Climate Week Speakers Say Cities Must Respond to Poverty

Cities are grappling with how to address the growing impacts of climate change. Two panels at Climate Week NYC took a broad view of what those impacts are and urged cities to abandon their siloed mindset about construction to focus on practices that address poverty and sustainability simultaneously. To do this, cities will need to reconceptualize how they look, how they engage with their citizens, and how to retrofit their older buildings.

The city of the future will have more green space and more off-grid buildings than cities do today, said Jamie Gentoso, global head of solutions and products at Holcim, during the panel “Accelerating Green Building for Resilient Cities.” “Things are happening much faster in the last year and a half than I’ve seen in the last 20,” she said.

But some construction decisions are slow to change. As Deborah Weintraub, chief deputy engineer at the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering, said, she has been “on a 20-year journey to increase the efficiency and performance of [city] projects.”

Yet there is a growing need to accelerate cities’ decisions, particularly those that directly affect the well-being of low-to-moderate-income communities, whose survival is made more tenuous by climate change.

Shimekia Nichols, deputy director of Soulardarity, said that in Detroit, people are forced to choose between medical expenses, health care, and utility bills as she spoke during the second session, “Climate Justice Technology – Solutions from the Frontlines.”

Soulardarity was created after DTE Energy removed streetlights from Highland Park without warning residents, Nichols said. “When you drive down our streets, you have to turn your high beams on to see our addresses.”

In Detroit, Soulardarity is resourceful in dealing with energy issues and survival challenges while it brings the perspective of those impacted to determine the best solutions. “There needs to be a reverence and respect for solutions coming from people being able to survive,” Nichols said. “We’re beginning to work on emergency kits to help residents during shutoffs and blackouts.”

If we continue business as usual, life will be very miserable in 2031, said Bertrand Piccard, explorer at Solar Impulse. “We will have people living in houses that still aren’t insulated. For the poorest people, life will be too expensive.”

Adopting environmentally efficient practices can bring down the cost of living for city residents as climate change progresses, Piccard said.

But when construction organizations look to cut costs today, they do not see the benefits of reworking the older buildings where low-to-moderate-income people live because the profit margin is not there.

“There’s no money to retrofit or upgrade older buildings,” said Kate Ascher, professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “If you look at these older buildings, they’re a tragedy.”

So the city of the future Gentoso described still seems a long way off.

Katherine Friedrich

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