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Urban planning failures putting lives at risk - expert

by Katie Murray | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 10 November 2011 11:14 GMT

But focusing on building codes, land use and disaster response as climate shocks worsen could help cities like Bangkok prepare

Failures of urban planning are putting lives, infrastructure and businesses at risk as weather shocks – like the floods now surging through Bangkok – become more frequent as a result of climate change, urban planning and climate experts say.

But focusing on improving building codes, land use regulation, public health and sanitation, and disaster response measures could help reduce risks, said David Dodman, leader of the cities and climate team at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, which works on sustainable development issues.

“My concern is that the global framework for responding to climate change is basically entirely focused on (national) action.  There is an important role for the nation-state, but there needs to be a greater focus on the role of localities, because they will play a major role in response,” said Dodman, one of the authors of a new briefing on “Urban adaptation planning: the use and limits of climate science.”

Failing to prepare for climate change effects is becoming increasingly riskier as severe weather becomes more frequent, and as the world’s urban population is expected to balloon from 3.3 billion to 5 billion over the next 20 years.

Dodman says cities need to make changes and adjustments in infrastructure and response systems to ensure that people have sufficient access to shelter, water, food, sanitation and information as climate change effects worsen. 


For instance, ensuring drainage systems are efficient can be key to limiting damage from floods. Bangkok’s failings in that regard are one reason the current flooding has been so devastating, Dodman said, and similar problems have occurred in Manila and in the U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina.

Judging just how much infrastructure change is needed, of course, is difficult because extreme events have few precedents and are hard to predict, and effects can vary widely depending on the location.

But scientific evidence of the risks can be both valuable and persuasive in mobilizing the commitment of government officials and the public to adopt climate change adaptation measures, and in helping governments predict weather patterns.

Cooperation between national and municipal governments is also key, but often local governments are entirely left out planning talks, Dodman said.

He believes that if cities were given more freedom to draw their own plans for their specific needs, then climate change assessments would be more accurate and better measures could be implemented.

 Dodman pointed to the response of one irrigation official in Bangkok.

“It’s not about the water, but about how we work together, and deal with residents who are affected by flooding,” the official said. 

Katie Murray is an AlertNet Climate intern.

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