As the world scrambles to adapt to extreme weather, one researcher looks deeper into what’s working, what’s not, and how we can better plan for sustainable urban futures.

Carrie Mitchell.

In recent years, governments of all sizes across the globe have gotten a new message about climate change. Yes, we still need to stop harming the planet, but we also need to start adapting our cities and systems to survive a new chaotic climate.

The result is a myriad of policies and projects touching all facets of society. Extreme rain means updating stormwater management and sanitation systems in our cities. Persistent drought commands a reorganization of food systems and an evaluation of available water sources. Even our family homes need ‘proofing’ against the new extreme weather reality.

Charging ahead with these adaptation projects is a needed step towards facing problems that should have been addressed decades ago; or in some low and middle-income countries, that were never tackled in the first place. But as researcher Carrie Mitchell of the School of Planning notes, we need to take a step back and have a critical look at what’s worked so far, what hasn’t, and, most importantly, why.

“There have been millions of dollars and thousands of adaptation projects implemented worldwide,” says Mitchell. “Unfortunately, often they’re only looking at solutions from one perspective, or in one locale. It sometimes feels like we are reinventing the wheel with each new project; lessons learnt from past efforts should be better integrated into future projects and plans. Globally, we have committed billions of dollars for adaptation funding. We need to invest wisely to reduce the risks a changing climate will pose for cities’ critical urban infrastructure and its citizens.”

Mitchell has a plan for a more effective climate change adaptation scholarship. She’s gathering experts from all around the world, with diverse academic backgrounds ranging from environmental science, urban planning, engineering, and economics to look at climate change projects from as many different angles as possible to determine the true value of projects.

“I’ve worked on adaptation research in a number of countries. This experience has confirmed my belief that adapting to climate risks in cities needs to be done through a coordinated effort, including city planners, engineers, economic development officers, and citizens,” says Mitchell. “Urban adaptation research matters; we need to better understand what works, what doesn’t, and why across different cities and countries. We have an incredible opportunity in the next few years to reshape our cities and transform planning practice towards something more livable and sustainable. I’m very excited to be part of a team of researchers here at UW working towards this important and timely goal.”

For Mitchell, the point isn’t to undermine or promote existing projects, but rather to come up with metrics to evaluate them comprehensively, make sure innovative ideas are championed, and begin laying a blueprint for climate change adaptations that are scalable, flexible, and grounded in local political, economic, and social realities.

“Working in international development for most of my career has made me acutely aware of the diversity of people and places. There is simply no ‘one size fits all’ solution. There are, however, lessons that can be learnt and shared across cities and countries. Megacities across the globe, for example, often have more in common with each other than they do with small cities and towns in their own country. We have enough case studies globally to say something to the international community, and to city officials and city residents, about what works, what doesn’t, and how to go about building sustainable, risk-resistant, cities.

In a tense cultural landscape where criticizing existing climate change efforts can lead to defensiveness, Mitchell’s mandate is clear, “we need to stay positive and focus on what could be for our cities, rather than what is. Great change requires vision, innovation, and perseverance. I believe urban planners are in a unique position to advocate for transformative change in cities. My teaching and scholarship is guided by the belief that positive, tangible, change is possible.”

Mitchell, in coordination with the Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change (IC3) hosted a workshop entitled “How (well) are we adapting to the water-related impacts of climate change” at the Balsillie School of International Affairs (BSIA) on June 19-20, 2014. For more information please contact Carrie Mitchell.