Cities and Climate Change: An Uncertain Future

“We are cities. Cities are us.”

So said the dynamic young Mayor of Tirana, Albania, during a discussion on sustainable cities hosted by the World Bank in Lima, Peru. Mayor Erion Veliaj’s basic premise is true: Cities are more than buildings and roads and gullies. They are people.

Downtown street scene. (My photo)
Downtown street scene. (My photo)

By the year 2050, the United Nations estimates 66 per cent of the global population will be living in cities and towns.* The Latin America/Caribbean region is already one of the most urbanized in the world, with 79 per cent of the population living in towns and cities, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) reports. In developing countries, citizens continue to migrate from the countryside, seeking work and better living conditions. In the past decade climate change has exacerbated this trend; these are sometimes called “climate refugees.” Inevitably, demand grows for energy, water, food and other services.

Boys playing football in Vin Lawrence Park, First Street, Trench Town. The "park" needs to be much greener. (My photo)
Boys playing football in Vin Lawrence Park, First Street, Trench Town. (My photo)

Trench Town is typical of a long established but under-resourced urban area with high unemployment, degraded housing and inadequate government services. Climate change has greatly affected Trench Town and its environs in recent years – especially crippling summer droughts, with no rain and soaring heat, in 2014/15. Occasional water shortages are not particularly unusual, thanks to poor infrastructure. Few homes have water tanks. Very often, it is the children’s job to fetch water: at a standpipe, or a nearby street where there is water. So the children of Trench Town are not unaccustomed to pushing hand carts with buckets full of water back to their homes.

In mid-July of this year things took a turn for the worse. The drought really started to bite. Below Seventh Street, there was simply no water at all. Standpipes produced only a trickle, involving long waits (and sometimes disputes). The children who usually enjoy the Summer Camp at Trench Town Reading Centre on First Street were late or absent. The Centre had water, homes did not. Children were unable to bathe or wear clean clothes (let’s not forget this important point: Jamaicans are fastidious about their personal hygiene). While most homes have flush toilets, sanitation and general cleanliness became a major concern.This has implications too, in the context of the highly contagious hand foot and mouth disease, which broke out in several drought-stricken infant schools across the country recently.

Corn and coconut purchased on Collie Smith Drive, Trench Town. (My photo)
Corn and coconut purchased on Collie Smith Drive, Trench Town. (My photo)

The lack of drinking water remains a problem throughout the poorer parts of the city. Unlike their better-off counterparts, Trench Town residents cannot afford expensive bottled water. Children drink cheap “sugar water” in a bag instead – an unhealthy substitute. Clean drinking water will likely become a persistent health issue in Jamaica’s poorer urban neighborhoods, if droughts become the norm. Wells dug across the city years ago are  contaminated by sewage and unusable. 

Let’s look at solutions, globally and for Jamaica, taking it as a “given” that cities are the pre-eminent producers (and consumers) today and for the future.

Buildings account for approximately one third of world energy use and emissions. Designing eco-friendly, livable, resilient, “climate-proof” buildings is a necessity. Jamaican architect Brian Bernal, a member of the Jamaica Green Building Council​ observes: “We are outstripping the adaptive capacity of our environs. To combat this we need to quickly create a more responsive way of building that minimizes our reliance on active mechanical systems. A system that incorporates the best traditional building practices, such as orienting our homes to take advantage of natural breezes, with the appropriate modern sustainable technology.” Bernal recommends as “first steps” rainwater collection; solar water heating; enhanced natural ventilation (avoiding air conditioning); shading (overhangs and verandas); waste reduction (composting); and water efficient fixtures.

Jamaican architect Brian Bernal would like to see "green" building codes implemented and practiced. (My photo)
Jamaican architect Brian Bernal would like to see “green” building codes implemented and practiced. (My photo)
Many towns are built on the coast. Negril is experiencing coastal erosion due to rising sea levels, among other factors. (My photo)
Many towns and cities, in Jamaica and globally, are built on the coast. Negril is experiencing coastal erosion due to rising sea levels, among other factors. (My photo)

Then there are cars (thousands of them), trains and buses, taking commuters to work in city centers and back home. How can we cut this wasteful use of energy, creating a better quality of life and lowering emissions? South Africa’s Vice Minister of Finance says poor people living in or near urban areas spend forty per cent of their income on transportation. Why not create employment opportunities much closer to home, cutting down on traveling? The South African Government plans to create townships as economic mini-hubs, so people can walk or bike to work. Clean renewable energy is the way of the future for public transportation. In Jamaican towns, more pedestrian areas – and more car-pooling – can help.

Air pollution is a persistent problem; in Mexico City (population 21 million) transportation accounts for 56 per cent of emissions. The World Health Organization estimates that in 2012 around 7 million people died worldwide – one in eight of total global deaths – as a result of outdoor air pollution. The “greening” of cities is a step in the right direction, and cleaner fuels for public transportation. In Jamaica, strict enforcement of laws prohibiting open burning of garbage will help.

And the vexed issue of water? Many of the options for Jamaican cities and towns are costly; meanwhile conservation is key. Homes and businesses can be retro-fitted with rainwater harvesting equipment and water tanks. Waste “grey” water can be recycled for gardens and parks.

Cities produce enormous quantities of waste! Sixty cities in India collect over 15,342 tonnes of plastic waste per day, with over 6,000 tonnes uncollected, its Central Pollution Control Board reports. Landfills and garbage dumps produce methane, a major greenhouse gas; at Kingston’s Riverton City dump, recurring fires have poured toxic chemicals into the air. Innovative recycling programs and strict monitoring of dumps must be prioritized.

"Farming Inna Di City" is reaping results in Jones Town, Kingston. (Photo: Jamaica Baptist
“Farming Inna Di City” is reaping results in Jones Town, Kingston. (Photo: Jamaica Baptist Union Mission Agency)

Let us now envision self-sustaining and sustainable cities, producing food, water and energy to serve their growing needs. Land and buildings can be used more efficiently. New York’s JFK International Airport already has its own farm, which keeps the air cleaner and supplies produce for airport restaurants and in-flight snacks. In the downtown neighborhood of Jones Town, Kingston, the Jamaica Baptist Union Mission Agency spearheads a successful five-year project with the Jones Town Baptist Church (“Farming Inna Di City”) in which idle government-owned lands are leased and farmed. The urban farmers reap rich harvests, provide employment and help feed the community. Large (and small) tracts of public and private land lying empty in the heart of Kingston can be used productively.

Trench Town Reading Centre plans to install a new roof with rainwater harvesting facilities, when funding permits. Rainwater is currently stored in large tubs; a proper tank is needed. Children clean up with hand sanitizers on entering and leaving the Centre. In the small garden, soon to be expanded, more drought-resistant plants are to be acquired. Most importantly, the children will learn about climate change.

For these young urban citizens, a sustainable future beckons.

*World Urbanization Prospects, 2014

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