Adapting Cities to Climate Change: Understanding and Addressing the Development Challenges

Bicknell, Jane
Dodman, David
Satterthwaite, David
Earthscan Publications, London, 2009, ISBN 9781844077465, 424 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Barth, Benjamin

The centre of gravity of global demographics is shifting dramatically. Every other human being on the planet currently lives in a city, and nine out of 10 children are born in cities. The change is most evidently happening in low- and middle-income countries, which typically are the most vulnerable to climate change and development challenges. The extreme transformation of urban environments severely challenges the sustainability of growing cities. Why and how should we respond to this trend?

Every now and again a publication changes the discourse of its field in a refreshing manner. Adapting Cities to Climate Change: Understanding and Addressing the Development Challenges is such a book. This volume is a collection of selected articles from the journal Environment and Urbanization, published in response to the current debate on climate change and development challenges. While there is a vast literature available on these fields, most books on development strategies address rural issues, and much research on climate change is limited to mitigation in terms of reduction of carbon emissions.

Adapting Cities is different: it focuses on vulnerability concerns related to urban settlements in low- and middle-income countries, such as poorly constructed buildings in earthquake-prone areas, lack of adequate infrastructure (roads, electricity, irrigation, sewer systems, etc.), flooding in low-elevation coastal zones, flooding caused by poor or non-existent drainage systems, potential contamination of drinking water, and other constraints of freshwater availability.

These single physical causes are often hard to identify, due to the competing pressures of other vulnerabilities, such as economic or political restraints, or poor planning due to lack of relevant knowledge or contact with exposed groups of society. Through a diverse set of authors and case studies, this book offers broad perspectives on the challenge of identifying these complex issues, and it also succeeds in integrating practical solutions on how to tackle future scenarios. Finally, the editorial conclusion clearly illuminates for the reader why the challenges faced are relevant to citizens of the industrialised world.

The editors have taken particular trouble to broaden the ground for argument beyond what is envisaged by the usual advocates of climate-change mitigation and adaptation: by connecting two schools of thought - adaptation to climate change (ACC) and disaster-risk reduction (DRR) - Bicknell, Dodman, and Satterthwaite have provided an instrument for taking urban development to the next step.

Adapting Cities sets itself the demanding task of both addressing and understanding the complex scope of climate change and adaptation in an urban development context. The material presented, in more than 400 pages, is extensive and illustrates the idea of resilience as well as the scale of the future challenges faced by many cities of the world. This volume provides a good introductory understanding to specific issues within a context encompassing environmental, economic, political, demographic, and architectural concerns confronting politicians, planners, and professionals around the world.

Hence, the 'focus shift' in this publication comes with good reason: the editorial framework brings together the wide range of vulnerability issues presented by the contributors into a set of ideas that the reader can easily assimilate. The chapters and case studies are all well documented with references, which makes the publication accessible to students in relevant academic fields. Within a few years, a number of arguments put forward in the editorial conclusions of this book will probably translate into headlines for further studies in the field of urban mitigation.

Although informative, packed with references, and thorough and well written, the book is not a practical manual, and readers should look elsewhere for hands-on solutions. They should also be aware that none of the 16 chapters on various, but overlapping, themes appears altered from the original text published in the journal. The volume suffers as a result of being a collection of 16 articles offering different introductions to more or less similar subjects. One might argue that this is a strength, in that it offers variation, but the fact that the articles have not been adapted and synthesised also reduces the impact of the book's pertinent message.

Diagrams, graphs, maps, and photos help to highlight the essential elements in most chapters, and figures frequently accompany the text. Except for the latter (and the cover), however, the illustrations are generally in a poor state. Some suffer from being represented in black and white rather than their original colour format, and this somewhat reduces the book's impact. Graphical representation may not add essential information, but it surely improves communication and the chances of capturing the reader's interest.

In summary, despite the minimal efforts made to transform the contents into a shorter and more coherent collection, I appreciate the fact that the editors have made maximum efforts to produce a pioneering volume in an affordable pocket format. In sum, Adapting Cities to Climate Change is an important and long-awaited contribution to the field of urban mitigation.