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Cities, regions and built environment: Advancing climate action in the places we live

Dr Robert Cowley

Department of Geography

11 November 2021

UN Climate Change Conferences (COP) provide an annual opportunity to bemoan the impotence of national governments in the face of global problems. But does this disappointment highlight an ongoing failure in our political imagination? Dr Robert Cowley from the Department of Geography looks at transformative solutions at more local levels and how these can support our cities adapt to climate change.

The repeated failure of COP summits to engender substantive change suggests the need to draw on alternative forms of agency in the contemporary world. The nation state framework is, after all, a legacy of capitalism’s spread: the end product of environmental exploitation, rather than an obvious starting point for reversing these trends. Perhaps we might begin instead by expecting to find transformative solutions at more local levels, and use international institutions to amplify the lessons learnt. It is most obviously cities – where most of humanity now lives – that have attracted attention as primary sites of innovative change.

City regions or national governments: who holds the answer to urban sustainability?

The appeal of looking to cities for inspiration seemed irresistible during the 2009 Copenhagen UN Climate Change Conference, which hosted COP15. The overall failure of this conference contrasted strikingly with the parallel ‘Summit for Mayors’, after which leaders from 40 large cities boasted of cataloguing “more than 3,000 climate targets from cities and local governments in 59 different countries”. They asserted triumphantly that “Cities Act!”, and that “the future of our globe will be won or lost in the cities of the world.”

Such assertions chimed with a broader, historically specific understanding that the institution of the nation state was in long-term decline. Decision-making by transnational corporations and political institutions such as the European Union often appeared to bypass national governments, while urban leaders understood themselves as newly influential on the world stage.

Relatedly, many cities around the world – especially post-industrial ones – were enjoying a significant ‘urban renaissance’, with populations moving back into urban cores. Contrary to earlier assumptions that large cities were redundant relics from a bygone era, new bodies of writing emphasised the economic, social and environmental benefits of urban density and diversity. The direction of travel seemed clear: cities, and city regions, rather than national governments, held the key to a more sustainable future; local innovations had emerged as the most convincing drivers of positive change.

But this narrative needs updating. The explicitly urban focus of SDG11, one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals published in 2015, may have seemed to illustrate the growing salience of the city as a scalar frame through which action can be advanced. And yet, predictions of the ‘hollowing out’ of the nation state now appear premature, or eclipsed by events. The 12 years since COP15 have seen rising tides of nationalism in many countries, increased securitisation of national territorial borders, and an abrupt reversal of European political integration in the shape of Brexit.

More recently, our collective responses to the pandemic are most convincingly characterisable as a set of uncoordinated national policies, often involving closing borders entirely, and an unwillingness to share resources. The ongoing relevance of the nation state now seems rather less questionable.

Or should we look to community-led action?

In this light, placing faith in more local modes of activity may even seem reckless. In some approaches to ‘resilience’, for example, the focus on mitigating local effects of climate change has been criticised as an abnegation of the need to effect wider structural transformation. More productively, cities should be understood as constituted by their relations to elsewhere – embedded within global networks of rights and responsibilities, but most obviously interdependent on their immediate hinterlands. Promoting ‘city regions’ as coherent subnational political agents may therefore seem an instinctively appealing solution – though one which is typically constrained by the reality of specific institutional arrangements. Highly progressive urban authorities may be at odds with their immediate neighbours, with only weak institutions operating at regional scale. Both local and regional authorities, in any case, often lack capacity, or are in thrall to national political parties and agendas.

The temptation, then, is to place hope in community-level actions: the fruits of civil society, or prefigurative grass-roots activism. In western cities at least, such initiatives have been widely theorised as ‘urban experiments’ when encouraged by local authorities. In an optimistic light, urban experiments are usefully grounded in local knowledge, holding out the promise – with little risk or initial expense for local authorities – of lessons being learnt even from failure, and of wider roll-out following success. They are valorised for their role in building both social capital and participants’ sense of personal investment in the solutions developed. But there are clear limits here.

Building resilience together

How to coordinate processes of lesson learning, so that wheels are not continually reinvented? What are the implications for democracy if only certain types of local people get involved? And why assume anyway that all grassroots initiatives – especially those given official support – will necessarily serve to help tackle the climate crisis?

This all points to the need for what urban theorists AbdouMaliq Simone and Edgar Pieterse call ‘resonances’ between policy-making at different levels and emergent community-led innovations. These resonances would allow certain types of sustainability innovation to ‘stick’ and flourish. Local authorities should not invoke community-led activities simply to plug gaps in their own service provision, but rather take an active role in catalysing certain directions of action rather than others. By extension, national governments have an important ongoing role in shaping wider policy landscapes which permit subnational authorities to act accordingly.

In fact, the ongoing role of national policy-making is often underplayed in much of the celebratory thinking and writing about what has been called the ‘urban age’. Many widely fêted innovations turn out to have been funded by national competitions; many ‘eco-city’ projects emerge through national policy drives; more generally, the newly-found networked influence and power of our major cities has often resulted from deliberate national strategies. The implication is not that we should be wary of celebrating innovation that bubbles upwards from the places where we live. But, rather, that advocating city-based solutions should not mean we stop demanding more of our national governments.

In this story

Robert Cowley

Robert Cowley

Lecturer in Sustainable Cities

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