Towards transformative and climate-compatible urban development pathways

Chantal Pacteau
Paris Research Consortium Climate-Environment-Society, France

We, cities and regions’ leaders from the five continents, gathered at the City Hall of Paris on Friday, December the 4th, reaffirm our commitment to tackle climate disruption. We declare solemnly that climate change is our common challenge and that advancing climate solutions is a shared responsibility, and a matter of rights, equality and social justice(…) We(…) commit collectively to advance and exceed the expected goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement …to the full extent of our authorities.

With the Paris City Hall Declaration, the thousands of city and regional authority representatives who joined during COP21 the first-of-this-kind Climate for Local Leaders Summit showed the strong commitment of cities and regions to be on the front line against climate change. For the first time, cities had their voices fully recognized at a global U. N. conference on climate change. Officially launched at COP21, the global summit Climate Chance aims to become a regular event for all non-state actors involved in the fight against climate change, linked with the UN negotiations to enable States to fulfill the commitments made at COP21.

To support effective city-level action in response to the climate challenge, cities require an iterative and continuous state-of-the-knowledge assessment process to ground their unique climate change risks and responses to adaptation and mitigation in science-based policy-making (Grafakos et al., in press) and to build pathways to urban transformation (Rozensweig et al., 2015).

Looking at urban processes in an integrated manner helps to focus on relevant climate issues for cities, and makes it possible to envisage successive territorial reorganization initiatives in accordance with the changes occurring so as to be able to withstand unforeseeable impacts. A systemic perspective accepts uncertainty rather than seeking to reduce it. This perspective will turn the experience of a disaster event into a learning opportunity designed to increase preparedness for future disasters. This asks for hybrid, multi-stakeholder and multi-scale knowledge and strategies, based on biophysical and social as well as organisational and political principles.

 Cities as social-ecological systems

One of the most powerful approaches to integrating climate change strategies such as adaptation, mitigation or resiliency is a systemic approach, which looks at cities as social-ecological systems (Ernstson, 2010). This approach can be illustrated with the example of green infrastructure (e.g., Naturparif et al., 2015). Reintroducing nature in all its diversity into the cityscape is now deemed a source of systemic intelligence and innovation in public policies at the metropolitan level.

The above is true for the transition toward a low-carbon economy and toward a more resilient city with a lighter environmental footprint as well. It is also true for the creation of adaptation solutions in the context of uncertainty, which must keep as many options open as possible for the future. Thoughts, deliberations and experimentation concerning the use of natural features in cities can take many different forms, especially when it comes to reducing greenhouse gases, mitigating the urban heat island effect, improving the energy-efficiency of buildings, optimizing the water cycle, or even undertaking urban agriculture.

The notion of nature in cities invites further reflection on alternative ways of envisaging action in the complex systems that constitute the urban system, such as:

  • the processes governing it are interconnected and do not respect the usual categories out of which cities are designed and managed, nor do they respect administrative boundaries;
  • because of its adaptability and network of interactions, it is a tool that cannot be fully controlled. An ecosystem -and more generally social-ecological systems are the result of multiple interactions, which means that it is important to try to study and optimize all of the services  they can provide and not focus solely on a limited number of them;
  • it opens the way to finding alternatives to costly technological innovations; and
  • they can allow for means of improving well being without losing urban efficiency.

Since green infrastructure takes up physical space, it could be seen as upsetting the trend of urban fabric densification. However, such a critique ignores the fact that this infrastructure is flexible and can be established anywhere. For instance, “roofscapes” account for more than 30% of urban surface area (Obendorfer et al., 2007) to which could be added 10% to 15% of vertical and horizontal surfaces of terraces, walls and balconies, creating the city becomes endowed with a “roofscape” (Prochazka et al, 2015), porous, expandable and potentially conceptualized in symbiosis with adjacent areas, offering decentralized energy, thermal comfort, biodiversity, and new sources of ecosystem services as well as food. Combined with others options such as whiter superficies for better albedo management or decentralized microgeneration, roofs therefore may be able to assuage the scarcity of free space in cities.

Beyond technical and ecological engineering

Social practices and lifestyles

While it is the forms and characteristics of the constructions and “urban fabric” that clearly play a pivotal role, these can only be fully appreciated if understood in light of how they are used and operated. Purely structural solutions to climate challenges in the urban environment, typically morphological or technological in nature, are not always effective once set up in the target setting. A thorough analysis of people’s social practices is crucial for co-designing solutions that address climate change policy.

Moreover, physical adaptations -whether grey or green- are coupled with changing lifestyles, which are as much the result of technical innovations as they are of social, ethical and multicultural values. An exploratory study conducted in France -aimed at identifying the key variables of lifestyle changes and their impacts on CO2 emis­sions, particularly weak signals revealing new behaviors (co-housing, diet, local food movements, new mobility practices, voluntary simplicity, etc.)- concluded that lifestyles have a particular impact on emissions linked to housing, along with the well-known mobility and food practices. Diminishing these emissions could be, for example, adapting housing to household size throughout life (by facilitating residential mobility) and encouraging new shared living arrangements. Sharing of uses in general (a more and more widespread practice) appears to be a level effective in CC control efforts.

Chronological arrangement of activities and journeys

Cities are undergoing a vigorous transformation in terms of mobility to control greenhouse gases and air pollution. Emerging forms of mobility include ride sharing, carpooling, dedicated lanes, motorcycles and other lighter vehicles, non-motorized transport modes, and several different ways of traffic management such as congestion charging (London, NYC) and car plate license rotational schemes (São Paulo, Santiago).

Other emerging policies include “avoided trips.” The development of teleworking from home or from alternative locations in the city (telecentres, co-working spaces) are supposed to result in less pollution to combat, fewer infrastructures to maintain, new sociabilities to emerge.

Coordinating working hours across urban territories is an option that is rarely considered. As Munch (2014) writes:

Faced with the saturation of transport networks, public authorities have tended to take action that is focused on the way space is organised and used. A temporal dimension is also often present in these projects, but mainly in the form of increased speed, a criterion by which many infrastructure projects are planned and evaluated. However, the idea that a better chronological organisation of commuting may be possible has only very rarely been considered – or alternatively has been considered only very partially in the context of initiatives covering small areas (such as university campuses) or groups of companies.

Discussions on the role played by work as a hindrance to mobility – through the morning and evening rush-hours that it creates – has led to experimentation with alternative working hours. Overall improvement of mobility presupposes neutralizing the inflationist demand in mobility (primarily the workplace commute), trimming peak congestion times and  spreading out traffic more evenly throughout the day acting on the determinants of the “undesirable” forms of mobility. Experiments are currently under way, e.g., encouraging  firms to offer alternative working hours in order to improve rush-hour traffic flows. For instance, in La Plaine Saint-Denis- a major employment hub in the north of Paris- Transilien (the suburban rail network run by national operator SNCF) is experimenting with the organization of working hours of about 15 companies, with the aim of easing pressure on the rail network.

Could these time policies form a key instrument for controlling greenhouse gases and pollution and for improving quality of life? Munch (2014) concludes that, “it is only by making time management a subject of democratic debate that we will ultimately manage to consider the variable of time as an essential factor in ensuring sustainable development of cities.”


For the successful reconfiguration of urban spaces to occur, a more complex model, covering various different territorial and temporal regimes must be designed. A shift as radical as the transition to post-carbon cities is unthinkable without accounting for all of the strands stemming from this multiplicity of scales. This requires more creativity, open-mindedness and commitment than huge financial investments.

If our cities are to remain livable and viable for all, they must become truly sustainable. Making a city sustainable means ensuring that it is managed using multi-objective and integrative approaches, abstaining from one-size-fits-all solutions, avoiding impasses, and adequately handling any unwanted side-effects of  implemented initiatives. It requires the reliable provision of services (energy, water, food, health, education, social assistance, ecosystems, etc.) and societal resilience, with solid defenses against hazards of all kinds, and threats like inequality. These challenges call for new conceptual horizons and frameworks (Rosenzweig et al, 2015), for hybrid, inclusive cooperation, able to foster the necessary conditions and implementation strategies for new perspectives and policies.


Dr. Chantal Pacteau is Senior Research Scientist at the French National Research Center (CNRS)  and Deputy-Director of the Paris Research Consortium Climate-Enviornment-Society in Paris, France.

Header Image: PARIS, FRANCE 2 JUNE 2014– The tramway line T3 opened in Paris in December 2006. Managed by the RATP, it follows the Boulevards des Marechaux, encircling Paris.  Image Credit: 2p2play /

One thought on “Towards transformative and climate-compatible urban development pathways

  1. I don’t understand why so many researchers and ngo’s are going around saying the same thing. We all agreed along time ago.

    What is distressing is that city-national government interaction is consistently left out of this discussion.

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