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Finding Your Place in the Global Urban Movement to Fight Climate Change
Eiffel Tower in Paris

Paris, Pittsburgh and a host of other cities are increasingly organizing around climate change. Photo by Benjamin Stäudinger / Flickr

For Pittsburgh, it’s a focus on improving air quality and creating renewable energy jobs. For Paris, it’s encouraging social mobility and reclaiming pedestrian areas. The common thread in these cities’ climate action plans is a commitment to pledges made by 197 parties in the landmark Paris Agreement.

“The only way to do right by Pittsburghers and Parisians is to abide by the principles of the Paris Agreement, which guarantees the future health and prosperity of both of our cities – and every other city in the world,” wrote Mayors William Peduto and Anne Hidalgo in The New York Times in response to President Donald Trump’s rationale for pulling the United States out of the pact.

Indeed, strong leadership on climate change is not new for city leaders. Reducing emissions and improving resilience are common concerns that are creating transnational networks of urban planners, policymakers and concerned citizens, including the C40, Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy and ICLEI. Cities account for nearly 70 percent of global carbon emissions and are vulnerable to some of the most damaging effects of climate change, including sea level rise and poor air quality – and most cities are growing, exacerbating these challenges.

WRI’s work with these urban networks and directly with more than 100 cities around the world has shown that the best solutions come from engaged citizens and neighborhoods, businesses and community groups. So what can one person do to help make cities healthier, more sustainable and more productive? Start by asking these three key questions.

How Do You Move?

If cities are the front lines of the climate fight, transportation is the first battle. Cities account for 40 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions from road traffic worldwide, which means that the way people live and move in cities offers an opportunity to dramatically reduce environmental impact. This can also be a window on unique local challenges. Do cyclists feel safe on the street? Is there an accessible, reliable bus system?

As an individual, you can take a stand for sustainable mobility by demanding well-connected public transport and safe biking infrastructure. For example, in Brazil, WRI helped Curitiba and Rio de Janeiro create and conduct feedback surveys about their bus rapid transit systems, or BRTs, to attract and retain more riders. This feedback led to safer, more comfortable public transit in both cities. Curitiba improved lighting and security, renovated infrastructure and added capacity. In Rio, passenger satisfaction rates rose from 1.7 to 5.8 (on a scale of 0 to 10). Making public transport safer and more accessible means fewer cars on the road, less congestion and lower emissions.

What Kind of Building Do You Live In?

The buildings where city-dwellers live and work account for 25 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. By demanding better energy performance from your city’s buildings or choosing to live in a lower-emissions building, you can make the case for efficiency.

In their new resilience strategy, officials in Da Nang, Vietnam, a city of more than a million people, are working to make energy efficiency a priority for developers and expand resources and knowledge on energy use in some of its biggest buildings. In addition to saving energy, building efficiency is one of the easiest ways to reduce climate changing emissions and improve local air quality. WRI’s Building Efficiency Accelerator project will be working with Da Nang on these and other initiatives this year.

How Do You Connect?

The last step comes down to asking the right questions of your city. Does your mayor have a climate action plan? How about a resilience plan? Are local emissions being measured? There is much that cities can learn from each other, but ultimately each place requires its own unique solutions.

Strengthening the way you connect with your fellow citizens and your city’s long-term agenda can improve the environment and your own well-being. Don’t wait for a climate plan in your city; you can lobby for better systems today, ranging from bike lanes to larger questions of more equitable development.

Porto Alegre, Brazil, for example, included robust individual indicators in its first municipal resilience strategy. WRI Brasil helped develop metrics for social cohesion, risk perceptions, economic resources and education. These indicators will ensure community needs are measured by policymakers and taken into account in the city’s longer-term plans.

WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities was founded on the idea that transformative urban change happens across more than one political administration and often over a decade or more. By keeping in mind these ways of thinking about urban sustainability, you can help ensure your city is moving in the right direction.

Ani Dasgupta is the Global Director of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, WRI’s program that galvanizes action to help cities grow more sustainably and improve quality of life in developing countries around the world.

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  • Ruchira

    Here is an interesting article that describes the success of urban living going beyond mere design and climate control. It is diverse groups learning to share public places without conflict. Obviously, there is no technological solution to this but a change of mindset is required.
    https://aeon.co/essays/whats-the-best-way-to-find-common-ground-in-public-spaces?

  • Ruchira

    Thanks Ani.

    Indeed the fates of cities are in the hands of their residents in exactly the way you describe. The mayors, and not national politicians are most often the leaders who are at the forefront of improving the health of their cities.
    I live in a suburb of Houston, the fourth largest US city in population and the home to a bustling petro chemical industry. Houston is also geographically a sprawling city that is constantly expanding the boundaries of its metropolitan area. Yet, comparable to other urban areas of its size, Houston is woefully lacking in public transportation. The elected leaders, many of them obligated to the oil industry for their political funding, see the solution to traffic jams and lengthening commute times in building more highways or expanding existing ones. Suburban mayors (most of them conservative in their politics) on the other hand, see the utility of light rail connecting the far flung suburbs to downtown, the city’s huge medical center in mid town and the airport. They even had come up with a viable blueprint for utilizing existing Union Pacific rail lines across the city at certain times of the day (the customary rush hours) for commuter rail. But those suggestions were knocked down by powerful lobbies which oppose any measure that would curtail automobile traffic. What a shame. However, I think the tide may be turning and citizens are clamoring for viable public transport. The example of Dallas which has successfully incorporated a commuter rail system within its city limits may shame Houston into following suit.

    Also, I want to point out that I now find that in cities like New Delhi where environmental pollution has risen to alarming levels, residents are at last realizing that wealth doesn’t protect anyone from toxic air. Public awareness is slowly rising and activists, engineers and even some politicians are working together to come up with innovative technological solutions along with educational approaches that encourage changes of habit.

  • Ruchira

    Thanks Ani.

    Indeed the fates of cities are in the hands of its residents in exactly the way you describe. The mayors and not national politicians are most often the leaders who are at the forefront of improving the health their cities.
    I live in a suburb of Houston, the fourth largest US city in population and the home to a bustling petro-chemical industry. Houston is also geographically a sprawling city that is constantly expanding the boundaries of its metropolitan area. Yet, comparable to other urban areas of its size, Houston is woefully lacking in public transportation. The elected leaders, many of them obligated to the oil industry for their political funding, see the solution to traffic jams and lengthening commute times in building more highways or expanding existing ones. Suburban mayors (most of them conservative in their politics) on the other hand, have clamored for light rail connecting the far-flung suburbs to downtown, the city’s huge medical center in midtown and the airport. They even have come up with a viable blueprint for utilizing existing Union Pacific rail lines across the city at certain times of day for commuter rail. But all the suggestions were knocked down by powerful lobbies which oppose any measure that would curtail automobile traffic. What a shame. However, I think the tide may be turning and citizens are clamoring for viable public transport. And the example of Dallas which has successfully incorporated a commuter rail system within its city limits may shame Houston into following suit.

    Also, I want to point out that I now find that in cities like New Delhi, where environmental pollution has reached alarming levels, residents have at last realized that wealth doesn’t protect anyone from polluted air. Public awareness is slowly rising and activists and engineers are working together to come up with both innovative technological solutions along with encouraging change in the habits of people.