaders at the local level.

Other European cities, like Amsterdam, are already working to reduce their emissions as part of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. Private investors are also eyeing ventures to fund sustainable cities.

The Inverse analysis — These cities might be ahead of the curve when it comes to adapting to the climate, but what they’re doing can be replicated in other metropolitan areas. Take Santa Barbara, California, which earlier this year adopted a plan to adapt to rising sea levels.

It’s not a matter of whether cities should adapt to climate change, but how quickly they can do so. A UN report estimates that 68 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050, just as the effects of the climate crisis will be in full force across the globe.

The need for local leaders to proactively adapt their cities to be resilient to climate change — instead of just reacting to and mitigating its effects — has never been more clear. These cities provide a blueprint on how to do it.