With people crowding into urban areas, how can cities protect themselves against climate change?

Climate change does not treat people equally. Sirkku Juhola, professor of urban environmental policy, studies how risks caused by climate change vary by city-dwellers’ wealth and place of residence, among other factors.

In weather history, the summer of 2018 will be remembered as particularly hot. This heatwave was not desirable to all.

According to preliminary data released by the National Institute for Health and Welfare, the long periods of heat in the summer caused approximately 380 premature deaths in Finland.

It is likely that similar news will be published also in the future. We are likely to see more heatwaves and related adverse health effects brought about by the warming climate and an ageing population.

Threats stemming from climate change will be particularly pronounced in cities, since in tightly built urban areas great numbers of people live in close proximity to each other. This is why urban studies is an important part of multidisciplinary research focused on climate change.

Research projects in urban environmental politics are looking into, among other things, how cities have adapted to climate change.

“It’s about both how big the risks associated with climate change will be in certain geographical areas and how cities have prepared for these risks,” says Sirkku Juhola, professor of urban environmental policy at the University of Helsinki.

Risks down to three factors

Heatwaves, floods and other extreme weather phenomena comprise only a part of any threat facing a region or city. Another factor is the inhabitants in the sphere of influence of such weather events: what kind of people live in a city, and where are their homes located – do they reside in typically affluent districts in the city centre or in outlying slums?

Having slum areas close to the coast only increases the vulnerability of cities.

“If marine flooding and, say, river flooding combine, poorer areas in particular may suffer extensively,” Juhola says.

To prevent such disasters, research should extend to which methods are best suited to mapping out related risks. Juhola and her group are conducting such mapping research.

Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in autumn 2005, was one of the most destructive hurricanes in the history of the United States. According to Juhola, Katrina is a good example of the impact of social inequality in a natural disaster, even though this particular weather phenomenon was not related to climate change.

“Poor people were forced to stay in regions ravaged by the storm, since they were unable to leave the city.

Later, the hurricane was even said to have laid bare the extent of social inequality prevalent in the United States.”

The weakest suffer

In addition to financial resources, the scope of risk is influenced by the social capital of the people living in a given region. Chronically ill elderly people, for instance, cannot rely solely on the aid of their financial advantages to escape a heatwave descending on a city.

“Money makes no difference if no one is looking after you. If there is no immediate family or friends to help, the situation may become dire.”

Researchers specialised in urban environmental policy also assess the city of Helsinki from the perspective of the people relocating here in the future and the districts they end up inhabiting.

There are no ready-made equations for calculating societal change.

“We have attempted to develop various methods to understand how urban development can result in the emergence of new risks, for example, by the 2050s. Occasionally, research feels like you’re rubbing a crystal ball,” Juhola says.

Take this example: urban development aimed at compaction often means the construction of a large number of small apartments in a city. If old people move into these apartments, they are in a particularly vulnerable state should an intensive heatwave strike – small apartments heat up faster than large ones. In other words, urban planning at its worst can indirectly make the situation more difficult for people who are in a vulnerable position to begin with.

“And yet, the risks are in principle smaller in Finland compared to many other places in the world. For example, a lot of housing has been built on delta plains in Bangladesh, which is why climate change is a more serious threat there.”

Cities as pioneers?

In addition to risk assessment, urban environmental policy studies how measures taken by cities affect the progress of climate change.

Research on cities is important, as a major global process of urbanisation is currently underway, with more and more people moving from remote areas to cities.

“In Finland, it’s evidenced as the continuous growth of cities, but globally it’s much fiercer still. Urbanisation results in electricity and other resources being consumed more in cities than elsewhere.”

In other words, people live, travel and spend time in cities. The actual resources used, however, are often produced elsewhere, as large cities don’t have agriculture and often not even heavy industrial activity.

“The ecological footprint of cities has already been measured for some time, and most cities live beyond their means. Studies are investigating how extensive infrastructures related to mobility can be redesigned and how we know in the first place that the changes implemented are taking us in the right direction,” Juhola says.

Juhola believes the most important thing is to observe where emissions originate in cities, after which decision-makers have to consider what kind of policies could be used to reduce them.

Cities wield a lot of power

The activities of cities are an important research topic, also due to the fact that cities themselves claim an active role both in mitigating climate change and adapting to it. For instance, large cities have established various networks of parties addressing climate change, such as the C40 network, which comprises 90 cities.

Cities have also initiated various climate projects that engage urbanites, such as Ilmastokatu, a project active from 2015 to 2017 on the street Iso Roobertinkatu in Helsinki and the area surrounding the Tikkurila railway station in Vantaa. During the project, city-dwellers were invited to contribute to decision-making related to climate policies. Juhola took part as a researcher working at Aalto University.

According to Juhola, the active stance taken by cities stems from their broad influencing opportunities. In terms of carbon dioxide emissions, it matters how energy is produced and how much cities support public transport and biking instead of private motoring – decisions cities can make themselves.

“Cities are often able to make quite significant [climate-related] decisions, as they are largely responsible for their own energy production. In Helsinki, too, all energy used by the city is produced within its limits.”

Juhola considers cities’ experiments with engaging their inhabitants in decision-making "a positive direction", but accurate research-based evidence of related impacts is yet to be collected.

This is why city activities must be further studied. In the field of urban environmental policy, for example, large sets of text data are utilised to compare the political measures used to curb climate change in cities and the amount of progress cities have made in their endeavours. Such data includes political documents.

“It’s fascinating to see how documents compare with reality. Extremely optimistic strategies make it look like cities have gotten far in their mitigation and adaptation measures. But what about in practice?” asks Juhola.

Small but important acts

If citizens had been passive before, it was the report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in autumn 2018 that finally set them in motion. Many have announced their willingness to slow down global warming through their personal consumer choices.

Sirkku Juhola thinks the possibilities of having an impact on the threat of climate change through individual choices are limited, but not entirely inconsequential.

“Curbing climate change requires a total transformation of energy production and consumption as well as general living habits on the global scale.

This requires both activity by individual citizens and political measures: the gravity of the threat posed by climate change must first be understood and taken seriously, after which change can be promoted, for example, by voting.”

“Citizens’ personal activity supports the change needed on a larger scale. Taking part in the political debate is just as important as making personal decisions sensible in terms of the climate.”

“Of course, personal choices can make others aware of the change needed, inducing a positive chain reaction,” Juhola points out.

Juhola herself has been a vegetarian for 20 years. She uses wind electricity and rides a bike as often as possible. To her regret, travelling is a necessity when working as a scholar.

Juhola’s doctoral dissertation in development studies focused on rice farming in West Africa. Completing her dissertation at the University of East Anglia, she spent a year in Ghana, in addition to which she has lived in Nigeria and Tanzania. Altogether, she lived abroad for 15 years before returning to Finland in 2009.

“Having lived in, say, Africa, important matters such as cycling and vegetarianism may occasionally feel trivial. A large share of the world’s population is living in challenging conditions already without the threat of climate change.”


Learn more about Juhola's research group Urban Environmental Policy

Watch Sirkku Juhola explain how to measure sustainability:

[social_media url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DzZZJfW4Fpk][/social_media]