Thad Pawlowski talks about Climate Resilience with the Times of India

August 01, 2021

The core of our work is helping cities adapt to climate change.  We do this with the resilience accelerator program which brings together climate  research and local leadership to design projects and policies that are innovative and replicable.   The IPCC calls these climate resilient development pathways, we could also call it systemic change to the way we build and operate cities.   

Which cities globally concern you the most today in terms of having climate vulnerabilities? What would you advise their builders and planners to do right away?

All cities have to change to survive the climate crisis, and each city's challenges are in many respects unique.  But fast-growing coastal cities throughout the world pose particular danger because of the combined threats of sea level rise, more frequent and devastating storms, and a global addiction to concrete and asphalt that exacerbates flood conditions.  

What are some of the most important overall climate resilience measures cities everywhere must adopt now?

Changing patterns of growth to move away from endless consumption of land resources, particularly fossil fuel.  This means using the land that is already developed to build more dense and walkable neighborhoods. It also means living with nature instead of fighting against it.  Allowing natural systems like rivers, marshes and beaches to work with our cities.

Your group has worked in Vietnam and India (Pune) as well. What are the specific climate threats in these two locations that concern you the most - and how can architecture/urban building address these?

We worked in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, in the City of Can Tho, part of the rapidly urbanizing region around Ho Chi Minh City.  People have existed here for centuries in a watery landscape; but real estate speculation has led to highways being built of canals, and paid urban development replacing an agrarian society.   As this development proceeds, the population has been experiencing nearly constant urban flooding as a result of climate change driven increased precipitation, but also because of more complex issues.   Dams built upstream have decreased the flow of freshwater, to compensate more groundwater is being pumped and the entire delta which naturally subsides is subsiding at alarming rates.  Buildings are falling into canals.  Our design studio went there and talked with local leaders about how to change development patterns to live with water again.  

Our design studio also visited Pune and met with local leaders who have been advancing a plan to remake the Mula Mutha Rivers.   Pune is an incredible city with rich history, culture and ecology; and so much of that revolves around its life giving forces, its water.   Working with local students and faculty at  College of Engineering Pune (Dr. Arati Petkar & students) and the  Institute of Environment Education and Research, Bharati Vidyapeeth University, Pune (Dr. Shamita Kumar & students)To explore alternative ways to think about the rivers and also the patterns of urban expansion that Pune has experienced over the  last several decades.  The rapid growth of the city and expansion of its borders has placed enormous stress on the infrastructure.  One mega-project cannot solve these problems, but we believe in an incremental approach that treats the water as a precious resource to be shared by all throughout the city.  This requires long term, comprehensive planning and very local stewardship of landscapes.  

You have worked on post-Hurricane Sandy revival in NYC. What were some of the most salient features of this work? Did you also plan ahead for future extreme weather?

Unfortunately, post-disaster recovery is the moment when the most public resources are available for long term planning for urban resilience.  However, it's hard to make positive, and sustained systemic change when so many people's lives have been destroyed and they’re for mayn, the singular focus is getting back to normal.  Many local leaders realized after Sandy that everything must change, but that change will be hard.  Future disasters may accelerate that change, but it would be better for a Green New Deal, a coordinated effort by government, local activists, business, and citizens to work together to avoid future Sandy’s.

We have seen images of floods recently tearing through even medieval castles in Germany, Belgium, etc. What were your thoughts and feelings when you saw those images?

The inescapable truth of the climate crisis is that the poor suffer more and more often.  We have had floods constantly in poorer parts of the world, but when it happens in Europe or New York City or the wildfires around San Francisco, the conversation is elevated in Washington D.C. and Brussels.   I wish it didn’t take that.  I wish compassion was more globalized.   

Developing economies need enduring infrastructure. How can urban planning like yours address this challenge?

Absolutely!  The way we design infrastructure today is a matter of life and death for our planet and for our communities.  Urban planners and designers don’t have all the answers.  We need to change the process so that we bring climate scientists, indigenous knowledge, community leaders, government, and businesses together to co-create the infrastructure we need.  We can’t follow the same patterns of petrochemical urbanization that have gotten us where we are today.   

With WWF we have been involved in making scenarios for the future of coastal Mozambique, where the discovery of natural gas was a t first seen as a blessing, a path to building the wealth and infrastructure that Mozambique has been denied by centuries of slavery, brutal colonialism and war.  However, in the time we've been working on this, we’ve seen the tragic consequences of the resource curse, as an armed insurrection has occupied the town, murdering innocent people.  Extraction and fossil fuel dependent infrastructure is not the path to better future.  Mozambique has incredible natural and human capital.  Its ecology and culture is far more rich than anything underground.  We need infrastructure that develops this capital.   

What is a 'climate just' city?

I love this question, but I don’t have a simple answer.  I believe that we first have to acknowledge that our cities-and I think this is true globally as urbanization has become globalized--don’t work for everyone.   And the crises we face fall harder on the less fortunate.  I believe a climate just city means repairing historic injustices.  We need the whole of society to address our climate crisis.  We also need those most responsible to be held accountable.