Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change

Image of Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change
Release Date: 
October 16, 2017
Reviewed by: 

“Extreme Cities offers a mix of postmodernism, revolutionary ideology with only a few moments of rational clarity to imagine a dystopian future shaped by the forces of climate change.”

Extreme Cities by author and professor Ashley Dawson offers two interwoven themes: climate change and urban justice. The regional focus of Extreme Cities is New York City and New Orleans, but other coastal cities are identified and their stories shared. The science of climate change, the subject of which this reviewer is most interested, is kept to the background.

The theme of urban justice is important because climate change will hurt most those who can protect themselves the least. To this end however, Dawson’s argument is dense, ideological, and likely to push readers away. Despite these drawbacks this reviewer remained interested until the author’s call to apply a French Revolutionary style of justice to “capitalists.”

The majority of the world’s largest cities are in coastal zones and in a precarious situation due to their dependence on services that can be harmed by extreme weather. Coastal infrastructures at risk include electricity, clean water, wastewater treatment, nuclear power plants, and general industry. Dawson writes, “Close to two billion people, 38 percent of humanity currently live in densely populated coastal areas that are highly prone to devastating floods.”

In NYC an estimated 400,000 live in flood zones. When Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast of the U.S. in 2012, the hurricane killed 160, and caused $65 billion damage in the New York metropolitan region, shutting down electric power, the subways, the New York Stock Exchange, and displacing more than 700,000 people across 24 states. Cities are also sources of greenhouse gasses that lead to climate change through heating, cooling, and transportation but they are also uneven in their “dirtiness.”

There has been increasing agreement by scientists that coastal waters will rise 50 to 200 feet, the question that remains is the time scale. As for addressing and mitigating the effects of climate change as much hinges on the politics as on the science.

At the international level, the author claims the Paris accords on climate change are hollow because there are “no mandatory mitigation measures.” At the local level some politicians are responding to the threat while others are not. Dawson claims that politicians in Florida where the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station lies in “hurricane alley, are hesitant to admit that Miami will be submerged in a relatively short amount of time, so as to not hurt the price of real estate.

In comparison, the NYC mayor’s office of Sustainability has made an “80 x 50” pledge to reduce greenhouse gases, that is, a reduction of 80% by the year 2050. Dawson provides a history of NYC’s waterfront, and claims many of the plans for NYC in response to climate change are not urban planning so much as luxury marketing schemes.

New York City started planning for climate change in 2007 with “PlaNYC.” In 2013 PlaNYC generated a report that estimated $19B in development was needed. The city then made an invitation to real estate developers to build luxury apartments in waterfront zones where the risk due to climate change was estimated to exceed $129B and expected developers to pick up the slack. Dawon calls PlaNYC a “squandered opportunity.”

Throughout Extreme Cities, Dawson repeatedly invokes the word “capitalist” as a curse. The logical problem, (if one were to attempt to apply logic to Dawson’s reasoning), is his assumption that only capitalists cause and exacerbate climate change. As Dawson also has good words for the Netherlands’ response to climate change, a reader might logically assume not all capitalists are bad, or perhaps the residents of Netherlanders are not capitalists.

Dawson next takes a look at Jakarta, capital of Indonesia and home to 30 million people. When Jakarta flooded in 2007, 340,000 residents were forced to flee. in response, Indonesia built a partial seawall and made a plan to build a larger seawall that would extend 25 miles, take 30 years complete, and cost $40B. Like NYC, the Jakarta seawall would be paid for by building luxury homes.

Dawson lists other luxury skyscraper projects planned for coastal cities, including the Eko Atlantic in Lagos Nigeria. Here, Dawson quotes Canadian Journalist Martin Lukacs who calls Eko Atlantic, “a vision of privatized green enclaves for the ultra-rich ringed by slums lacking water or electricity.” Dawson points out that climate justice is not the same as urban justice—when the wealthy wall off portions of the city, the consequence is, “the abandonment of flood-vulnerable poor communities.”

Dawson also points out that the seawalls and barrier islands are not just being built without considering the greater environment but also raise a paradox: by sealing off coastlines from storms, floodwaters coming down rivers are blocked and polluted waters are trapped. He states, “The resulting megaprojects are doomed to fail given their atomistic approach to the environment.” As for the billions that have been spent Dawson claims there is rampant corruption, “This reengineering of coastal cities threatened by sea level rise is one of the most unsavory windfalls of climate change.”

Switching focus back to the U.S., Dawson presents a chapter on two of the threatened tidal wetlands, NYC’s Jamaica Bay, and the wetlands that surround New Orleans. Though the presence of tidal wetlands diminishes the impact of storm surges, they are increasingly being filled in for real estate development. But even if wetlands weren’t being filled in, sea level rise from climate change damages the salt marshes, the ecological environment, where fresh and salt water intermix.

Jamaica Bay is the largest segment of the Gateway National Recreation Area and is managed by the U.S. National Park Service. However, the Jamaica Bay recreation area also is the boundary of ongoing development and pollution to the level where Dawson considers Jamaica Bay to be more of a “sewershed” than a watershed.

In contrast, New Orleans’ wetlands suffer from “subsidence,” that is, sinking of the floodplain. Floodplains should be replenished by flows of sediment from feeding rivers but this has been disrupted in New Orleans by levees. New Orleans is now sinking that is five times faster than what would be caused by sea rise alone. Dawson writes, “The state is losing land to the sea faster than anywhere else in the world . . . a football field’s worth of land every hour.”

Dawson next compares U.S. cities’ climate change plans to three cities in the Netherlands. Fully one quarter of the Netherlands is below sea level, while one half is threatened by storm surges and flooding rivers. Sadly, few details of the Netherlands mitigation efforts are identified in Extreme Cities; however, Dawson states their efforts have been recognized as a paradigm for urban planners and also (without much evidence), the Netherland efforts will not work in the US.

Next Dawson provides a chapter on urban planning, political will, and market forces, focusing primarily on efforts in NYC. The urban planning competition “Rebuild by Design,” was launched in June 2013 in response to Hurricane Sandy and was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation 100 Resilient Cities Initiative and The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Rebuild by Design engaged the community in a participatory design process and six finalists received almost $930M in funds. One limitation of competition was that solutions must be point solutions, however attention was paid to one low-income neighborhood in the South Bronx, Hunts Point.

Hunts Point is but a single square mile in the city and serves as the hub food supply for 22 million people. Hunts point also puts $5B into the economy and employs 20,000 people. Dawson lists the many, many problems of the South Bronx not addressed by the “Hunts Point Lifelines” plan, and details the reasons for his skepticism, the one key reason is the majority of the South Bronx is left unprotected. There is however a second phase to Hunts Point Lifelines to extend protection to the whole of the Bronx but there is no guarantee the second phase will be implemented.

Another winning proposal from Rebuild by Design, titled “Living Breakwaters,” used breakwaters for their solution. Dawson points out breakwaters are more socially responsible than sea walls as sea walls close off a community while breakwaters do not, however he also points out that breakwaters have their own environmental cost. Breakwaters increase erosion down-stream, shifting the problem of erosion to a different community.

Because Rebuild by Design’s solutions are local, barriers and sea walls will still be insufficient given the amount of expected sea level rise. Dawson calls plans that do not address the source of climate change “hollow exercises,” and believes the best solution is mass relocation away from the coast. He calls this solution “land abandonment” but does not address the logistics of mass (and possibly forced) relocation of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousand of people away from the coast, nor does he address the need to also relocate industries, jobs, and homes.

It is one thing to call for mass relocation inside a nation, but it is quite another when climate refugees are forced to leave their homes and cross international boundaries to safety. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) claims that natural disasters have displaced more than twice the numbers displaced by violence since 2015, or 19.2 million persons across 113 countries.

There are no international agreements on what to do with the millions of refugees and migrants who cross borders to escape war, economic displacement, and climate change, and Dawson considers the likelihood of a dystopian future filled with anarchy and violence brought on by social breakdown. His fear is that America (and other democratic nations) will veer from democracy to quasi-military rule in response.

Dawson presents a different dystopian future offered by the International Organization for Migration, which views refugees not as a problem as a boon to “disaster capitalism,” by claiming that climate refugees will become a new source of low cost labor. A skeptical reader might take this belief in a different direction given that international refugees have no legal rights, that the International Organization for Migration perhaps sees climate refugees as new a source of slaves.

In yet another dystopian view Dawson points out that is happening right now, climate refugees are being seen as a public relations coup. New Zealand is offering an immigration lottery to Tonga citizens. As the island nation of Tonga is expected to be below sea level before the end of this century, winners of the lottery will be presumably rescued and relocated cost free. As for the losers, Dawson does not offer an answer.

The chapter titled “The Jargon of Resilience,” Dawson addresses the concept of resilience and sustainability. Written in “post-modern” jargon and dense academic style, an example sentence reads, “We need to generate a new culture-nature continuum that moves toward soft dynamic infrastructures, fluid and adaptive spatial strategies.”

The chapter “Disaster Communism” addresses alternative forms of governments Dawson claims would be better able to deal with climate change. Dawson claims these new forms governments won’t come about naturally but will only come about through revolution.

For Dawson, climate change is an important factor to “helping to light the fuse.” Dawson claims only through revolution, “we may even begin to enact a different society based on empathy and mutual aide.”) Dawson giddily hopes for the revolution to come noting that future climate disasters have “mass revolutionary potential.” He views the French Revolution as a positive example (though if he were truly looking for revenge against capitalists he might have looked to the Russian and Khmer Rouge revolutions).

Dawson walks back his call for revolution (though only for a moment) to consider nonviolent solutions for change and provides a study of community relief efforts made in response to Hurricane Sandy. Though his argument is ideologically dense, the key takeaway is that when government agencies are slow to respond to emergencies, community organizations can successfully pick up the slack and deliver food, water, and medical supplies to those in need. He uses for his example, the Occupy Wall Street movement, which offered their experience to start “Occupy Sandy,” an organization that consisted of 60,000 volunteers that set up community networks in N.Y.C. and N.J.

Dawson points out the problems that community organizations in NYC had in filling out the complex paperwork needed to request services from federal aid programs after Hurricane Sandy; 90% of homeowners received no assistance two years after the hurricane passed. Community organizations do have their limitations as self-governing bodies, the community organizations in NYC ended up competing over funds, divided over goals, mired in scandal, and none were able to consolidate their power into something more permanent.

Problems are worse for those living in public housing. “ReStore Red Hook” in Brooklyn saw more disaster money going to small businesses and lending institutions for reconstruction than to individuals in public housing. Dawson claims that agencies and corporations that go after disaster recovery money often self-serve instead of doing the right thing. He calls the use of funds intended for disaster recovery to push out the poor “disaster gentrification.” And in locations where poverty correlates with skin color and public funding pushes out the poor, public funding will be viewed as institutional racism.

In the last chapter Dawson again calls for mass relocation from coastal regions in advance of disaster as a better tradeoff than improved flood protection and calls this choice “Dystopian Triage.” He suggests paying for it by taking funds from the defense budget, from the oil and gas industry, and by bank nationalization, but he does not indicate by what political means this will be accomplished, though based on earlier chapters the reader may presume funds will be liberated by revolution.

Extreme Cities offers a mix of postmodernism, revolutionary ideology with only a few moments of rational clarity to imagine a dystopian future shaped by the forces of climate change.