Future-ready cities: Choosing where to live on a planet in crisis

Why the capacity and willingness to change trump everything.

Alex Steffen is a planetary futurist and creator of the books Worldchanging and Carbon Zero. Follow Alex on Twitter or to sign up to get his free weekly newsletter.

[Photo by Francisco Anzola]

Anybody who thinks at all seriously about climate and our other planetary crises has probably thought at least a little about their own choices and prospects.

Many of us wonder whether we live somewhere that will be a good place for ourselves and our kids in 10 or 20 or 30 years. Folks are starting to think about questions like, What will the local climate be like in coming years? Will the local infrastructure prove resilient in the face of natural disasters and economic shocks? How good is the water supply, the energy supply, the food supply? How heavily dependent on fossil fuel is the local economy? What will sea level rise mean to this place?

A few people are already relocating solely for these big picture reasons, but right now, I hear it more often as a concern, one piece of the calculus used in making life choices.

So, how might we evaluate the future-readiness of a place? I often talk about three kinds of brittleness: systemic, operational and social. I think they offer a useful lens here.

Systemic brittleness means that the systems upon which a place depends to function are themselves vulnerable to catastrophic disruption: a low-lying coastal city’s ability to function could be deeply compromised by sea level rise (even if much of its land area is never inundated).

Operational brittleness means the supply of resources and/or natural services a place depends on could be choked off either by climate change itself or by the need to rapidly reduce emissions. So, for instance, arid places that seem primed for bigger and longer droughts will become more brittle. So, too, struggling auto-dependent American suburbs will likely experience even more economic distress as resource and energy costs rise in the face of our climate crisis.

Social brittleness means that the social fabric of a place is frayed enough that the kind of strain brought by climate impacts and action could undermine the well-being of that place. Places that are very poor now, for instance, may be especially hard-hit by chaotic weather; places with extreme income inequality may become increasingly volatile politically; places with severe ethnic or religious societal divisions could become more violent (as we’ve seen, tragically, in Syria).

How prepared a place is now to meet the challenges ahead is one good way to assess how wise a place it would be to move to now. Preparedness, in this context, demands the opposite of brittleness: ruggedness. Cities, regions and nations that are more systemically, operationally and socially rugged now have a huge advantage in the century ahead. How temperate the local climate is likely to be; how stable the surrounding ecosystem services (like access to water) are likely to remain; how wise (or lucky) the region has been in growing energy-efficient cities and low-carbon economies; how well-off the local people are and how socially cohesive the community is; how much strength and integrity their national governments have — all these will matter, undoubtedly.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that readiness to act matters at least as much as how well-positioned a place is now.

No city-region on Earth is nearly as future-ready as it needs to be. Every place should be investing boldly over the next decades in ruggedizing their systems, growing civic resilience and building up the local capacity for innovation, adaptation and rapid cultural change.

Head-starts are not destiny. Because so much work remains to be done, everywhere, being a city-region ready to meet the future (whatever it looks like) is — to some real degree — more important than being luckiest in location or wealthiest at the moment. Successful engagement with future turmoil will demand leadership, strong civic cultures, commitment to change, tough choices, aggressive action on big systems. No city out there is moving fast enough, yet, but some are beginning to show signs of understanding the scope, scale and speed of the change demanded of them. Others look great now, but are changing only incrementally and slowly. There comes a point where lack of action means further incremental change can no longer keep up with exponential problems. On the other hand, places that are actively enough developing adaptive capacities may be able to overcome starting from a somewhat more brittle position.

Personally, I’d rather live in a city that’s moving fast to meet the future, than one that started father ahead, but is stuck and complacent, or simply unwilling to go beyond mere incremental change. If I became confident that any city was in fact poised to be a real global leader, I’d move in a heartbeat.

I know I’m not alone. In fact, it’s cleat to me that a city that really threw itself to the forefront of urban innovation (and had a clear commit to even bolder innovations to come) would find itself a magnet for civic talent, entrepreneurial efforts and global investment.

It might be a city few of us think of a leader now (though I think a score or so of well-established metros are positioned to rocket ahead, if they launch more ambitious strategies). It might be a city in the developing world, (though most of the obvious lead contenders have problems at least as big and politics at least as stuck as any of their developed world competitors).

It might even be an American city, because for all our faults — the U.S. is far behind much of the rest of the world on sustainable innovation; we currently face severe political gridlock; we suffer from a legacy of massive sprawl; we generally have civic cultures too frayed and poisoned by predatory delay to make it easy to even imagine rapid change — we do have an openness to the spirit of progress, innovation and enterprise that could be a huge advantage if combined with actual political leadership and reform.

Wherever it may emerge, the edge a leading bright green city-region gains in the next 20 years could put it in a position of increasing prosperity for a century, even in the midst of hard and turbulent times. The whole world will eventually need what that city is inventing. The solutions it explores and develops could benefit the entire world and launch a wave of successful enterprises. The best possible scenario would be one in which several (or many) cities hurl themselves into fierce competition to lead in a bright green urban boom.

If you want my advice, one of those cities is where you and your kids will want to be in the decades ahead.

A version of this piece was originally published on August 18, 2011 at www.alexsteffen.com.

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