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Cities need to cool down to survive

08 May 2018 Author: Milena Ivkovic

On a heated and climate-stressed planet, cities need to cool down. This year, we have witnessed another warm winter in the Artic, causing (again) massive meltdowns of the Arctic ice layers. The frequency of this occurrence indicates that it is too late to re-freeze the Arctic with current mitigation efforts.

Mitigation is not enough

The time has come for urban planners and designers to focus on adaptation to climate change as a major new planning paradigm. Mitigation is not the only option any more, but its combination with adaptation has  become one of the imperatives for improving  day-to-day life in cities.

Within the New Urban Agenda there are several chapters, directions and clear imperatives directly addressing the links between climate change adaptation and the better future of cities. Some of the UN's sustainable development goals are directly addressing the roots of climate change such as pollution, CO2 emissions and transport issues.

The New Urban Agenda can also be seen in another light: as a call to urban environments to be responsible for and responsive to upcoming extremes in the broadest meaning of the term: temperature, density, pollution, as well as political, cultural and social extremes.

Early climate adaptation focuses on rigid resistance

Planning with extremes and for extremes has always been present in urban development. In the 1950’s and 60’s, designing for extremes became one of the main ideologies, with its futuristic, cool aesthetics. It generated visions of enclosed, domed, or highly mechanized autonomous cities, indifferent to their surrounding environment.

Looking at it on a more abstract level, these early models of “adaptive environment” were mirrors of the Zeitgeist – placing the city under a protective shield, whether by borders or by physical barriers, was a way to express the uncertainties of the Cold War era. The overall sentiment of those times was to provide a sense of a protected “interior” in the city, a human-friendly environment sheltered from “outside” threat – whether it was an actual harsh climate or just metaphorical, political threat. 

In the 70’s, the idea that urbanism should provide a shield for humans against nature expanded further. The Arctic region and its human settlements provided an ideal test-ground for these urban concepts. One of the notable experiments of such a "climate-responsive" city in the Arctic, created in 1971, was from the famous German architect and urbanist Otto Frei..

Arctic City Otto Frei

Copyright: Otto Frei

Economic growth and liberal policies in the 80s and 90s sidelined the importance of climate and environmental responsiveness, creating the legacy we are dealing with today. Not only the environment but cities themselves have become places of an inhospitable climate. 

"Cool cities" move along with external influences

In this context, "cool planning" as a new concept in climate adaptation differs from the early rigid models that focused on resisting the outside world. Advocating models that “move along” with external influences, "cool planning" conceives the city not anymore as a hard barrier to climate change (being a barrier means it can  easily break), but reinvents it as a service to climate adaptation.

This transition from a rigid system (as in architectural utopias of the 60’s and 70s) that is prone to collapse towards a flexible system that can endure much more pressure from the environment is the essence of the new Cool City.

Cities: villain, victim and saviour of climate change

The 2018 Congress of the International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP), to be held in Bodø, Norway, is focused on cool cities and cool planning. ISOCARP General Rapporteur Dushko Bogunovich remarks that “cities have a three-folded role in the evolving planetary climate drama: as villains, victims, and potential saviours.”

Villains, because urban areas are the principal cause of harm to the climate; victims, because more than half of the planet lives in cities; and saviours, because the possible remedies can be effective only where populations are concentrated. Therefore, urbanity is the both the cause and the solution to the warming up of the environment.

See you in Bodø in October this year!

Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.

Milena Ivkovic

Milena Ivkovic

Milena Ivkovic is Vice President of International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP). Besides her role at ISOCARP, Milena runs her own Rotterdam-based practice Blok74, dedicated to developing innovative approaches in the fields of design and planning. ivkovich@isocarp.org