Niklas Agarwal: Canadian cities need to plan for climate unpredictability

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      By Niklas Agarwal

      If Vancouver needed a wakeup call on climate change, the past few months have shown just how unprepared we are for the new climate reality. Vancouver and other Canadian cities need to design themselves to be adaptive and resilient to disasters related to climate change.

      We had the warmest winter in 120 years in 2014-15, leaving a severely diminished snow pack on the mountains. This summer we experienced deep regional and provincial water restrictions limiting agricultural production, while wildfires burning across the province covered Vancouver in a thick haze. Just three months ago, extreme winds downed trees dry from the summer and left over 700,000 residents without power

      The reality and threat of climate change from our oil dependence is pervasive and will only get worse. This is not a unique phenomenon; Vancouver is only the latest in a string of cities across the country experiencing once in a lifetime extreme disasters. 

      There was the Calgary flood, then the polar vortex that hit Toronto and Montréal, and now Vancouver. Often lauded as a city with green targets and a sustainability mindset, Vancouver hasn’t thought beyond the ever-present earthquake threat to encompass the new dangers of climate change. 

      As a geography student who has lived in Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver, I’ve experienced the effects that extreme heat, cold, rain, and wind can have on a city. Vancouver and other Canadian cities can be better at adapting to upcoming disasters and extreme events. 

      To date, Canadian cities have focused on infrastructural or social resiliency in response to climate change. Toronto developed an urban park, Corktown Common, with a built-in earth hill, or berm, to protect the downtown core—the financial heart of Canada—from flooding.

      In Montréal, active festivals and events encourage neighbours to connect with each other, building relationships to rely upon when power goes out during the winter. A report after the 2005 flood in Calgary listed measures such as stopping the sale of land on flood plains and obtaining real data on the zones prone to flooding. These recommendations were buried by the government and only became public after the 2013 mass flooding.

      In Vancouver, we’ve expanded the local food movement, creating greater food security and skill sets to grow our own food.

      But these examples aren’t nearly sufficient. Across the country, our cities are aging without an increase of federal funding for infrastructure. We need more support at the national level for our cities.  

      In New York City, the federal government committed 300 million dollars to fund the Big U, a citizen project that seeks to build a protective barrier around Lower Manhattan while also serving as public amenity. Uniquely, citizens were actively involved in the process of designing the infrastructure. While our existing infrastructure needs to be bolstered, we also need more community led resilient efforts to co-design proactive adaptations to climate change.  

      Cities are increasingly incorporating future flooding into urban architecture. In Rotterdam, Benthemplein Water Square doubles as a water basin in times of high rainfall.
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      In Copenhagen, they have redesigned St. Kjeld to be the world’s first climate-change adapted neighbourhood, tearing up the neighbourhood’s asphalt squares and replacing them with mini-parks that turn into water basins. Streets with raised sidewalks will become canals in heavy rain, channeling rainwater away from the squares to the harbour. 

      Rotterdam’s Benthemplein Water Square is a basketball court that holds surplus water after a downpour. 

      All these projects are protective infrastructure that beautify their cities while protecting them from disaster. 

      We have much more than extreme weather to be prepared for. In his book American Exodus: Climate Change and the Coming Flight for Survival, Giles Slade points out that because of its Pacific Northwest location, our city will become a primary destination for new refugees fleeing climate change catastrophe.  

      The consequences of climate change have grown from small cultural shifts to life-threatening. In this past windstorm citizens were left without electricity for 70 hours without any communication from the city.  

      We need to take climate change more seriously. It is rapidly becoming life or death. 

      Niklas Agarwal is a student at Simon Fraser University’s Semester in Dialogue CityStudio program. Follow him on Twitter @niklas1395.

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