New Challenges in City Design to Post-COVID

The 2020 SEOUL DESIGN INTERNATONAL FORUM has obtained written consent from the speaker to publish the summarized and edited content

SPEAKER: Richard Sennett (Chair, The UN Habitat Urban Initiatives Group)

At a time when the world is thinking about the form of cities to come after Corona, we need to think about how cities should be constructed from a more comprehensive perspective. In addition to the challenges triggered by the coronavirus, the problem of climate change, which must be approached from a particularly long-term perspective, is an area that cannot be prevented or treated, and is a topic that needs to be found through continuous problem-solving, dialogue, and discussion. How should we respond to the problem of climate change that all cities face in the future and must solve in the long term? We would like to discuss six issues on climate change to be announced at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26).

1. Rejection and refusion of information

At the time of the signing of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, we expected that if more information on climate change was provided to the public, people would perceive it as a crisis, pay more attention to it, and actively respond to it. However, the more information about climate change and crises was provided, the more people refused or turned away from it rather than paying attention to it.

‘Knowing and Not Knowing’

Research by Hannah Arendt and Stanley Cohen has revealed the social science proposition that the more people know about a threat or crisis, the more they tend to avoid or reject it. For example, Germans reacted by ignoring the disappearance of 6 million Jews in Germany even though they were aware of it, while whites living in South Africa were well aware of the conditions of black settlements,  but only general matters were delivered and specific truths were ignored. Also, as noted by the 19th century psychologist Pavlov, animals adopt a passive attitude when they are threatened by predators, hoping that the predator will pass them by. Like them, we have the tendency of keeping stationary in a shrinking manner in these crises. The joy of information and knowing certainly generates energy, but there is an adverse function in the language of crisis, so we should be able to talk about alternatives to life-threatening situations and capacity building rather than simply expressing crisis in language.

2. Current status of climate change

The combination of global energy sources in 2035 is predicted to have very disappointing results, as can be seen in the data below. Renewable energy accounts for only 14%, and oil, coal and natural gas, which cause a lot of pollution and temperature rise, are still expected to be the main sources of electricity. The time given to us in the future is 15-20 years, and if our behavior does not change, we will face a worsening situation within five years. In addition, the greenhouse gas sources are mostly from the energy used in residential and commercial buildings, and are expected to remain in this state unless we seek dramatic change.


Distribution of global energy source combinations and greenhouse gas emission sources


In addition, in the analysis of urban climate change, water consumption is a very important indicator to understand the progress of climate change. This includes the problems that cities and regions are experiencing due to flooding, the problem of the disappearing water table, and the loss of water or evaporation of the atmosphere. We believe that major coastal cities will be threatened by rising sea levels and loss of groundwater levels in the future. If you project what a flooded UK will look like 30 years from now, some areas will be completely submerged or uninhabitable. The UK has a relatively large amount of land, but cities such as London, Liverpool and Edinburgh, which are threatened by rising sea levels, are mostly located at inland river estuaries, so these cities could lose their ability to function. If the atmospheric temperature rises by 4°C, the appearance of London is expected to change significantly. This suggests that it could have a huge impact.


London's flooding situation in the event of a flood predicted as air temperature rises

3. The Act and Acceptance of Climate Refugees

The large-scale expansion of desertification around the world is related to the problem of urban migrants, that is, refugees due to water shortage. The deserted areas that run from the Atlantic Ocean to the far end of Pakistan have suffered from prolonged drought and accelerating desertification. The photo below shows Somalia 8 years ago and clearly shows the effects of desertification. As a result of using a well in the area for 8 years in the past, desertification due to water shortage has become severe, and the environment is no longer where residents can live. As a result, they began to migrate to the city to escape the crisis. This desertification phenomenon has spread throughout the Savannah region, and more and more urban migrants are heading to Europe.


Wells and desertification in Somalia

The problem the United Nations is struggling with is that these migrants are actually segregated into economic migrants who do not have the right to claim to be refugees. The definition of refugees adopted by the United Nations in 1951 refers to those who may feel afraid and may not be protected when returning to their home country. Although this definition of refugees does not correspond to those who die from extreme thirst, they are actually unable to return to their home country.

In Europe, 1.5 million refugees have been displaced since the Syrian war in 2015, and the United Nations predicts that by 2050 about 40 million refugees will be displaced from all over the world. Given the political impact this will have, I think we need to re-enact the law so that they can be guaranteed their status as climate refugees. Issuing refugee passports can provide them with legal status or provide refugees with protection in the country they wish to enter. The refugee problem caused by climate change is one of the biggest challenges that cities can face, and it is a problem that can be confronted not only in political terms but also in various aspects of society.

4. Can climate change be addressed democratically?

As a practical and immediate challenge, the best approach to addressing climate change is a bottom-up approach. The master plan of the 20th century is too broad, and it is insufficient to properly deal with the various affairs of the city in the pursuit of a democratic way rather than directly dealing with our way of life. Each city is trying to deal with the global climate change problem on a common basis and trying to expand it, but unfortunately this is a very time-consuming task. Based on our experience, community planning usually takes 4 to 5 years to build a rational organization and deal with issues related to infrastructure. Since it takes a lot of time in a democratic way, it is very urgent to respond to climate change in relation to the time given to us. The issue of scale must also be considered. In the case of São Paulo, Brazil, 80-90 communities each want to deal with water use and electricity supply issues in a comprehensive way. However, there are limitations in terms of time and scale that are difficult to deal with in a bottom-up method.

Personally, I trust the way the city has been doing it democratically, but there is a challenge to how to speed up and efficiently proceed with the existing method. Of course, there is no one best practice that works for everyone, as every city is different and everyone has structural problems. However, we are faced with the problem of scale and that a lot of the time taken by the democratic approach is not actually given to us. We can also talk about how to deal with climate change undemocratically. This new approach can solve all the problems, but I don't think it's an appropriate way to make a sustainable city because it is unilaterally conducted by a central group rather than a participatory method. Members should be able to participate and make choices so that they can decide when and how to address climate change in cities.

5. Balance between adaptation and mitigation

We must reduce and adapt to conditions that cannot be minimized by reducing the environmental impacts caused by climate change, and in the end we must embrace mitigation and adaptation together. If you look at two extreme examples of mitigation and adaptation—Hurricane Sandy, which occurred in New York eight years ago and devastated the city, and the flash floods in Fukushima—in a climate where water levels rise due to storms, in New York City a mound was built to prevent flooding and to protect the buildings on Wall Street. Unfortunately, these predictions were wrong, and a year later, higher storms raged in the suburbs of Manhattan, causing damage, which can be seen as a case of dealing with the mitigation of the extent of the damage.


B.I.G.-designed Berm Proposal / Storm surge barrier Rotterdam 145 year framework 

Another adaptive model, created at MIT, is the principle of mitigating the degree of destruction by making a way for water to escape and releasing more energy when a storm comes. Using the principle that the sea sucks back water that has fallen to the land, the lowland grasses prevent flash floods from storms and absorb water again to prevent excessive damage. Rather than simply trying to block the inflow of water itself, this is a way to accept the situation in which water has no choice but make an effort to find a way to mitigate the consequences.

Adaptation focuses on preventing harm from occurring, and mitigation focuses on reducing its impact.

The best barrier to preventing a tsunami in Rotterdam is a device that opens and closes according to the degree of storm surge rise through two devices, which is a very good structure for storm surge response but takes 45 years to build. 

We also face the problem of increasing the green area. An example of an idea proposed by an MIT student in Phoenix, Arizona to address this problem, as most highways are dark or solid, holds heat rather than dissipating it, involves a plan to green all the space around the highway. This is a very good idea, but it has the problem that it takes a long time of 30 years.


Proposal to green Phoenix and Koolseal pait, water-based, titanium infused Los Angeles

To solve this problem, water-soluble titanium Koolseal paint with a cooling function can be used. This paint can be used on both roads and other surfaces, as white acts as a heat barrier, so it can cool a space, reduce heat and create a cooling effect, replacing greening plans. Because this paint can be used by any member of the community without having to call an expert, the Bronx and New York are using this paint where the roof of their house needs cooling, which has resulted in a reduction in air conditioner usage and energy consumption, which have a significant impact on the environment.


1 Koolseal paint applied to rooftop and road

In LA, a combination of Koolseal paint and eco-waterway is used to create flower beds and paint around them to prevent disasters like Hurricane Sandy. The plant not only absorbs heat, but also purifies the water, helping to solve the acid rain problem in Los Angeles.

6. Changes in behavior

What can we, living in cities, as citizens do to minimize the impact of climate change? One of the most important things we can do is stop using our cars. In order for us to maintain the warming level that limits global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius, we need to encourage people not to drive and to decentralize. Many people go to work by car, so we need to prevent overcrowding so that people can walk or bike to densely populated areas.

In the case of the 15 Minute Cities project in Paris, since Paris is a very centralized city, certain functions such as clothing and financial districts were decentralized into the surrounding areas to ease concentration and allow different groups to communicate outside of the city. They also created a car-free city.


The chart above shows that recycling has limited effectiveness in many ways to combat climate change. Recycling is a good activity because it can reduce pollution from plastics, but it is not an activity that is directly effective in mitigating climate change, and reducing the use of automobiles is the most effective way.

What we need to do now is to change the culture of a city.

Nature is a resource that should not be taken for granted. Since we have used too much nature in our pursuit of the material world today, we should not think of nature as an infinite resource as in the past, but also think differently about development. Rather than creating more, we need to redistribute what we already have and make sure that we all enjoy equally what is left of nature. The United Nations considers this one of the biggest challenges, but climate change is making it difficult for us to achieve our goals.

We need to think about how to share the natural resources we have equitably.

Cities are seeing several challenges post-COVID-19. It is necessary to think about the direction the city should aim for in the next 10-20 years and what the climate change problems will be, and to adapt and adapt. There are many changes, but you have to find an appropriate way by accommodating and adapting to those changes. We need to create a way to mitigate climate change, and create a way that the community can actually use, such as the cooling effect of Koolseal paint mentioned above. And it is important to induce more people to participate, to make a variety of changes in a bottom-up way.

We must change the culture. We must reconsider our relationship with nature and face that there are no reports that are taken for granted anymore. Our nature is so exhausted that we will have to think about how to give away what we have rather than a city with more development, bigger cities, and taller buildings.

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