Abandoned cities and temporary settlements – sea level rises may radically change our urban future

We all know that our era is an urban one. By 2050, 70 % of the global population is expected to live in cities.  Over 1 million people move into urban areas every week.  The draw of economic and social opportunity makes many cities magnetic for firms, talent and culture.

So much of our thinking about how to grow functional and liveable cities is based on our existing cities. We expect our established global cities to grow. Our focus is how to manage growth.

We have failed to imagine the wrecking ball of climate change, its associated unrest and how this may render many established cities unliveable.  New cities may grow almost overnight as a result of refugee movements or ‘reactive’ government policies.

Just a few weeks ago the government of Indonesia announced that it was relocating its capital city functions from Jakarta, a city that is sinking, to Borneo.  Nearly half of Jakarta sits below sea level and some areas are sinking around 25cms a year.

Greater Jakarta is home to 30 million people – with around 10 million in the city itself. As the SMH article above explains – many of these people will be displaced by rising sea levels. The consequences for all investments in the city will be catastrophic, desperation will be high, people will have no choice but to move. How will the government cope? Where will the necessary investment come from when established investments have been lost?

Scientists are revising the scale of sea level rise up. Some believe that sea levels may rise by two metres or more by 2100.  But we also need to factor in heat, access to drinking water, arable land, taxation, war, disease – all exacerbated by climate change.  Those cities that create successful strategies to survive climate change may be inundated with refugees from cities that didn’t.

Many of our major cities, located on coasts or around major rivers and estuaries, won’t be able to withstand rising sea levels without barricading themselves within unfeasibly high sea walls.  Around 30% of European cities will be affected. Around 180 cities in the US will be affected by rising sea levels by 2030. The most significant impact will be felt by cities in Asia and South East Asia.

The knock on effect will be displacement within and across national borders. Countries for whom the issue of refugees feels relatively distant, may now find it a central issue for their own populations.

Do we prepare to say goodbye to New York, London, Amsterdam, Shanghai?

At the same time there are huge movements of refugees escaping war, climate change and political upheaval. Temporary settlements are starting to become cities in their own right. According to the UN, the average time refugees stay in temporary settlements is 17 years.

These are not temporary camps – they are emerging cities. These emerging cities may only receive attention at the margins – but they represent a template for how we will deal with the massive dislocation that is to some.

As we can predict – the biggest barriers are failure of imagination, co-ordination  and political polarisation. We need to share this earth and we need to find a way to do that beyond the artificial boundary of country and culture.

Those that think that barricades can be artificially created – by higher sea walls or by border controls – are failing to imagine that their own destiny may also be as a refugee.

Cities and nations that look to strategies to protect themselves alone need to realise that we are all in this together.

We need cities to step up as global communities that work for the world, not just for their own interests. Because ultimately our interests are intertwined in complex ways and we just don’t know which of us will be called to help and which of us will need help to be offered.






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